Conversatio: Living Conversion through Hospitality

S. Kathleen Atkinson OSB is the founder of Ministry on the Margins and keynote presenter for the Benedictine Center's 2020 Radical Hospitality Series (Feb. 27 - Mar. 1).


Living Conversion through Hospitality

After returning from four months in Guatemala, I knew I couldn’t go back to ministry as it had been. I needed to stay with people on the margins so I contacted the chaplain at the North Dakota State Penitentiary and asked what I could do. I’m not sure what I had in mind, but I knew that I would find an important message from God with the people who lived behind prison bars. Little did I know where it would lead me in my life beyond the bars.

The first time at the prison was memorable. There are eight doors that clang open and shut. Individually. Each gate only unlocks when the previous one closes. One by one, clang by clang. I was brought into an empty room and left to await whoever chose to come. No paper and pencil; no marker for the whiteboard; not even a guard.

They straggled in—nine men in grey prison garb. So began our first class on “Exploring the Catholic Faith.” And so began the transformation of my life. That first night, I went back through the gates, walked to my car, sat in awestruck silence and wept. I wept because I didn’t have words to describe what had happened; I wept because I knew I would return, needed to return to that little room eight gates down the hall.

Wednesday nights grew into Sunday mornings when I sometimes presided at the Catholic communion service. When I asked one inmate what he wanted to hear from the Scripture reflection, he seriously and calmly said, “Sister, tell me something that will be meaningful when they close the bars on me and I’m all alone.” I strive to be a touch hope and caring from “the outside,” but more importantly, I seek to be a reminder of God’s presence which remains with them on “the inside.”

Called Out of Comfortable Routine

Punching in my security code, walking through metal detectors and prison gates, waiting in my empty room for whoever might come that night, and then taking the reverse journey out became a comfortable ritual, gradually transforming my life and that of several people around me with whom I shared the experience. Then it happened as it does so often for those who seek to follow God: I was called out of that comfortable routine. James was the messenger and mentor for the transformation.

He came to our group as usual, but this night he was anxious and near tears. Someone told me that James was one month from release. What I thought would be cause for celebration was actually cause for fear. From a small rural town, James had been in the Bismarck prison for several years. He knew no one, had no family in the area, no job, no housing, no faith community. No one would meet him at the gates when he was discharged and expected to adjust to “freedom.” I became that person. Choosing when I wanted to visit his world, feeling charitable, keeping our worlds separate were all coming to an end. James was now coming into “my world.”

I met him the Friday morning of his discharge as he left the prison with only his backpack and a mesh laundry bag of clothing. We drove to the bank where he could cash the check for what he had saved from his 75 cent an hour job. We drove to the run-down old hotel that catered to ex-felons, registered sex offenders, transients, and others who could find not better options. Then we went to the parole officer to report in, the police station to be fingerprinted and photographed, the social services office to register for food stamps and the food pantry to acquire some staples. My Benedictine community had donated bedding and household supplies.

In my naiveté I hoped James would get a job, find friends, and continue his transition with ease. But that’s not the reality for the anawim like him. After two months outside the prison, he still lives close to the edge of survival. He once remarked he was tempted to violate probation so he could return to consistent food and shelter. He’s been down to his last $9.00; his prescriptions ran out eight days before he could get in to the social worker for a refill; he has applied over thirty times to be a dishwasher, grocery bagger, yard man but has been rejected because of his record.

Who Are the Hosts?

And I? I give him rides to job possibilities and listen to his discouragement. I answer his calls when he just needs to talk. On Easter Sunday I went into the prison walls and sang Alleluias with the men who are there; that afternoon I went with a couple of my Benedictine sisters and served banana splits at the residence where James lives. James and another ex-felon from our group were the hosts. They were the hosts.

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[Illuminating Ministry: A Journal, Volume III. Victor J. Klimoski and Barbara Sutton, ed.s. (School of Theology•Seminary, St. John’s University, Collegeville, MN: 2014), 84-86. Used with permission.]

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