One of our favorite things is witnessing our alumni in their local contexts, years after graduation, as they continue learning and practicing in new ways—whether it’s in a therapy office, at Aurora Commons, behind an easel, or holding church inside a jail. Here, Joshua Longbrake (Master of Divinity, ‘10) reflects on his own ongoing learning as the church he pastors seeks to serve the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated in Chicago.
I graduated from The Seattle School in 2010 with an MDiv and am the pastor of Church of the Table in Chicago—a contemplative anabaptist church in the Old Irving Park neighborhood on the northwest side. Two communities that our church is committed to supporting are the incarcerated and the formerly incarcerated and their families.
I have worked with the formerly incarcerated, but this year is my first for going into the jail to hold religious services. It’s a trip. Church of the Table is new, and so we are researching and seeking out counsel as to how we as a church can best serve the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated. It is a massive need in Chicago.
Below is a bit that I wrote after my first week going to jail.
Annex 4 in Cook County Jail is mostly one large room—cinder block walls with faded paint, 200 steel bunk beds with inches between them, and roughly 400 incarcerated men in tan jumpsuits who are there for relatively short sentences. It is a transient, cold space. Two TVs hang on the walls, each encased in one-inch-thick solid translucent material. They are both playing an NBA playoffs game, the audio drowned out by the presence of the 400 residents. A group of 15 or so guys huddle around the television trying to hear, trying to drown out their circumstances, but probably just trying to watch the game. There’s not a lot of poetry to read into that room.
Guards walk us through the main room to an adjacent room—one that is locked and empty, roughly the size of half a basketball court. The walk through the main room means passing almost shoulder-to-shoulder with a crowd of tan jumpsuits; it is an intimidating walk. The guard tells us that he doesn’t want us to go anywhere without him because if one of us “gets in the middle of something” then it’s on his shoulders, “and I don’t need that shit right now.”
In the adjacent room there are phones on the walls with instructions for collect calls and notices that all calls are monitored and recorded. The notices are not polite. They do not say, “Please be aware…”—they are cold fact. Everything you say is heard by CCJ. In the middle of the room are about 15 rows of tables made of steel with circular stools jutting out from the base on a curved tube of metal. Everything there is solid, affixed to something else that is solid. Almost nothing moves. That is where we have church.
Then you have to let people know that church is happening, and the way you do that is to go and invite people to church. I can’t think of the last time I invited a friend to church—it’s been decades, except for times when I’ve preached and I wanted my pals to come support me. I have never invited someone to church that I had never met.
The other six guys who were in my group to lead the church service are all veterans of this work. They didn’t look intimidated in the slightest. I’ve been in some very tough rooms and some dark places—I’ve been through dozens of awful SROs and hotels, in and out of police departments and court rooms in social work roles, and working in buildings that should have been condemned decades ago—so it’s not my first experience in an uncomfortable room, but this was a new kind of tough room for me.
“This was a new kind of tough room for me.”
The other six who were with me spread out through the room, walking down the rows of bunks, yelling out “Church! Church is happening! Come to church!” I watched and learned. I am in preschool—teach me the language and symbols.
Maybe 30 or so guys came to church. One of the guys on my team had a guitar and he passed out lyric sheets, and I am not exaggerating, everyone sang or at the very least talked the words. My read was that they wanted to sing, or needed to sing. It was humbling. I had these flashbacks of the thousands of times I’ve been in church and not sang for some reason or another—tired of the music or not agreeing with the theology of the lyrics or not liking the style. I didn’t feel bad about it, but I felt as though I hadn’t needed to sing in a very, very long time. And I don’t think it takes dire circumstances to realize the need to sing together.
This is the truth: those men were all very tender, at least when we were singing. And I was looking around a lot, observing this very peculiar space. Not one of them looked like they thought this was silly or that they were above it. And they didn’t looked thrilled either. The look most of them had was one of peace. Take that for what you will. I could be wrong, but there you go.
After the singing another guy on our team preached for about 25 minutes from the gospel of John. Everyone had a bible (the team always brings a bag full of them in English and Spanish). Most of the guys wanted to read the text out loud, so they took turns reading a few verses at a time.
Last thing we did was break up in groups to pray. I prayed with a few guys who had court dates coming up that week. We sat down, exchanged names and shook hands, and I would ask, “What do you want to pray about?” The first thing that each one of them said was for some member in their family. Isn’t that interesting? Maybe not all that important, but it happened again and again, guy after guy. When they had a court case coming up but they didn’t know much about their case (common), we would pray that the judge would have a very good breakfast the morning of their trial and would be in a dandy mood. I’ve been in quite a few courtrooms, and the mood of the judge is pertinent. So that’s what we prayed for. God, give the judge syrup.
I thanked all of them for the honor it was to pray with them.
I didn’t have any massive revelations. I don’t think lives were transformed and forever changed. It was just a bunch of people who weren’t all that different from each other, trying to figure it out, trying to do our best in that moment. And if any of us or all of us were changed, maybe it was just a little, tiny, minuscule bit, like when something helpful or nice happens and you say, “Yeah—that was good. Thanks. I needed that.”
Enjoy your meal, your honor.