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Lt. Sam Robinson/San Quentin State Prison

Jesuit Father George Williams is pictured with San Quentin State Prison in the background.

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New San Quentin chaplain sees Jesus in inmates
June 8th, 2011
By Lida Wasowicz

Where others see murderers, rapists and gangsters, Jesuit Father George Williams, the new Catholic chaplain of San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, beholds Jesus.

He sees Christ in the Hell’s Angel shouting a greeting, “Hey, from one angel to another, how’s it going?” He sees Christ in the shackled inmate seeking freedom from sin through baptism, in the convict with devil’s horns tattooed on his shaved head asking to be confirmed.

And he sees Christ in the lifers who are studying theology. These inmates, on occasion, stump him with their insightful questions and surprise him with their knowledge of church teaching, which, he admits, at times surpasses his own.

“God jumps out at you when you least expect it,” said Father Williams, who served 15 years in prison ministries in Massachusetts before being appointed to his “dream job” by San Francisco Archbishop George California’s oldest penitentiary in January.

Walking to death row for the first time, he looked up through the razor wire to the rafters and spotted a dozen red-winged blackbirds.
“They sang all day long, a reminder that even in all this oppression and darkness, God is here,” Father Williams said.

That’s the message he spreads at the 159-year-old facility that houses nearly 6,000 prisoners, including some 750 on the nation’s largest death row. About a quarter of them are Catholic, and they keep him busy.

He’s in charge of a full sacramental calendar: three baptisms at Easter; confirmations; confessions, which are significant for their healing and forgiving; the Eucharist; and anointing of the sick. Not included are weddings and ordinations, although Father Williams says he knows inmates who would make wonderful priests and points out that St. Paul “had blood on his hands” and that prisons have a built-in monastic structure.

He makes cell calls, entering when invited as he walks the prison blocks. He says three death row Masses weekly and hopes to increase the frequency so the 50 high-security felons who usually go can do so more than once a month. At most, five are allowed to congregate at a time, so only 15 can attend a week.

Coming from a state without a death penalty, Father Williams was taken aback by San Quentin’s harsh conditions and security measures that make him the only priest in his community to wear a bulletproof vest to work. He was pleasantly surprised by the plethora of programs, beautiful Catholic chapel and hordes of volunteers who bring “a humanness here I didn’t expect.”

Passionate about his work, the priest will be encouraging students to get involved in prison ministry when he starts teaching at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, his current home.

“You see the Gospel in a totally different light in prison,” Father Williams said. “The early Christians were no strangers to prison and execution, including Jesus.”

He wants to have the same impact as the Jesuit brothers who changed his life.

Inspired by a parish priest in New Haven, Conn., Father Williams felt God’s calling as a child but was turned off to his faith when his family forbade any questioning of it as he grew older.

He sought answers in other religions — at Syracuse University in New York where he majored in political science and planned a career in the diplomatic corps, and in the Air Force, which he joined as a second lieutenant.

He started seeing the light on a mission to Alaska.

“I remember very clearly being on top of a mountain with 30 men 200 miles from anywhere,” he said, “wondering, ‘What am I doing here?’ and asking, ‘God, what do you want me to do?’”

He got the answer through an Air Force chaplain, who introduced him to a group of Jesuits working in remote Alaskan villages.

“I discovered you can be Catholic and think and have an open mind and a sense of humor,” Father Williams said. “These real missionaries on the edge got me interested in the Society of Jesus.”

In 1987, at age 30, he entered the Jesuit novitiate. As part of a prayer exercise, he was to picture himself in Gospel stories. He could easily visualize the stories but never the face of Jesus. His superior advised him to ask Jesus the reason. He did.

“I heard a voice saying, ‘I’ll show you my face in the people you will work with,’” Father Williams recalled. “The first day at the Massachusetts state prison at Norfolk, I encountered God, vividly seeing Christ in the prisoners — an image that has been with me ever since.”

The inmates urged Brother Williams to become Father Williams. He was ordained in 2004 by Cardinal Sean O’Malley in Boston.
As a Jesuit priest, his mission is to go where the need is greatest, Father Williams said.

“Nowhere is there a greater need than in the prison system that holds more than 2 million mostly poor and often disenfranchised people,” he said. “I feel a call to respond to that need.”

From the June 10, 2011, issue of Catholic San Francisco.


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