by Jeanne Martin
I leave the security of the cement building and walk alone across the yard. I keep my eye on the abandoned baseball field—no action there except a few dandelions growing where the bases are supposed to be. The barbed wire is rolled high atop the chain-linked fence as I near the gate. There I ring the buzzer and wait for what seems like a very long time for a guard to come out and let me in. Guards don’t like volunteers much, and they can take their time, often leaving us standing in the rain or snow.
This is the only time I am afraid. At the medium-security prison, I run a group for men serving very long sentences, usually life sentences. We talk, meditate and write poetry for three and half hours on Saturday afternoons. No guards to speak of, no surveillance, just an open door and a window into the room where we meet. I have been leading the group for more than four years. I meet with the men only once every month or two, as I share the group with other volunteers, but the time we spend together is significant as they talk about how to create a meaningful life inside the prison. I can bring little with me: no pens or pencils, perhaps some blank paper, no books, maybe a handout or two. I bring my experience, and they bring what they have, which is time, and their lives. Many of the men have been incarcerated for 30, 40, 50 years. They are interested in what I have to share with them, grateful to be talking with someone from the outside.
As a deaconess, my responsibility is to reach beyond the safe walls of the church. My deaconess service is going into prisons but also nursing homes and homeless programs and work with elders through the expressive arts. My years as a geriatric social worker have served me well as I take poetry, prayer and meditation to these very special groups. Most of the work I do now is volunteer. A dear sister deaconess once said, at the end of her life, that she would have done all of her work for free. I agree. We serve with freedom and generosity. I love the work with frail elders in particular because they are so real, so authentic. They are not rushing around. They are not worried about status. They are not focused on performance or even on making a good impression. They are just who they are.
In my work, I try to take the Prayer of St. Francis with me into these settings. I pray humbly to be a conduit of peace. My hope is to bring comfort and some joy, as we laugh together. Sometimes I can do that, sometimes I cannot, but I know that I am not alone in any of what I do. The grace and peace of the Holy Spirit accompanies me, and also the warm and loving community of deaconesses and home missioners. I feel very blessed to be a part of our connectional United Methodist denomination.
My calling began in a common way: at a youth retreat. I was very shy as a teenager and never quite found a place to fit in. That was true of my church too, including the youth group. But I went on this weekend retreat anyway. Sitting on a hill after dinner, one of the retreat leaders read the passage about Jesus telling his disciples that if they cared for the least of his brethren, they cared for him. Tears streamed down my face. For some reason I had never heard this passage before. I pledged then and there to work in mission for the poor, the downhearted and the desperate. I did not know how it was going to happen, but I knew it would.
Even then, I never wanted to be a minister. There just was so much need outside the church. At first I thought I would be a medical missionary, perhaps in India. Then I encountered high school chemistry. … Maybe I could do some other form of missionary work? Yet health and health care still seemed so central, so basic, that I thought I could find skills and talents to serve those who most needed help. However, the road did not seem clear. My lack of clarity moved me toward seminary.
I majored in religion in college and loved learning about religions all over the world, including my own. With my bachelor’s degree under my arm I entered seminary in Boston at the height of the Vietnam War. It did not take me long to find that my real service work was more for peace and justice. That seemed to mean social work. I dropped out of seminary to attend social work school, and I did not look back. (At least not for a while.) Although I loved my work with elders, I was restless. I knew the work I was doing was not enough from the heart.
I threw myself into church work. In my local church I served on every committee; I did whatever needed to be done to help foster the life of the church. And it was great, for a while. Still there was something missing. On the advice of my pastor I started journaling. From there the written word quickly became poetry. I had found my home, my center, my expression. I knew I wanted to share poetry, as this form not only helps people express some of their deepest thoughts and feelings but also connects them with others in a meaningful way.
I did return to seminary, to finish what I had started. I had a vague idea of going into Christian education or becoming a spiritual director. But it was in my last semester, in almost my last class, that I discovered that the Office of Deaconess and Home Missioner was alive and well. From then on I knew: I had found my vocation, and my home.
Jeanne Martin is a retired deaconess serving in the greater Boston area. She is author of Write Along With Me, The ARK: Proverbs, Poems and Prayers and Clear Water: A Haiku Invitation Into Our Luminous, Sacred World. She can be reached at jeanniejeanne (at) gmail.com for more information.