There’s a lot to like about a recent Los Angeles Times feature on jail chaplains.
But there also are strong hints of holy ghosts as well as a few eyebrow-raising word choices. I’ll explain what I mean in a moment.
Let’s start, though, with the positive: This is an in-depth piece that offers a helpful primer on the state of jail chaplaincy in Los Angeles and even quotes experts such as Luke Goodrich of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
The specific Times angle is that some religious groups have enough chaplains — all volunteers — while others, including Jewish and Muslim groups, have a shortage.
The narrative-style lede sets the scene:
There are days when Rabbi Avivah Erlick sits in her car outside Men’s Central Jail, too afraid to go in. She’s counseled hundreds of inmates, but sometimes she arrives downtown only to drive back home, not ready to face the sudden lockdowns, the stale air and the stories about violence and loneliness.
When she does go in, Erlick feels overwhelmingly behind. She used to be a part-time jail chaplain supported by a grant from the Jewish Federation, but it wasn’t renewed. Now she volunteers whenever she can. She spends hours updating her list of inmates to visit, which includes dozens more than she has time to see.
The work is too important to stay away.
“I listen — I’m the only person who does,” she said. “I went into chaplaincy because I feel so drawn to help people in crisis.”
Then comes this generalization:
The chaplains in the Los Angeles County jails, some of whom were once behind bars themselves, are united by a simple mission: remind inmates of their humanity. It’s a job they often do in one-on-one visits. They’ll tell jokes, share a prayer, teach a religious text, or simply listen.
I’m torn on that description of the simple mission: “remind inmates of their humanity.” I suspect a number of the chaplains — particularly the evangelical Christian ones — would be more specific and say their goal is to save the inmates’ souls.