A Prison Ministry held an event in the Ellis Unit in Huntsville, Texas, called “Kolbe Retreat.” A friend of mine signed me up because last year when they came, I was turned down for an unknown reason by the major of the unit. My feelings were hurt and didn´t want to go through that again. But I was very happy I had a chance to go this year.
The retreat was Catholic-based but anyone was welcome to sign up for it. There were Muslims, Jews, Baptists and non-believers who signed up and got approved. Everyone wanted to go because they would be feeding us “free world food” and the food in the chow hall gets old pretty quick.
The retreat was going to be in the south gym of the unit. Hunstville is down in southern in Texas where the humidity is 90% almost all year around. So, it´s hot in the gym.
Day one of the retreat: As I entered the doors of the gym, I saw two lines of men in blue shirts standing side by side, clapping. We would have to walk in between the two lines of men. As the first inmate got close to the lines of men, they stopped clapping and started to give hugs. I got closer, and tried to give the first guy a handshake, but he hugged me instead. It caught me off guard because we are not used to that kind of contact with people in here.
After all the hugs, we ended up in the middle of the gym where 12 round tables were set up with folders and name tags on them.
After finding our seats, a speaker came up front and introduced the volunteers and explained a little about the retreat. Then he said the words I was waiting for, “We will be feeding ya´ll lunch and dinner.”
I grew up with a Catholic mother, and went to Mass when she didn´t have to work, but I really didn´t pay too much attention in Mass anyway. But listening to the speaker, I understood what he was talking about when it came to the Catholic church. He also said that he knew that half of the men were not Catholic and that they were not there to convert anyone to Catholicism. They just wanted to share the Word of God with us. That got my attention because when ¨Church Folks¨ come in to prison, they usually try to convert us and by doing that, push a bunch of us away. He also said if we only came for the food he was still glad we came, and that they would be trying to stuff us.
They started by giving us cookies, rice crispy treats, brownies and Folger’s coffee with cream and Sweet-and-Low. The coffee was the best I have drank in the 14 years I´ve been locked up. Even though it was 94º in the gym and I was sweating, I didn´t care.
After we ate, the speaker told us that in the folder in front of us was a picture of a saint and some history of that saint. He wanted each table, as a group, to read and talk about the saint. We would gather information about the saint, then someone from each table would go up, talk a little about the saint. Each table had a volunteer so if we had a question he could help and answer it. We were blessed to have two with us: Mark and Brian. Brian said we would be going up to the mic throughout the retreat and everyone would get a chance to speak. So, I volunteered to speak first.
I wrote down some things that we’d talked about, and “free-styled” the rest as I spoke. I was glad when the whole table went up front with me. Helped out a lot. Everyone that spoke the first round was brief.
Then one of the free men told his testimony which was amazing because he talked about his most personal business in front of men he didn´t know, some of whom only signed up for the “free world food”. His testimony was so powerful that I looked around the gym and some guys were not looking at him, but at the ground, because their eyes were watery. Even though the guy was not a thug and hadn’t had a rough childhood, his story was like many of ours and it touched home. Once again, we had 15 minutes to discuss among our table what we got out of the testimony and each table had a turn to speak. At lunch time we had spaghetti, salad, and garlic bread with sweet tea and lemonade. They fed us until we couldn´t eat anymore.
The next speaker gave his testimony and then we discussed it and guys went up to speak on it. This time prisoners opened up more and talked about their lives, which was different because I’d known many of them for some years now and I did not know the things they talked about. Getting put in this place makes us shut down and build walls around our emotions and feelings. We don´t talk about things that hurt us or about our past. That leaves us vulnerable. So to hear these men talk like that was surprising.
Day two of the retreat: It was a humid morning, so sticky that the hugs the men gave us felt funny. Even though it was hot, the coffee was good. We started off the day with the prayer of the Rosary. A lot of men didn´t do it, but they respected it and sat quietly as we did it. When we finished, the speaker talked about the Rosary and answered questions about it. There were a lot of good questions and I learned more about the Rosary.
More speakers talked throughout the day, but what caught our attention was the reenactment of Jesus getting beat and carrying the cross, which was a real one, bigger than the volunteer who carried it. The volunteers dressed up, one as Jesus and two as soldiers. There was a narrator telling the story as they beat him and he carried the cross. I´ve heard and read the story of all of that before, but to see it as the narrator read about it was a real powerful thing to witness. I had to look away a couple of times. To see a man beaten and treated like that for no reason, then killed for us and our sins, there isn't words to describe that. The whole gym was quiet and that made me nervous.
For lunch they fed us brisket sandwiches, salad, cookies and chips with tea or lemonade. I ate so much I felt sick.
Day three, the final day: We came in with hugs again, which didn´t feel weird anymore, but welcoming. They started us off right away with bananas and apples, cookie and brownie with coffee. It was a blessing to have fruit like that because we only get an apple and banana twice a year: Thanksgiving and Christmas. The speaker for that day was a deacon, and he talked about the tradition of the church and the partaking of the Eucharist. After some Q and A they set the chairs up in rows and we had Mass. Three priests came and they did confession, or talked to the men who weren´t Catholic who wanted to speak with them.
After Mass, they gave us some more snacks and we sat and talked amongst ourselves as the volunteers set chairs up around the gym in a big square. We didn´t know what was going on until the speaker got on the mic and asked us to sit in the chairs they set up. As we got settled, the speaker started talking about Jesus washing the feet of his disciples and went a little bit more into it. But what they wanted to do was wash our feet. I have seen that growing up, during Mass, but never had it done to me. At first the Muslim and Jew guys didn´t want to do it.
But as the volunteers started to go down the row, doing one at a time, they changed their minds and went through with it. Days later I talked to some of the Muslims who were there and they said they thought what the men did showed so much love and caring for us. Society thinks of prisoners as the scum of the earth. Murderers, rapists, gang members, etc. sat in those chairs and these men humbled themselves to wash their feet. I´d heard people say: “God is in the room” before in church, but that day I felt him in the gym. So many lives were changed that day in a hot Texas gym. I´m not a “Bible Thumper” but I am a believer of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.
The rest of the day they fed us ham, cheese, grapes, grape juice, brownies, cookies, garlic bread until we felt like we were going to pop. They had so much food left over, but we couldn´t eat anymore. As we sat there with full stomachs, we talked to the volunteers and said our good-byes. It was kind of sad because these men became friends, and we probably won´t see them again. But it was a blessing to have met them. Then after more hugs the retreat was over.
As I said, many prisoners went to eat the “free world food”, but came out of it with a seed planted in our hearts. These men came with God on their side to a prison where the State of Texas locks us up and throws the key to the doors away. And showed us how much God loves us. To know that there are people out there in the world who do care for us and forgive us for the bad choices we made gives us hope and the will to change our ways of thinking. These men were a blessing to us. And I can speak for everyone on the Ellis Unit in saying that we are very thankful to God that He sent his angels to us to show us the love He has for us.
|Jaime Prieto 01305672|
1697 FM 980
Huntsville, TX 77343
Jaime Prieto has been incarcerated since 2003. He is a devoted son, father, brother and grandfather, as well as a writer and artist. His brother, Arnold Prieto Jr., also contributed to Minutes Before Six.