By Josh Gibbon
“For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life…”
Quoted in the film, A Hidden Life from Middlemarch by George Elliot
If 29-year-old Jesse Mawson walked by you on an inner-west suburban street, I’d be surprised if you guessed he spends most of his time in prison.
You’d think working at the Silverwater Correctional Complex (SCC) for the past 18 months might have put an anxious pace in Jesse’s step or made him develop a nervous glance over his shoulder from time to time.
Instead, when you meet Jesse, you are immediately put at ease. He walks without a rush, his down-to-earth nature allows conversation to flow easily, and his eyes assure you that you have his attention.
To maintain a calming presence like this in Jesse’s line of work hints at his value for spiritual practices that slow him down and keep him present. For example, when he’s not hanging out inside prison walls, you will likely find Jesse sipping a coffee at the café across the road from his apartment, his nose buried deep in a spiritual book, poetry or memoir of a saint past.
“I love reading poets and poetry,” Jesse reflected to me over coffee, needing to raise his voice slightly due to the espresso machine droning on behind us. “It’s a similar practice to contemplation – it’s about unmasking the invisible, putting words to the invisible reality. Amidst the suffering, what’s the invisible reality that’s going on?”
Jesse is clearly drawn to understanding people’s stories and inner selves – a snug fit for a prison chaplain. Even so, Jesse says he certainly didn’t feel ready when he first set foot in a prison.
However, God led Jesse through a kind of training ground fresh out of Bible college – an internship with HopeStreet in Woolloomooloo, a BaptistCare initiative for the marginalised. After this year-long internship, Jesse received an out-of-his-comfort zone opportunity to minister to people on the fringes of society at Kings Cross for three years.
“I led a small church community space at the community café called Rough Edges. I would gather a bunch of people to read the Bible, share, pray. I learnt the guitar to get people singing. I had no idea what I was doing! I had no credentials. The only thing that got me that job was that I’d done my degree.”
People wrestling with drug use, sex workers and many who had lost their connection to community would walk through the doors, usually in deep places of pain.
“A theme from that time was solidarity with people who were suffering. In my masters, I did a long essay on Jurgen Moltmann. I resonated a lot with him in that location. I had to come to terms with people’s stories who had struggled their whole lives and then passed away, and that was the end of the story. It was about seeing moments of love, community, belonging and joy in people’s lives.”
After taking a six-month sabbatical, Jesse looked for the next opportunity to serve people spiritually. Not feeling drawn to pastoral ministry within a church, Jesse was curious about further chaplaincy roles but felt hospitals, aged care and schools didn’t suit his strengths. So, when Richard Reeve from churches of Christ in NSW & ACT called one day to ask Jesse if he would consider working in corrective services, Jesse didn’t skip a beat.
“I was just stoked. Absolutely stoked,” he said.
Holding his experience from Kings Cross, Jesse began his prison ministry at Silverwater Correctional Complex (SCC).
As you might expect, there’s a significant adjustment period when you start working in an environment as foreign as a prison.
“It was a different world, but I had a strong resonance with it – walking through the yard, spending time in the pod.
“I didn’t have much understanding of what to do other than be a non-anxious presence in a place like that, where you hold space, you listen and you tend to people’s inner life as best as you can.
“So, I’d just do laps with guys back and forth around the oval, talking through what’s going on for them, asking questions and just being present with them. Yeah, I loved it. It was challenging. The environment was quite intimidating, but you get used to it.”
It wasn’t long before Jesse found a sweet spot for connecting with the men.
“I played pool with the guys. I claimed I held the title for a while there – I beat the best pool player in the pod, which was quite an accomplishment. They have a lot of time to play pool!”
A day in the life
SCC has three prisons, and Jesse works between two of them: a men’s minimum-security correctional centre called Dawn de Loas and a maximum-security remand centre called the Metropolitan Remand and Reception Centre (MRRC), where most arrests made in Sydney await their sentences. This means that Jesse only has a short window with the men before they get transferred and will usually see them only a handful of times.
If, like me, you’ve never stepped into a prison before and have trouble imagining what the work of a prison chaplain looks like, Jesse paints a helpful picture.
“You’ll arrive at the main gate, go through the security and put your bag through. You can’t take a phone in. I usually take some books as resources that I talk from. I have a paper diary – a big blue Collins A4 – to keep track of who I’m seeing. Then once I go through to a pod (where the cells are), I’ll hang out with people, introduce myself.
“In other jails, it’s different, and you can work with people long term, but for me, I might only see someone once. In MRRC, it’s crisis moments. In Dawn de Loas, they might be a couple of months on from the crisis point.
“In Dawn de Loas, I run a centring prayer, contemplative, meditation group. I’ll call over the radio at the office that I’m taking a meditation group. I’ll grab a group of guys, take them up to the chapel, get them in a circle and offer a short reflection. It might be on the ego, the façade we put on ourselves, maybe holding grief.
“I’ll guide people into a centring prayer exercise. It’s open to anybody. If they’re non-religious, I frame it around paying attention to their interior life. We do about 20 minutes of silence with about 10 guys. It’s a very different social, psychological, spiritual space. They’re not in a pod worrying about other men or correctional officers. It’s purely a very still space.
“I’ll offer room for reflection at the end of that; allow guys to share how it was for them. I’ll utilise early-church thought about using prayer in response to some of the struggles we face in our mind and the thought cycles our minds go in. In prison, everyone resonates with that experience.
“In minimum security, the men get let out of their cells in the morning at about 7.30am, and lock-in is about 2.30pm. They might be by themselves or with someone else. When they get locked in, their thoughts go rampant – worrying about family and all sorts of stuff. I engage with contemplative prayer targeting awareness of these thought cycles playing out in their mind.”
While Jesse receives mixed responses from a predominately non-religious crowd in these contemplative groups (including some who use the peaceful environment to get a 20-minute nap in), he’s also seen how these moments for reflection can enable powerful inner awareness and transformation.
“When a person arrives at a certain place in themselves, it can be quite powerful. I had one guy come in – didn’t know him at all. I opened for reflection at the end, and he shared how he had been treating other people and what he needed for himself. We got interrupted, and I didn’t see him until a week later after he’d been moved due to getting into a tricky situation in the pod. We got to have a more in-depth conversation. In an hour, I only said about six sentences.”
A hidden life
These moments of awakening behind concrete walls and steel fences make Jesse and his colleagues consider it a deep privilege to be in this kind of ministry.
Prison chaplains are uniquely positioned as neutral figures in a charged, confrontational environment. They aren’t correctional officers, and they aren’t inmates, which means they are about the most trustworthy person an inmate comes across while in prison. When these people need a listening ear more than ever, to be with a non-threatening, non-anxious presence who allows them to think out loud safely is a beautiful gift.
Jesse reflected, “Some of the good-news moments of internal awareness are when they confront ‘How am I actually going? How do I come to a place of accepting what’s going on in my life? What’s the kind of person I want to become?’ Just slowly coming to an awareness that maybe I don’t actually have it all together. And that’s a profound moment.
“As a chaplain, I’m not making that happen. All we can do is hold a safe space for people. Even those who are not religious – to lead them into a place where they confront who they really are. These are transcendent moments.”
For Jesse, these transcendent moments make working in such a highly-strung environment a great thrill and joy – even though most people never hear about these transformations.
One of Jesse’s favourite films, A Hidden Life by Terrence Malick, fuels his understanding of the significance of doing work that most people will never hear about. “The hiddenness of what God does in the world, in people’s lives,” he said. “To witness something that maybe they don’t see, but I glimpse for a moment.
“I’m acutely aware of ego. Throughout my story, I think there’s been a resistance to platform. So much of Christianity these days is platform-based. I’m not surprised I ended up being led to work in a prison in one of the most hidden places of society. I like being hidden for my own spiritual health.”
God is at work in the hidden places of our world – in prisons and in hearts. Hearing Jesse testify to the beauty he finds in these hidden places, I can understand why he counts it such a privilege to go where many never see.
Churches of Christ in NSW & ACT currently hold three corrective services chaplaincy subsidies. Along with Jesse Mawson at Silverwater, Richard Howarth serves at Cessnock Correctional Facility, and Lee Beamish is currently moving from the Mary Wade Correctional Services facility to The Frank Baxter Youth Justice Centre on the Central Coast.
Read more stories from churches of Christ in NSW & ACT HERE