Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture

Reflection for Prison Volunteers – 26 April 2015 – “Gateways of Possibilities”

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A Day of Reflection at St. Vincent de Paul Church, Albany, NY for volunteers in prison ministry

April 11, 2015

INTRODUCTION. There is the story of the carpenter who loved wood. He loved it so much that he kept stealing pieces, little by little, from the job site. He finally felt some remorse and decided to go to confession. After telling his sin the priest gave him a penance — to make nine novenas. The carpenter, not familiar with novenas, scratched his head and said to the priest. “Excuse me, Father. I have never made even one novena but … if you give me the plans I am sure I have enough wood to make all nine of them.”

As many of you know I make my living as an architectural consultant specializing in houses of worship. In my practice I am always mixing religion, worship, faith formation and social action with art and architecture. I am also a priest who prays with others here at St. Vincent’s parish, who tries to preach well, who hears confessions and who, like you, is willing to help anyone who wants to talk about their problems or life in general.

In the world of religious art and architecture my imagination soars with ideas always looking for creative ways to deal with challenges posed in the design of churches and synagogues. I rely on the language of metaphors to help congregations understand the connections between architecture, art and worship. I also find such a method to be helpful in liturgical prayer and homily preparation.

EXAMPLES. For example, we Christians are on a journey. Although we have our eyes on the finish line, the ultimate prize for running the race, as Paul would call it, the kingdom of God is not yet fully realized here on earth. We continue to seek it. We are spiritual seekers. Translated into architectural features, the pathways, sidewalks, parking lots, leading to and from a church building, if landscaped appropriately, can help worshipers remember that they are on a “spiritual journey” and not just rushing to get to the church on time.

THE GOSPEL OF JOHN. The metaphorical connections between biblical images and church buildings provides a foundation for that church edifice. Here’s another image one that I propose we focus on this morning — the gateway or threshold. Let us listen to this passage from the evangelist John 10:1-10.

1 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber; 2 but he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 To him the gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 This figure Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers; but the sheep did not heed them. 9 I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

The passage we just heard has to be taken in context. As I offer this interpretation I invite you to start making connections with the ministry you have in the REC program. Think about the prisoners and the institutions within which they live and what your ministry as shepherds can do to give them hope.

Jesus just finished healing a blind man who was then condemned and excommunicated by the Pharisees. They claimed the blind man’s sinfulness caused his blindness. At one time or another the Pharisees were a political party, a social movement during the time of the Babylonian exile. Much later, and after the destruction of the second temple (70 CE), the Pharisaic beliefs served as a foundation for the the liturgical rites of Rabbinic Judaism. These guys had a lot of power over the Jews.

Jesus confronts the Pharisees and preaches to the crowds that the ways of the Pharisees are not always the ways of God. Jesus opens his sermon using the familiar images of shepherds and sheep.

In that period of history sheep were kept either in a public stockade in a village or out in the countryside. In the village, a gatekeeper would watch the sheep. In the country there was no gate only an enclosure or pen, a low wall of piled rocks. At night the shepherd would sleep across the entry to keep the sheep in and wild animals out.

Let’s take a closer look at the verses of this gospel as we try to make connections with our ministry to the inmates and others participating in the REC program.

Verse 1 — Access to sheep was possible in only two ways: by way of the shepherd or sneaking in over the wall. Jesus warned against those who use deception to lead others astray and those who use force and manipulation to get their way. Those were the Pharisees. There is a pharisee in each one of us, whether we are in jail or not. One could say we are imprisoned by pharisaical notions. How can we help ourselves and inmates deal with it?

Verse 2-4 — The vast majority of the Pharisees probably thought they were doing the correct thing. Religion is about establishing right relationships with God and others. Good shepherds are called by God to be disciples. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. As ministers in the REC program do we enter the sheepfold with the inmates or do we feel like we are somehow outside that pen?

Jesus identified with people who lived on the fringe of society, outcasts, those who were banned because of some disease. How do we identify with the prisoners in the REC program.

The good shepherd is one who is led by God and in turn leads sheep to God. False shepherds have their own agendas which could lead others astray. Do all REC leaders understand themselves to be good shepherds called by God? Do we have our own agendas or do we empathize with the life stories of the inmates?

A good shepherd speak the things of God not his or her own words. Shepherds will not allow someone to live in a perpetual state of sinfulness without confrontation and conviction.

The word of God is a two-edged sword, a judge of ideas and thoughts. Is this the bottom line in the REC ministry — that no one can be taken prisoner by sinfulness forever; that there is a bigger sheepfold to live in even if in prison? Who shepherds the notion that even someone who commits the worst crime can experience the mercy of God?

Verses 6-10 — This is precisely what Jesus is saying to us this morning. He said, “I am the door! To go into the fold, you must go through me. To go out to pasture, you must go through me.” Passage through the gateways of salvation, security and satisfaction are important in anyone’s life. How do we help the residents in the REC program understand this powerful message? That gateways can swing both ways through Christ.

APPLICATION. I use the gospel of John to help congregations make the connections between Jesus Christ the shepherd, the gateway, and the design of the front door of their churches. These portals are reminders that we go through Jesus to get to the prize, to eternal life. We leave through those doors to shepherd others.

The mythologist Joseph Campbell once wrote that the door to a sacred place is not an ordinary door. On the other side of sacred doors  anything is possible. Loneliness can find companionship. Sickness can turn to health. There is food and drink for those who are undernourished. Evil turns to good. Sentences give way to paroles and releases. Sin becomes grace. Even death gives over to resurrection. Where there is God anything is possible. All of the members of the faith community inside the church or the sheepfold (clergy and laity alike) are both the sheep and the shepherds.

Inmates inside prison walls are also, in some mysterious way, inside the sheep gate. Maybe society wants to forget them and punish them but God does not. God is merciful even to the sinner. Pope Francis, bishop of Rome, has made “mercy” the theme of his ministry and this weekend is announcing a Holy Year of Mercy.

THE SHEEP GATE METAPHOR. I think of the sheep gate as a metaphor for our contemplation during this retreat. There are many gateways in jails especially maximum security prisons. While we have to navigate them to get in they are really designed to make it difficult for inmates to get out or to move about freely inside.

There are also many corrals or pens in these places. Pen is a term usually used to describe a penitentiary — a place to do penance. Barbed wire, locked gates, cold corridors and cells, bland colors, small windows, unappetizing food and drink and the yards which turn into playgrounds and battlefields. All of these factors are designed to dehumanize the occupants.

BEING MORTAL REFERENCES. Prisons, jails, any place of incarceration are inhumane places. I am reading, as many of you probably have, Being Mortal by Dr. Atul Gawande. It is an urgent book not only about death and dying but living in your final hours with dignity. Many stories in the book take place in hospitals, hospices, assisted living places and nursing homes. I could not help but make some comparisons. The process of dying, is in many ways, similar to being imprisoned, especially if sentenced to life or execution.

HOME. In the chapter called “Assistance” Gawande speaks about the meaning of the word “home.” It is a place where your priorities hold sway. You decide how to spend your time and how to share your space. You manage your own possessions. This is not the case in a nursing home or in a prison.

Fifty years ago sociologist Erving Goffman (cited in Being Mortal, p. 73) noted the likeness between prisons and nursing homes in his book Asylum. He wrote, they were along with military training camps, orphanages and mental hospitals, “total institutions” — places largely cut off from wider society. In ordinary life the individual tends to sleep, play and work in different places, with different people, under different authorities and without an overall rational plan. “Total institutions” like prisons are the opposite.

TOTAL INSTITUTIONS. In nursing homes and prisons all aspects of life are carried out in the same place under the same central authority. Daily activities are done in the company of large batches of other people; all are treated alike and are required to do the same thing together. Everything is tightly scheduled with all activities being imposed by a system of rules and officials. All are designed to fulfill the aims of the institution. (Being Mortal, p. 74) This is like being confined to a compound with no shepherd to care for you, your health or your safety.

HUMAN MOTIVATION. Buildings have the power to shape human behavior. The design of a nursing home or a prison affects all aspects of human development. Atul Gawande’s book references Abraham Maslov’s familiar “Theory of Human Motivation.” (Being Mortal, p. 93). Here are the levels listed by Maslov.

  • Basic needs — essentials of physiological survival (food, water, air) and safety (law, order and stability)
  • The need for love and belonging
  • The opportunity to attain personal goals, to master knowledge, skills; to be recognized and rewarded for accomplishments.
  • The desire for self-actualization or self-fulfillment through pursuit of moral ideas and creativity for their own sake.

Dr. Gawande adds another level — acquiring the transcendent desire to see and help others achieve their potential. Is that what our ministry in REC is supposed to do? Help others reach their potential as we reach for ours?

IMPRISONMENT. These levels of human motivation apply to REC ministers ourselves as well as the inmates we try to serve. All of these levels of motivation and growth are not easily experienced, if at all, while doing time in jail. REC ministers, shepherds of God, can help the inmates.

Imprisonment, especially a life sentence, or the death penalty, can be similar to the experience of someone with a serious, incurable illness. According to Dr. Gawande,

  • They want to avoid suffering
  • They want to strengthen relationship with family and friends
  • They want to be mentally aware
  • They do not want to be a burden to others
  • They want to have a sense that their life is complete in some way

In talking to inmates during confession time this is what other clergy and I hear. The inmates are sorry for what they have done, they worry about their wives or girl friends and children, they feel remorse for the crime committed, they await parole and possibly release, they long for a second chance.  All of this weighs on them while trying to cope with the corruption, temptations and boredom that exist inside prison walls.

The system may not provide all of the opportunities for these residents to realize what they hope for. REC ministers can bring them hope. And, when hope fails, faith in a merciful God can alleviate some of the pain and suffering — just like those patients dying from an incurable disease who rely on their faith in God.

ARCHITECTURAL REFERENCES. Keeping the scriptural metaphor in mind 1) that Jesus is the sheep gate who calls us to a place where life, peace and justice are possible; 2) that Jesus is a gateway to new life, listen to this description of the toughest federal prison in the United States — ADX in Florence, Colorado. (Mark Binelli “This Place is Not Designed for Humanity” in The New York Times Magazine, March 29, 2015, p. 36)

It can house up to 500 prisoners in eight units. Inmates spend their days in 12 by 7 foot cells with thick concrete walls with double sets of sliding metal doors with solid exteriors so prisoners cannot see one another. A single window three feet high but only four inches wide offers a glimpse of the sky. Each cell has a sink-toilet combo and an automated shower. Prisoners sleep on concrete beds with thin mattresses. The cells do have televisions and there is access to books and periodicals, arts and crafts materials.

The inmates are allowed ten hours of exercise each week outside their cells. However, in the outdoor recreation yard each prisoner remains confined to an individual cage. All meals come through a slot in the cell door as does any communication with guards, chaplains, counselors.

The most dangerous and infamous prisoners are sent there. The Oklahoma City bomber (Terry Nichols). The doctor who may have poisoned up to 60 patients (Michael Swango). The mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing (Ramzi Yousef). The 9/11 conspirator (Zacarias Moussaoui). The Unabomber (Ted Kaczynski).

PRISON DESIGN, AN ETHICAL ISSUE. I belong to the American Institute of Architects. The design of prisons has become for some architects a burning ethical issue. Although the Institute cannot dictate to its members what building types they should design there is some movement to raise the consciousness of the members who do design prisons, solitary confinement cells and death chambers.

Architectural critic Michael Kimmelman wrote in the New York Times (“Prison Architecture and the Question of Ethics, February 16, 2015). “Today, prison design is a civic cause for some architects who specialize in criminal justice and care about humane design. There is a lot of research documenting how the right kinds of design reduce violence inside prisons and even recidivism. Architects can help ensure that prisons don’t succumb to our worst instincts — that they are about spend the least amount of money to create the most horrendous places possible, in the name of vengeance — but promote rehabilitation and peace.”

INVITATION. Keeping all of these vignettes drawn from scripture, human development, freedom, and prison design in your minds I now invite you to play with the image of the gateway. The doorways in prisons do swing both ways but not for everyone. For the inmates the prison is full of dead ends with no outlets. The guards and REC ministers can come and go.

Using the bible as a source take some time now to discuss the ways in which the images conjured up in the gospel of John — Pharisees, gateways, passages, corrals, sheep, shepherds — can be translated into helpful tools for your ministry as you tend to prisoners and yourselves as REC volunteers.

Let’s take about ten minutes or so to think about the residents we serve. Using the handout that lists nine questions for your consideration ask yourselves “How would we recalculate our ministry as shepherds who open gateways of new possibilities.”


Am I a gateway of possibilities for the residents? (John 10:1-10)

Is this ministry more about me and my needs or the inmates I am called to shepherd?

Do I try to understand what the prisoners are experiencing inside or do I talk too much?

How do I help inmates help one another?

How do I explain the authority of the bible to the residents?

Do the testimonies I give during REC take into consideration the stories shared by the residents?

How do I, how do we, as a REC team, minister to the staff?

Fr. Rick Shaw, long time prison chaplain, wrote, “Jail ministry needs to be kept away from politicized agendas … especially since ministry inside jails means ministering to staff as well as to inmates.” (Naked as a Jailbird, p 15)

What can I do to improve my ministry as a shepherd who cares for the residents encountering Christ

How do we as REC ministers shepherd one another in our calling?


Author: Richard S. Vosko

Richard S. Vosko, Ph.D., Hon. AIA, is an internationally known sacred space planner. He is a presbyter in the Diocese of Albany who enjoys the classroom as much as the pulpit. On Sundays he presides at worship at St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Albany, NY. For more information on Vosko’s background, his projects, publications and speaking engagements please go to his website. For his homilies and occasional musings about religion, art and architecture go to his blog. Comments, questions and suggestions are always welcomed there.

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