Receiving Hospitality - A Lesson Learned in Prison

The following story by Br. Emmanuel Orrino first appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Kansas Monks. 

Br. Emmanuel Orrino & Fr. Bruce Swift.

We’ve heard it said, “It is better to give than to receive” (see Acts 20:35). But sometimes we give by receiving. I learned this more deeply while assisting Fr. Bruce Swift with his ministry at Lansing Correctional Facility (LCF) in Lansing, Kan. Fr. Bruce, along with Fr. Aaron Peters, and the recently deceased Abbot Owen Purcell and Fr. Louis Kirby, has given years of service to inmates in various prison systems. He has been going to LCF to offer Mass, hear confessions, and give his friendship for 13 years. 

About a year ago, Fr. Bruce began having difficulty traveling to and around the prison on his own. At his invitation several monks and I began taking turns driving Fr. Bruce to LCF, helping him navigate the campus, and getting to know the inmates ourselves. 

It is hard to overstate the satisfaction that I have felt in giving my time to the men at LCF. Jesus told us that when we visit the imprisoned, we visit him. The more I have visited and built relationships with the men of LCF, the more I have seen how I am truly visiting Christ. The visits to LCF have become something that I do for myself.

Fr. Bruce served as a prison chaplain at Lansing and other facilities for over 13 years.

Fr. Bruce is uniquely important to the men at LCF. They miss him when he cannot come as scheduled; they eagerly assist him with doors and setting up for Mass. When I take Fr. Bruce to LCF in a wheelchair, one inmate, Roger, dependably waits for Fr. Bruce to arrive and signals to me with a grin that says, “I’ve got it from here,” and handles pushing Fr. Bruce to the chapel. It is obvious that they love him.

In seeing the attentiveness the LCF inmates offer Fr. Bruce, I consider how important it is that he lets them help with tasks he’s perfectly capable of doing on his own, like taking off his jacket or pulling his homily out of his bag. When Fr. Bruce visits the inmates, fulfilling the corporal work of mercy to visit the imprisoned (Mt. 25:36), he becomes their guest and allows them to fulfill the corporal work of mercy of hospitality (Mt. 25:37). He doesn’t do this because he thinks he should be tended to, but because the inmates deserve to tend; they have something to offer. 

As far back as March, the men in the LCF medium security unit began talking about a “banquet.” Fr. Bruce explained that each year, the Catholic inmates in that unit host a banquet for the Catholic volunteers. It is how they thank them for their service to the LCF Catholic community. To my surprise, I was counted as one of the volunteers and invited to attend.

Fr. Bruce informed me that the prisoners provide a high-quality, restaurant-catered meal out of their own pockets. Of course, many of the inmates are indigent and all of them make very little money while in prison. When I received my invitation in the mail, I didn’t hesitate to accept because I was so moved by the gesture. And in any case, I knew Fr. Bruce needed a driver.

When we arrived at the banquet a few months later, the inmates greeted us, showed us places to sit, and offered us drinks. Fr. Bruce stayed at a table with Roger, while I went to a table with three inmates that I hadn’t met before. Two of the three I sat with are from Atchison and were familiar with the Abbey. Both of them were baptized and confirmed as Catholics earlier that day. They were still glowing from the ceremony officiated by Archbishop Emeritus James Keleher, who also attended the banquet.

Brian, one of the newly Baptized, was eager to hear about my life as a Benedictine novice and to tell me about his life prior to and since incarceration. He told me about his kids, his crime, what he’s learned, and where he hopes to go. He served me my dinner, which was excellent as promised, and made sure I always had something to drink. Each time I thanked Brian for his hospitality, he thanked me for my presence. 

After the meal the inmates took some time to say a few words to the group. Roughly 20 volunteers attended. Some were laymen and laywomen, and others were members of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, who together make up the bulk of Catholic volunteers. Many were acknowledged specifically and presented with afghans knitted by an inmate, Chuck.

I knew that Fr. Bruce would be receiving an afghan because a few weeks earlier Chuck asked me for an image of the St. Benedict’s Abbey coat of arms. Chuck’s mother supplies him with yarn from outside the walls. Because he wanted to get the colors of the crest exactly right for Fr. Bruce, Chuck had his mother contact me several times to discuss the image.

After presenting 10 or 12 blankets to another priest, Archbishop Keleher, and many devoted Sisters of Charity, Chuck said a few words about Fr. Bruce. “Our last blanket goes to one of our favorite volunteers,” he said. He continued to introduce Fr. Bruce, highlighting his years of dedication despite his declining mobility. As Fr. Bruce’s mobility has declined, the gratitude for his visits to LCF has increased.

Perhaps I’m biased, but Chuck unveiled the most beautiful afghan of the night and presented it to Fr. Bruce. Fr. Bruce was surprised to receive a blanket; even though he admitted that he wanted one since some were given out last year, he never expected to receive one. He received the blanket with gratitude and conveyed to the inmates his mutual love for them.

The hospitality of the inmate challenged me because I was tempted to assume that prisoners have little to offer. Following that, I might have said that charity would keep me from accepting what they offer, be it a catered meal or a blanket. That might look like charity, but it wouldn’t have been here. 

To love another is to help him grow in love. To love another recognizes his value, and not just abstractly, but concretely: It is to recognize that he has value to you. What better way, then, to love another than to accept what he offers. When we accepted a relatively expensive meal from these inmates, when we accepted their service, when Fr. Bruce accepted the afghan that cost both time and money, we said to the inmates, “You contribute to our happiness!” It was humbling for me to realize that the inmates actually give something to me; didn’t I start going there to be the one giving to them? Charity isn’t mine to possess or limit.

We should look for ways that we can grow in humility and give by receiving. We don’t have to be hosted by prisoners for this. Next time someone unexpectedly holds a door for you, rather than saying, “No, after you,” try saying “thank you” and meaning it. Or when a host bends over backwards to make you feel comfortable as a guest, remember that she is welcoming you as Christ. The best you can do to love Christ in her may be to let her love Christ in you.