My Life Vest Through the Pandemic
In the midst of the uncertainty of losing her job, Ségolène begins charitable work in the darkest imaginable place and has an extraordinary encounter with the light.
My husband and I met in jail--yes, in jail. We were on the same side of the bars, doing charitable work several years ago. So, my thirst for social justice and rehabilitation has a very special place in my heart. When Covid hit in March 2020, our visits to juvenile halls stopped for a few months until June 2020, when we were asked by the Catholic chaplain of the central jail if we would be willing to volunteer.
During this same time, I had also lost my job because of the pandemic. But after reflection we decided to start the clearance process for our badges, and by the end of the summer we were good to go and stepped into one of the biggest and most dangerous jails in the United States: over 5,000 inmates locked in cells, sometimes 100 per dorms. No hygiene, no day light. It smells of something foul and disgusting, and rats and roaches are hanging around. For me this is "Hell on Earth." And yet, we started going to visit more and more frequently.
A few months ago, after following the First Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius (working on discerning consolation versus desolation), I found myself wondering why I go back weekly to spend four hours in hell. What was the attraction?
When I expressed this question to my husband, he answered very simply: “Because behind those walls, you see the humanity and need for dignity for these men.” He hit right on target: the clear attraction, my heart’s desire growing more and more. I longed for my Thursday visits.
Last week, we were asked to pay a death notification visit to one of the inmates in the SHU (Special Housing Unit) who had been in solitary confinement for a while. His cousin, who was in the U.S. Army, was killed during an operation, and the inmate wanted to talk to the Catholic chaplains. In solitary confinement, inmates are kept in individual cells with very poor lightning; we barely seeing anything. They stand behind gates with tiny holes and plexiglass for extra security. We cannot see their faces; we can only see their shadow and imagine what the person looks like.
As we were listening to the broken-hearted inmate opening up, he then became silent, broke into tears, and let the truth set him free. He started to share with us, that he had done many bad things, but for the first time he was accepting to let himself be embraced by the presence of Christ, and didn’t fight the tears. He then admitted that it was the first time he had cried in years. It reminded me so much of Psalm 130, how the mother holds her son in her arms and cradles him with so much tenderness.
In the darkest hole of the jail, I became the witness of the light that this man, embracing his humanity, reflected on all of us. Behind the thick gate with tiny holes, his face became brighter, clearer and more defined. He let Christ touch his heart and because of the passing of his beloved cousin asked for a second chance.
This experience was a reminder of the extraordinary gift that Covid is giving to me and every single one of us: It is while walking through the darkest tunnel that we become more aware of the tiny glimpses and the golden nuggets that we are called to catch and savor.
I may have lost my compass during Covid because my work situation is not resolved, but my work at the jail has become my life jacket through the pandemic: my heart’s desire to look at reality in the eyes and embrace the humanity that I witness there, in the darkest of jails, every single visit.
Ségolène, Los Angeles, California