More than two million people in the United States are incarcerated right now. That’s 0.7% of the total population, the highest rate in the world. Data about religious affiliation in prisons is difficult to come by, because inmates are rarely surveyed, but it’s safe to assume that hundreds of thousands of Christians have experienced incarceration.
This two-part series, drawn from interviews with incarcerated Christians from diverse faith traditions, examines the unique shape faith can take behind bars and the wisdom incarcerated Christians have to share with those of us who have never spent time in prison.
Eden Maya-Vergara wakes up every morning at 4:30 and prays the holy rosary for an hour and a half before watching Mass on television.
Carl Smith prays throughout the day, confessing passages of scripture under his breath. “I say, ‘I display the love of God,’ and then I recite the full chapter of 1 Corinthians 13 from memory,” he says. He’s memorized approximately 20% of the King James Version of the Bible.
Ninos Gorgis prays at sundown, because that’s when his Jewish cellmate prays. “I figured I would pray when he did,” he says, “and now it’s a thing.”
All three of these men are in the Illinois state prison system following murder convictions and are struggling to live out their Christian faith in extremely challenging conditions.
Curious about how Christians incarcerated in the US practice their faith, I reached out to a number of men currently housed in facilities across the state of Illinois, where I live. All nine I spoke to for this article were convicted of first degree murder. In my conversations with these men, I came to see how the prayers and faith practices of incarcerated Christians, almost like monks, are a vital part of the Church.
I came to see how the prayers and faith practices of incarcerated Christians are a vital part of the Church.
Eden, a lifelong Catholic, grew up in Mexico. He’s 35 years old, a short man at 5’3”. In 2008 he murdered two people at a restaurant where he worked, and he is serving a life sentence for the crime.
Ninos, who is often misidentified as Hispanic in court documents and witness statements, is actually from an Iraqi family and grew up Assyrian Christian in Chicago. When he was 19, he shot a rival gang member in a gas station parking lot and is serving 40 years.
Carl, who was raised with a combination of Catholicism and Black Protestantism, has been in prison since 2003, serving a 75-year sentence for a murder he says he did not commit. Since Illinois has no discretionary parole for first degree murder, whatever faith practices these men develop in prison will be all they will have for most, if not all, of their lives.
The men have access to spiritual resources in prison, albeit on a limited basis. Eden was given a Bible and a Spanish copy of The Way of a Pilgrim by another inmate early in his incarceration. Ninos’ co-defendant had a Christian cellmate who gave Ninos a Bible, which he started reading mostly out of curiosity. A few of the men I spoke with have studied theology at North Park Theological Seminary’s School of Restorative Arts while incarcerated. Several men mentioned the Our Daily Bread devotionals—short, daily meditations on scripture passages made available to prisoners. Eden and other incarcerated Christians spoke of the time between 4 and 6 in the morning as important for the practice of their faith, due to the quiet and relative peace of those hours.
Whatever resources guide them, Christians in prison practice their faith under the pressure of constant self-scrutiny. “Prison proves that you cannot avoid you,” says Carl.
For Ninos, this was especially true during a year he spent isolated in the segregation unit as he came to terms with himself and his actions in what he called “brutal truth telling.” That year involved moments of closeness to God he couldn’t explain given his circumstances. “The closeness was real and almost tangible,” he says, “so powerful that I could not stand, but prostrated myself and worshipped. Even retelling it gives me joy.”
Ninos says that his victim is still with him, and that it was difficult for him to accept God’s forgiveness, but he came to believe it would be disrespectful to the Cross to do otherwise. He believes now that his crime doesn’t have to be the end of their story: “Nothing can bring him back, no time machine can change what I did. However, that doesn’t negate what the future can be.”
“The closeness [of God] was real and almost tangible, so powerful that I could not stand, but prostrated myself and worshipped. Even retelling it gives me joy.”
Like Ninos, Eden says his faith has been integral for processing his crime. “I used to let negative thoughts control me, thoughts like ‘you are a horrible person’ and ‘who would want to be your friend?’” He says that praying for his victims’ souls has given his life purpose.
Several men spoke of the spiritual difficulty of living perpetually identified with the worst version of themselves in a dehumanizing environment. Perhaps this struggle to maintain their faith in such a setting gives them a unique sensitivity to the humanity of others. Carl says that the imago dei—the image of God—is “incarcerated within us all.” Eden points out that while many people can see God’s presence in nature, they often don’t see God in the people around them. “Especially when they make us uncomfortable and, according to us, are less than we expect them to be.”
Carl says that the imago dei—the image of God—is “incarcerated within us all.”
If you can’t avoid yourself in prison, you also can’t avoid the perpetual scrutiny of others. “Someone is always watching,” says Carl. “There is no privacy beyond your personal thoughts.” If actions and words don’t match, people notice. Carl has found that the best way to demonstrate his faith to other inmates is to give freely without hope of reciprocity. “The gift of noodles, cookies, soap, or a haircut—I’m a barber—goes a long way to illustrate my faith to a community used to neglect and exploitation.”
And, to the incarcerated Christians with whom I spoke, the community in which they live out their faith isn’t restricted by the walls of their prisons. Many spoke of ministries and community projects they have coordinated with the help of partners outside prison, like winter clothing donations for Chicago’s homeless population, and of the wisdom and spiritual example they offer to their extended families. They believe their experience gives them a unique perspective on what it really means to belong to the family of God.
“The community’s prayers are my prayers,” Carl tells me, “and when the community celebrates, my heart is overwhelmed.”
Incarcerated Christians like Carl pray with us and for us. They mourn for the tragedies our communities experience because they belong to us, though they live apart. And they hope with us for the healing, peace, and freedom of the Kingdom of God.
This is part one of a two-part series on incarcerated Christians. The next article features the stories of two Christian men convicted of murder: one guilty, and one innocent.