A prison chaplain: My year in lockdown
Rev Dr Bob Mayo, the Anglican Chaplain at HMP Wormwood Scrub, shares reflections on his role.
Chaplains need churches, as our origin dictates – St Martin of Tours cut his cloak in two; he wrapped one piece around the beggar and the other he kept for himself; both he and the beggar were kept warm against the cold. The Latin word meaning cloak is ‘cappa’. The word provides the origin and the action provides the inspiration for the idea of ‘chaplaincy.
Chaplains need churches to meet to worship, for this is where one half of our cloak remains, while the other half of the cloak is with the community we serve. During the pandemic, when the church doors were shut, we had to operate independently. I am a prison chaplain and I felt a spiritual vulnerability to match the strangeness of the days. Each day as I arrived for work I would say the name of Jesus under my breath, feeling the need to do so more than I ever had done when fully a member of a worshipping congregation.
During this period, I was never frightened of Covid, but I was always scared of long-Covid. I travelled 14,500 miles to and from my work in the prison where I was the Anglican Chaplain. I had spit on me three times, landing in the corner of my mouth, my eye, and the back of my head. I talked through doors to people who had tested positive and told them that they were in a place of prayer. I talked face to face with people who were asymptotic and soon were behind the cell door themselves. “You must be immune”, said one staff member to me.
Travelling home after my day in the prison became an adventure in and of itself. In the first lockdown, when none of us fully understood what was happening, I held a homeless person in my arms as he cried in fear at what lay ahead. I gave away my sheepskin coat to a man lying shivering on a street corner. I sat on the pavement with someone, as he drunk whisky and contemplated the cold winter night ahead in a park.
I stood in the rain in a queue to buy chicken and chips with a man, only three days released from prison. He was trying to look after me, even though I was a priest and he was only three days reintroduced back into society: “was I all right having to stand in the rain?” he asked me.
“Always a pleasure never a chore”, would say James, a resident at the prison. James was an early convert to Christianity and gave me insights into his world. He said that becoming a Christian was like learning to write with his left hand; it made his life harder because he could not live his old ways. I told him that he was telling me as about criminality and I was telling him about Christianity.
He was always he and I was always I. I could see his heart change but not his social circumstances. In the prison they had walked in dark valleys and along stormy seas that I knew nothing of and so I learnt from them as I talked to them of more simple Christ centred ways of living. One person said that although they shut him behind locked doors, he had never felt freer inside since he became a Christian.
Thanks to an e-bay purchased second hand pair of Prada shoes, I became known as the Prada-priest. These were occasions for endless humour. One person saw my pair of Prada shoes and said, “the church is paying you too much’. I replied, “It is paying me more than crime is paying you; the shoes belong to me, but my heart belongs to Christ”.
Each evening I would have a shower; change my clothes; pray with my mother and have a meal with my wife. Both, of whom, would be up to see me off again the next day. There are no vicarages available for Anglican Prison Chaplains and so my wife and I came to live happily together with my mother. Our most special time together came at the end of the week when my cousin David, who was in our support bubble, joined with us. The three of us ate his beautifully prepared food and then we prayed and when we prayed, we sat in silence. “God’s first language is silence”, said Saint John of the Cross.
Now that church congregations can gather once again, and we can sing together I think only on the face of Christ. When asked about the future of the Church Leslie Newbiggin used to reply, “I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead”. I will never again take for granted our ability to gather and worship; let everything that has breath praise the Lord (Psalm 150:5)
Rev Dr Bob Mayo is the Anglican Chaplain at HMP Wormwood Scrubs. He is running the London Marathon hoping to raise money to support the Amos Trust: https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/BobMayo1