© Jeremy D. Nickel 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
May 1, 2011

It began exactly as it would have if I had been writing up the scene for a movie. It was still completely dark a few minutes after 7 am, two months ago as I pulled into San Quentin for my first visit with Dennis. Not only was it completely dark, but the most wicked and violent rainstorm to hit the Bay this winter was crashing into the craggy rocks that the prison sat upon. Burst after burst of 50 mile-an-hour-plus winds brought the foamy sea and angry rain down upon my little car as I sat in the mostly deserted visitors' parking lot and reviewed the clear plastic ziplock bag in my hand by the light of the nearby guard tower. It contained everything besides the clothes I wore that I was allowed to bring into the prison with me: One car key, my California driver's license, eight quarters and twenty one-dollar bills.

Not having seen the words jacket or umbrella listed under the approved clothing list, and not wanting to draw any negative attention to myself on this first visit, I stepped out of the car without the protection of either, which left me no match for the intense storm that greeted me.

The first stop for any visitor to San Quentin is the check-in shack on the side of the visitors' parking lot. It is made of concrete, painted white. And it is a very cold place to wait to be buzzed into another small room with a guard who compared my driver's license to the list of approved visitors with appointments, inspected my ziplock bag, and sent me to a very thorough security screening. After completing the security steps, I was instructed to follow a long yellow line on the ground which stretches for almost two blocks outside between buildings along what, under normal circumstances, would have been a gorgeous view of the Bay, but which was on this day a punishing gauntlet of needle-stinging sea water and rain pelting the left side of my body.

My reward for this walk was being finally and at least for the next three hours, irreversibly, being let in to San Quentin Prison.

After having all of my forms checked and rechecked, my first task within the prison, as I had been informed in the 5-minute phone call that was the sum total of training and preparation I was provided for this mind-blowing experience, was to purchase a tray full of snacks for Dennis and me to eat while we talked. The eight vending machines provided little variety: soda and sugary juice drinks for the beverage options, microwave popcorn, pizza, and breakfast sandwiches, a few choices of old and waxy looking fruit, and then tons of candy bars and chips.

At this point I had exchanged one set of letters with Dennis. He had told me all about his life before ending up in San Quentin, all the things he had built with his hands: cars, gas stations, office buildings, houses. And he told me very proudly about all the tools he had owned, which as far as I could tell from his vivid and detailed descriptions, was just about every kind of tool you could think of. And in my first letter I had told him about my family and my job, and had tried to explain Unitarian Universalism to him.

We had actually covered a fair amount of ground, but nothing had prepared me to decide what this man, who had had no contact with the outside world except for through television and his lawyers for over ten years, would want from a vending machine. On one level it is a trivial decision. But as someone who has traveled a lot, and entered many cultures, I understand the importance of food, and that your choice of how you feed yourself actually communicates a lot about you. And I knew that to qualify to be in the program that had matched up Dennis and me, he had to have not had a visitor of any kind other than his lawyers for at least ten years. Which also meant this was the first time in over a decade someone had offered him something to eat beyond prison food. When I thought of it like that, it really did feel like a big decision. Luckily, I had armed myself with twenty one-dollar bills, so I went for the variety approach, a little bit of everything.

Now armed with a tray of food, I made my way into the small cell that Dennis and I would spend the next 2-plus hours locked within together. It was about the size of two bathroom stalls, and had a table just big enough to hold my tray and which was surrounded by three metal chairs. Lined with solid metal bars and sealed in with two thick pieces of plastic, it was already feeling like a claustrophobic environment with just me in it.

This being Dennis' first visit, it took him awhile to make it through all the hoops he had to jump through to get to me. But then quite suddenly, there he was, and besides the fact that his hands were initially cuffed behind his head, he looked just like any person you might run into while you went through your day. There was nothing about him that would make you think he was actually on California's death row.

After being sealed in the cell with me and uncuffed we hugged and sat down. Dennis surveyed the food tray, and I could tell it didn't hold anything that interested him. But it didn't matter, we quickly fell into a very comfortable conversation, and the next two hours passed as Dennis regaled me with stories about his life before. He told me about his time serving in Vietnam, about the garden he had at his old house, about his beloved dogs, and even a few details about what he had done to end up in prison.

And then, more suddenly then you would think possible in such a situation, a guard came by to tell us our time was up and the visit needed to end. In that instant, as Dennis grabbed for the fruit cup he had picked at for the past hour and suddenly devoured its remaining contents, I saw something in his eyes that I will probably never forget. In the past two hours, sitting there shooting the breeze with me, Dennis had slipped for a moment into another reality far away from those prison walls. We had been two guys just talking. We could have been anywhere. But the guard had abruptly awakened him back to where we really were. It was a painful look that passed over his eyes in that moment, as he pulled back all his defenses and steeled himself to once again be a prisoner of those walls that he had just momentarily escaped.

As they were re-cuffing him, the one question I knew I needed to ask him before our first visit ended thankfully popped into my head. "Dennis," I said, "what can I do to care for you? What do you need from me to feel supported?"

"Well, this is just great, just talking to you. It's really wonderful," he said. And his voice caught as he said it, and I could see he was truly touched just to be asked that question.

"OK, well, I am glad to hear that, but I hope I can give you more. But really, I don't know what that is, and I just want you to know if anything occurs to you, well, I hope you will tell me," I replied.

He paused for a second. I could see his defenses were now fully up again and I feared he now didn't have the ability to answer my question anymore. Then he was jostled by the guard tugging him away from the cell. As he began to follow the guard, he slowed his walk a bit, turned his head back over his shoulder to look back at me and said what I hoped would be our first big break through: "Next time, maybe Pepsi and some popcorn?"

OK, so it wasn't huge, but in that moment, it felt like a start. Pepsi and a bag of microwave popcorn. I can do that, I thought.

I really can't tell you exactly why I began this prison ministry. The opportunity suddenly presented itself about six months ago, and without much thought I jumped at it. But I can tell you after only two visits with Dennis I know that I am going to get as much from this experience as I hope he does. And that is the true magic of being a caregiver - the way it gives back and, as Mark talked about earlier, makes us more human.

But being a caregiver also takes a real toll on the one doing the giving. And so on this Sunday on which we offer a blessing to all the caregivers in this world, I share with you this thought: that asking someone what they need is often the greatest piece of ministry one can do. And although we will in a moment bless all the hands that do this important work, I ask that if you have a caregiver in your life - one who cares for you or one who cares for others - that you give them one of the greatest gifts any caregiver can receive, which is to be asked what they need. Because for most caregivers, no one ever does.

Now, I would like to turn to the time of blessing.

First, think about your own hands for a minute. Not because your hands are the only way to care for another, but because our hands are, in my opinion, the greatest symbol for this work, because they are what we use to reach away from ourselves and towards another. Which is exactly what caregiving is - it is a turning away from ourselves and towards another in love.

So as you picture your hands, begin to leave them behind and think about a time that you were cared for by someone else. Remember how wonderful it felt for someone to give their time and energy to you, to comfort you, to heal you, to love you.

Now I want you to think of a time that you cared for someone else. Remember the entire experience - the difficulties and the joys, the tears and the hugs, the laughter and the pile of Kleenex.

I ask that you now reach out your hand and hold the hand of someone near you. If you don't want to hold someone's hand, that is also perfectly okay, just keep your hands in your lap. And now as we hold each other in our hearts and by our hands, hear the words of this unattributed interfaith blessing of the caregivers:

The Caregivers' Blessing

Blessed are the caregivers who refuse to compare their responsibilities with others.

Blessed are the caregivers who have learned to laugh, for it is their only chance for sanity.

Blessed are the caregivers who accept the disabilities of their charges, letting each person develop at their own speed.

Blessed are the caregivers who can redirect negative behavior, without anger.

Blessed are the caregivers who involve their charges in the world around them, for it develops the whole person.

Blessed are the caregivers who are teachable, for understanding brings love.

Blessed are the caregivers who love their task, for love is the greatest gift they give.

Blessed are the caregivers, for all the blessings they bestow upon their world.

Yes !!!


May it be so.


Back to Top