As a Jesuit I have to do a lot of traveling and this summer I have made every effort to plan my trips so that I could travel by bus. The bus is the most environmentally friendly option available to me and this summer is the hottest on record. Riding the bus is a very communal experience and often reveals God’s face to me. People are open to encountering one another to a degree that I just do not experience riding planes, trains, or automobiles.
In addition to my philosophy studies at Fordham University, I work with Thrive for Life Prison Project, an organization founded by a fellow Jesuit which seeks to transform lives behind and beyond prison walls. There is a large population of incarcerated individuals in New York State, housed in 48 state-run correctional facilities spread across the length and breadth of the state. As part of my work with Thrive I’ve gone into these correctional facilities to speak and pray with our incarcerated brothers and sisters. I also work with men who have recently been released and are readjusting to life on the outside. If you think life can be a tad overwhelming these days, imagine being in prison for 30 years and then stepping into 2022 New York City! It literally is like being on a different planet from the one that you remember!! Look at the device on which you are reading this article. When many of these men went to prison, cell phones were the size of a phone book and an apple was just what you ate to keep the doctor away! Imagine being handed an iPhone and told “this will be the most important tool for the rest of your life.”
My work this past year came in handy as I traveled back to NYC from some time in Scranton, PA.
I board in Scranton, stepping onto a pretty full bus. The seats are almost all full as I look around, eventually sitting across the aisle from a couple of men dressed in identical outfits — heavy-duty khakis and white button-down shirts — with no luggage. I don’t pay them much attention at first – I’ve got my nose buried in a book and figure that they’re part of some group that wants to convert me to their way of thinking. As the bus gets caught in the infamous Lincoln Tunnel traffic coming back into NYC, I can’t help but overhear their conversation: “bro, I can’t wait to get back to the city, I’ve been upstate ever since I caught my charge.” Spending time accompanying those in jails meant I know that he isn’t talking about getting stuck in Syracuse without a charger for his cellphone – he’s just been released from prison!
Catching the eye of the man sitting directly across the aisle from me, I ask “How long has it been since you crossed the Yellow Brick Road?” Judging by the stunned expression on his face, I am not exactly the type of person that he expects to hear that question from. “The Yellow Brick Road” is the term used by people who spend significant chunks of time on Rikers Island to describe the bridge to the island. After he gets over his shock we start to chat. I mention that I help the Catholic chaplain at a couple of the facilities on Rikers Island (the site of all city jails in NYC). Immediately, they both start making the sign of the cross. We introduce ourselves and they seem shook by the fact that I’m more than willing to call them by their nicknames. If there’s one thing I’ve learned behind the walls it’s that one of the most humanizing things that we can do is refer to another human being as they would like. At this point Steve and Marcus (not their real names) mention that they’ve been behind the walls since before COVID, so the NYC that they’re coming home to is totally different from the one that they remember.
As our bus pulls into the terminal, God invites me to continue to walk with these men. As we keep chatting I ask about their plans. It soon emerges that they need to use a phone as well as hop on the subway, so off we go! After phone calls are made, they eagerly take me up on my offer of some food. For the recently released, few things are appreciated as much as one’s first taste of a favorite meal – and few things build community as much as breaking bread together. Since we’re near the Port Authority Bus Terminal there are a million food carts nearby and Marcus mentions that it has been years since he’s eaten an authentic New York hotdog, so we stroll over to the carts. They both order classic New York hotdogs, while I go with the one vegetarian option on the menu – grilled peppers and onions. They both seem to enjoy these simple hot dogs far more than I enjoy many of my meals. I stop and think about some of the elements of life that I so often take for granted, such as choosing when and what I eat.
As we savor our last bites and prepare to head our separate ways I feel an intense sense of gratitude from these guys, which they express in their words and in their offers to share their “dirties” (hand-rolled cigarettes that are often used as currency in prison). I respectfully turn down the smokes and they laugh, because they clearly don’t expect “one of the guys who’s here for God” to light up, but their offer is still genuine. As we shake hands and go our separate ways I realize that God has broken into my busy day through these two men. I had been given a chance to authentically meet these fellow humans precisely because of the path that God had invited me to walk. As this realization washes over me, I feel a deep sense of gratitude towards these guys. Just like them, I appreciate the meal and the fellowship, and I am awed by their openness and willingness to talk with me, based on nothing more than my familiarity with the language of the incarcerated and telling them that I was a chaplain. I’m amazed at the God who uses each of our unique life experiences to give us particular opportunities to help make this world a more loving, just, and peaceful place.
My experiences while working with Thrive over the past year had cultivated a certain mindset in me. One of the things that I often hear from the formerly incarcerated guys that I work with is that people who have spent any time locked up are looked at with a high degree of suspicion, like animals who could attack at any minute. Had I not spent the time that I have at Rikers I would not have been nearly as comfortable with these two complete strangers. God always meets us where we are and presents us with opportunities to live the Corporal Works of Mercy like “visiting the imprisoned.” In this case the only prison that we were in was a Greyhound bus, but a person can be as isolated there as in solitary confinement.
In order to truly be the person God is inviting us to become, we need to be aware of such opportunities to walk with others. As enjoyable as it can be to cruise down the highway at 90, with our choice of music blaring and the windows down, it can be harder to find God there. The bus might seem uncomfortable – crowded, loud, full of unidentifiable smells – but it is often through those uncomfortable moments that God speaks to us, inviting us into a deeper relationship.