A chance to love

Justin Claravall SJ, a scholastic from the California Jesuit Province, now part of Jesuits West, spent a year as a prison chaplain with the Philippine Jesuit Prison Service Foundation as part of the Regency stage of his formation.  He shares this reflection.

“But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?” Matthew 5:44-46

“He’s in the bartolina now!” said Ivan*, an inmate-teacher, while he escorted me to the chapel for Mass. I hate hearing bad news.

“What happened?” I asked exasperated. The person in the bartolina, Dmitry*, was one of my smartest inmate-students.

“He stabbed someone,” said Ivan with a smile, almost laughing.

“Another juvenile?”  They are not actually juveniles.  They were convicted as minors, but by the time they were transferred to Medium Security Compound, they were almost all 22 years old yet were still categorised as juveniles to be part of a special educational programme. I taught them values formation.

“Yes … I heard they were teasing each other, and then Dmitry didn’t like the jokes, so he took some scissors and stabbed him here.” My escort poked my left collarbone with his fingers. “Luckily, the scissors were blunted, so the guy wasn’t seriously hurt. He just got bandaged and he’s still here.”

I pictured the scene: 60 young men in a cell about 36 square metres, with many sleeping on the floor. It is not as overcrowded as other cells with as many as 150 men, but it is not my idea of a comfortable bedroom. It must have been during their lockdown after 5 pm. Maybe it had gotten a little too warm. The young men were bored, hungry, lonely, resentful and incapable of talking about their problems with each other. In the heat of the cell and to escape their emotions, some must have shot some barbed comments toward Dmitry. The rest unfolded as expected.

“I hate hearing this. That was so stupid of Dmitry. He was one of my smartest students.” I confessed to Ivan.

Ivan said, “And what’s more, while we investigated the incident and interviewed him, he seemed high”.

“Drugs too? So stupid … I was going to give him a prize for his class participation.” My head got a little hotter.

Then Ivan asked, almost temptingly, “But brother, you believe in second chances, right?”

A few months before this incident, I led a retreat for our Philippine Jesuit Prison Service scholars. To be a PJPS scholar, one has to have an incarcerated parent. On retreat, the scholars were surprised with loving letters from their parents. Getting letters from inside was difficult, but more difficult still was figuring out what to do for the scholars with both parents in prison. I could not locate the parents so instead, I wrote a letter to those scholars and hoped they would find some consolation in that. One scholar who received my letter cried. He said that he had been bullied because his Tagalog had a provincial accent and because he did not live with his parents. He never felt loved or that he belonged. In tears, he said that PJPS was where he found a home and a desire to keep studying and improve his life. When I witnessed his gratitude for my simple letter, I knew then that God would bless him with a life much happier than that of his parents. Perhaps his life is their second chance.

Do I believe in second chances? I did not know how to respond to Ivan. Many inmates have disappointed me, and many more have given me hope. We came to the chapel, and I went to Mass. There I knew the responses, and with inmates I sang “Panginoon, kaawan mo kami” (Lord, have mercy); “Ama namin” (Our Father); and “Kordero ng Diyos na nag-aalis ng mga kasalanan ng sanlibutan, maawa ka sa amin” (Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us). What a strange thing is God’s love, so alien to our sense of justice. In it, I too am an offender, but God’s mercy and love are not just for the pitiable poor and innocent, but for enemies we wish to punish.

* Their names have been changed to protect their privacy.

 Main image: Sch Justin Claravall SJ renews his vows in the chapel of the New Bilibid Prisons Reservation