Thursday, May 30, 2013

Guest Post at Feminist Mormon Housewives

I was asked to write a guest post at Feminist Mormon Housewives about my work at San Quentin Prison. It's going to be in three parts, and part 1 (the background section) was posted today. I've reprinted it below the jump, but please feel free to join in the conversation over there.

I went to a small Jesuit university for college, where I was one of only 6 LDS undergrads. There was no institute associated with the school, so I enrolled in an institute class at the nearby public university. About halfway into the semester, I was asked to be the secretary in the institute presidency.

I served in the presidency as the secretary for two years, under two different presidents. Then, when the president moved out of state at the start of my last year of college, I was asked to replace him. During this time, I probably spent more time at the institute than I did on campus at the university I was actually attending. I found the time at the institute to be remarkably fulfilling, both taking classes and ministering to the students.

I studied in the philosophy department at school, and many of my professors were Catholic priests. I began to really envy them because they had a built-in opportunity to have a lifelong ministry. It was their career. I wished that there were something like that available to me.
I graduated college right after my 21st birthday, so I decided to serve a mission. This once again filled my desire to minister to people. While I was serving, I had an opportunity to spend time visiting people in the hospital and in juvenile hall, listening to their stories and sharing the love of God with them. I found that to be way more meaningful than riding my bicycle around town knocking on doors.

I started law school a few weeks after I returned home from my mission. Sadly, after a year and a half, my law school education was interrupted without warning. I had to find a new path quickly. I thought back on the times in life when I was the happiest, and I realized that it was when I was deeply involved in the running of the institute.

So I enrolled in divinity school. My plan was to become a hospital chaplain. I didn’t tell anyone about it because I feared disapproval at such a non-traditional career choice. The school I picked was all by correspondence, and it wasn’t very good. I dropped out a month later and tried to figure out something else to do with my life.

Eventually I went back to law school. Instead of returning to the law school that had treated me so badly, I was accepted to and chose to enroll in the school I had attended as an undergrad. In my last year of law school, I took a seminar on the prison system. I was uninterested in the subject matter, but the professor came highly recommended, so I signed up anyway.

In order to graduate, I was required to write a paper of publishable quality. I chose to use my seminar paper to satisfy the requirement. I wrote about the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and how it applies to the religious freedom of prison inmates.

The next semester, I was attending an academic conference, and I met a Muslim woman who volunteered as a chaplain at a women’s prison near Salt Lake City. She mentioned that the staff was interfering with the ability of the inmates to pray. I talked with her a bit about my paper and about some things she could try in order to convince the staff to work with her on the matter. I wanted to ask her how she carved out a space for ministry while being a member of a religious tradition that places limits on women’s public ceremonial participation (since it’s something I’ve been trying to figure out in my own life), but I chickened out because I didn’t want to offend her.

I graduated a few months later, and by that time I had decided that I want to become a law professor. I needed to get some college level teaching experience. My prison system seminar professor had volunteered in the past at San Quentin Prison in their university program. I decided to sign up, and I love it. I’ve taught math and English for the past two years.

Many of my students are openly religious, and they often discuss spiritual matters with me. In addition to being a good career move to gain experience, I feel like teaching at the prison is a form of ministry. But I still wanted to do more.

A few weeks ago, as I was driving to the prison to teach my math class, I was listening to the Mormon Matters podcast episode about LDS military chaplains. I was fascinated and wondered if there was an opportunity for me to do something similar at San Quentin. I had seen Buddhist and Protestant chaplains at the prison, and I had heard that there were Catholics as well. But I never saw any LDS chaplains.

When I arrived at the prison that evening, I saw an older man I had never seen before standing at the gate. He was wearing a white shirt, a tie, and a missionary name badge. I went over and introduced myself and asked him if there was an opportunity to serve at the prison in a religious capacity. It turns out he’s a ward missionary in the ward where the prison is located. His assistant just had to step down due to an employment conflict, and he will be moving next month. He said that he could use some help.

Once my background check clears, I’ll be good to go.  I’m really excited for this opportunity. The timing couldn’t be more perfect.

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