By Donald Schell
“. . .and the gates of Hell will not be able to stand against it.”
This Eastertide thinking of Jesus bursting the gates of hell reminded me of my friend Fr. Mark.
Mark was an Episcopal priest and in his conflicted, imperfect way, a very good priest. In 1986, as Mark lay dying of pneumocystis pneumonia, he told me, “I’ve had lots of sex, but never a lover.” AZT was licensed for HIV/AIDS treatment in ’87, the year after Mark’s death. Reading of AZT my first thought was that an accident of time had deprived us of one of the good ones.
I got to know Mark in 1980, going into the jail with him every Saturday morning to help him lead a Eucharist. Helping the county jail chaplain made a fascinating contrast with my first years of my adventure living my hopes and dreams founding St. Gregory’s Church, San Francisco.
Jail prisoners were purse-snatchers, brawlers, drunks, and homeless guys who didn’t keep a low enough profile and got picked up for ‘public nuisance.’ When I volunteered Mark was already pushing a book cart between the cell blocks every day, helping prisoners get in touch with people outside, and whatever Mark could do to ‘offer the prisoners God’s unconditional love.’ The Sheriff was working to improve jail conditions too. Mark and the sheriff were good friends.
We gathered for our Eucharist adjacent another open cellblock where “Soul Train” blared on an insistently loud TV. That TV, the echoing slam of steel doors in concrete halls, and the hum of fluorescent lights accompanied all our singing and everything else anyone said or did in the jail.
After prisoners asked us about the weather outside, because, they said, knowing whether it was sunny or overcast helped them remember about people outside and hope for eventual freedom, Mark would begin each Eucharist with this prayer: “O God we are here. And you are here. It is enough. Amen.”
Presence. “It is enough.” What Mark offered visiting prisoners was just that simple? He looked and saw them with open eyes. He seemed to expect nothing in return. ‘Mark’s nothing in return’ showed me how much expectation and attention to outcome I carried.
Week by week we took turns leading a Bible-study/sermon and celebrating, and we always ended our Eucharist with the post-communion prayer from the Rite II Burial Eucharist:
Almighty God, we thank you that in your great love
You have fed us with the spiritual food and drink
Of the Body and Blood of your Son Jesus Christ,
And have given us a foretaste of your heavenly banquet.
Grant that this sacrament may be to us a comfort in affliction,
And a pledge of our inheritance in that kingdom
Where there is no death, neither sorrow nor crying,
But the fullness of joy with all your saints;
Through Jesus Christ our Savior. AMEN.
“Comfort, and a pledge and foretaste of the feast where we’re all welcome,” Mark told me. “We say that prayer because it’s what we want to give them.”
Some week nights I’d return to co-lead a Bible study with Mark and meet individually with prisoners who wanted counseling, confession, or prayer. Bible study was fascinating and I was constantly surprised to recognize how forcefully fundamentalism can grip people who define themselves as ‘rebels’ or ‘born to raise hell.’ But I found the counseling hard. I’d get stuck, worried at what I was hearing and dismayed at how little I had to say in response. Though I admired what Mark was doing, with each visit to the jail I got more impatient to see prisoners’ new choices, some sign of growth, what a liberal looks for as conversion.
Finally, I told Mark I’d had a touching, truthful-feeling conversation with a prisoner. “How wonderful,” Mark said. “Isn’t is a privilege that we get to have these conversations with them in the jail where they’re sober? Jail makes it easier for us to see how beautiful they are. You can’t see that on the outside.”
“But Mark,” I protested. “Don’t you expect things can change for them?”
“Mostly they’re beyond change,” Mark replied. “Some have been hurt too badly. Others are too ashamed of what they’ve done, especially to people that loved them. And some can’t even see or do everything they can to keep from seeing.”
Mark seemed to sense how baffled I was by what I he was saying.
“Yesterday,” he continued, “I saw an old friend from in here sleeping drunk in a doorway… he’ll be back soon. Shoplifting, aggressive panhandling, drunk and disorderly, or one of those small troubles that will get him back here instead of prison. They hit it right on their crime again and again, just enough to come back here. Inside again, he’ll sober up and tell us more of his story and we’ll have a good moment with a beautiful human being. Can’t you see, Donald? It’s too late for some of us to change.”
I heard Mark’s ‘us’ loud and clear.
Another day Mark said that being like the prisoners made him patient with them.
Finally one day Mark explained that he understood the prisoners because he’d been in jail himself. Years before, serving as a newly ordained curate in another state, he’d propositioned an undercover cop in a public restroom. Mark phoned his rector, that is, his new boss from jail, and the rector and Mark’s bishop showed up to bail him out.
“I was glad to see the bishop,” Mark said. “Secrets don’t help. He told me to be more careful, and I learned that part pretty well, but there are times it’s hard. It can be pretty lonely being me.”
Mark drank when his loneliness got to be more than he could take, mostly on weekends. He drank and cruised bars in the Castro. He called it ‘my little drinking problem.’ I never saw him drunk, but I heard the results from his upstairs landlord couple, another priest and his wife. A couple of times they’d had to come very late when Mark had come home very late and too shaky to get his key in the keyhole. They’d let him in and put him to bed.
After about eighteen months of Saturdays in jail, Mark told me our bishop had asked him to found a board for jail chaplaincy in the diocese. He wanted me and a lawyer friend to organize the board. Mark’s invitation was a relief to me. Founding a board felt right.
I wanted to feel commitment and hear choices and see people and work maturing. Ten years of priesthood had taught me how exhilarating I found it to help people make tough, courageous choices like finding a new vocation as an artist or a social entrepreneur, or like leaving safe employment to start a new company. Founding the board felt like something with my name on it. It fit how Mark and I were different. It gave me lawyers and teachers and therapists to work with, people I understood.
“Don’t worry,” Mark said. “I’ll find other volunteers to go in with me.”
I learned a lot with the board and was pleased when we were raising enough to support Mark and do other jail work too. It felt good when the board elected me president. Mark was right - I enjoyed the board work.
Then a priest on the board who ran an alcoholism rehab program - a colleague that Mark had recruited - and two other board members - olds friends of Mark’s who were Cursillo stalwarts but also active in Alcoholics Anonymous – got to talking about our friend’s drinking. We talked to Mark’s upstairs neighbors. They were concerned too. So the six of us decided the jail chaplaincy and Mark himself were crying out for an alcoholism intervention.
The rehab program coordinator organized it; we got our bishop’s backing, we contacted the Pension Fund about getting Mark a temporary disability leave, we found residential rehab program that specialized in working with clergy, we purchased two plane tickets and one of us volunteered to fly there with him. Then we talked through the intervention and rehearsed our lines.
He thought he was coming to a board meeting, but instead we delivered our complete plan for Mark’s getting help, carefully lined out in all our voices just as we’d rehearsed it.
Mark thanked us profusely, and he said he saw how much we loved him, but he insisted that he would not go - he couldn’t walk away from the prisoners for a month because they needed him.
We said we could make his taking the month for the program a condition of his continuing work at the jail.
Mark shrugged and said he’d been surviving somehow before we’d been paying him, so figured he could find a way to survive without income. We’d thought his work was on the line. But he knew that all he had was offering prisoners God’s love, and so he asked our prayers as he said he’d worked in his own way to address the problem.
Our intervention was a failure. It saddens me twenty-five years later to write that. What if…
But I think Mark may have had an inkling of the hard drying out he’d be facing very soon, under an oxygen tent with pneumonia, the closest AIDS had hit so far for most of us. He welcomed us as we spent good hours with him in his hospital room. Sometimes he said his prayer, “Oh God, we are here…” He was peaceful, resigned, funny, and eager to talk about all he was doing to plan his funeral.
The funeral was a month or so after diagnosis stopped Mark’s daily rounds in the jail.
For Mark’s funeral, his first boss, the rector who’d bailed him out, flew in to preach. He laughed as he told us that Mark had dictated most of the sermon to him in phone calls from his hospital bed. It was a sermon about freedom in God. And imperfection. And loneliness. And healing. Then Mark’s old friend gave, in Mark’s words a Gospel charge to various people in the packed church. And when it came to Mark’s good friend the Sheriff, the preacher said that Mark wanted him to stand up. He did. “Sheriff, Mark said you’re a good Catholic and will know what Jesus said about this in Luke. Mark says, Sheriff, do the right thing - let the prisoners go free.” The packed, standing room only church exploded in laughter. One of several times we mourners burst out laughing. It wasn’t the only word from Mark that brought the crowd to shouts of laughter. Our liturgy ended with Mark’s favorite hymn from the jail Eucharist, ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’
Mark was a saint. Obviously he was a broken and flawed human being, but he was a saint in whom many of us saw the radiance of God. Knowing Mark made me notice something I’d never heard in Jesus’ promise to Peter that the gates of hell could not prevail against his Church. I’d always heard that text and imagined the church standing firm, holding its ground in battle as the gates of hell advanced. But the ancient gates are locked to keep the prisoners in. Orthodox icons show Jesus bursting into Hell and seizing Adam and Eve to draw them out. Often the icons show the broken gates tumbling into a dark abyss beneath.
In The Odes of Solomon, a second century Christian hymn, Jesus proclaims -
“I have shattered the bars of iron and the iron has become red-hot; It has melted at my presence and nothing more has been shut because I am the gate for all beings. I went to free the prisoners they belong to me and I abandon no one… I have sown my fruits in the hearts of mortals and I have changed them into myself…” (quoted from Olivier Clement’s Roots of Christian Mysticism)Once again in October of 1986 Jesus had shattered the bars of iron and burst the gates of hell, and another prisoner God loved was free.
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is
President of All Saints Company.