Orthodox America

A Prison Ministry in Siberia

In the beginning I was at the prison for private visits; I would give communion to two prisoners at their request. They themselves arranged my visit through the prison authorities. Before me, priests of the Moscow Patriarchate were at the prison and even carried out a mass baptism (by pouring), alas, without preparing the baptized.

When I came the first time for a talk with those who were interested, they expected the same thing from me. A list of "candidates for baptism" - more than thirty persons - had been drawn up; but I offered them to prepare. To those interested, Gospels were distributed. In half a year's time, only three from the list were ready for baptism. According to prison standards, the baptisms were arranged luxuriously. A large bath was brought in; it was covered with a new, white material; freezing water was poured in; a table also was covered with a white cloth. The sponsors were two of my companions, parishioners of the cathedral, and one prisoner with strict religious convictions. Our candidates for baptism were very serious and prayerful as they entered into a new life with Christ.

With the help of the parish of the Theophany Cathedral, we regularly provide prisoners with icons, crosses, candles. Some like very much to pray before a candle when all are sleeping. In the prison it is very difficult to be alone, and prayer requires solitude.

Almost every time I bring with me to the prison a heavy sack with spiritual literature. Many books are given to the prison library, and there is always a demand for more.

The prison authorities do not hinder our meetings; to the contrary, they promote them. At times you get wound up and forget about the time of the next meeting, and suddenly the telephone rings - an officer from the prison is calling: "What's happened, Batiushka, the prisoners are waiting."

They even set aside a permanent room for our meetings. At the cathedral's expense we bought large icons for this room. That is where we are now gathering.

Visits to the prison are often inconvenient for me. Moreoever, to get there I have to take two busses with a transfer, and each time there is a fuss over getting the one-time admission. I go like a forced laborer, and with irritation at that; but this is only until I see the prisoners who have already become dear to me. I become ashamed and want to weep.

Fifteen to twenty persons come regularly. Sometimes someone is not there, someone has landed in lock-up, someone has become ill or embittered or overcome with evil despondency. In prison this is an understandable matter; nevermind, one is patient - they show up again.

First we begin to pray, then most often there is a blessing of icons and crosses which prison craftsmen make. Then I ask them to "take a seat" (there are prisoners who do not like the word "sit" which is consonant to the expression "sit in prison"). I preach on various themes, and then there are questions. If there are no questions, I find some kind of theme, and we talk for about two hours. It happens that there are those who desire to confess, or, during fast periods, I myself propose confession. Then I go off to a small room of the camp artist, while my companions, Peter and Basil, remain in our "chapel." They also talk with the prisoners, but in a more personal manner. Basil is a physician, and there are questions posed to him not only about religious themes, but also related to his profession.

We end the meeting with prayer. It is difficult to leave. If it were not for parish concerns, I probably would become a prison chaplain, so that I might be with them on a regular basis. They suffer a lot when we do not meet for a long time, and when I do come they look as though they can see right into my soul. They have to overcome and endure a great deal. It's easy to say-Stop being crude, see your filth, repent; but just try and do it. Immediately you'll be ridiculed, reproached, humiliated. Many come for confession, but they cannot confess; they sincerely want to repent but cannot because their hearts have become hardened. At least once a week they need to talk and pray with a father-confessor, but this was not possible for me, and now that I have become a bishop over such a large diocese, I do not know how often I will be able to visit my prison parish.

On Pascha 1994, the Theophany parish gave each of the prisoners a red egg. They were distributed after a paschal molieben, which was held on Bright Monday in the prison club room. The prison authorities organized a touching ceremony, allowing us to distribute eggs even to prisoners held under strict security, in solitary confinement, for violation of prison regulations. The guards who accompanied us opened the door of each cramped cell in turn. We sang the paschal hymn, sprinkled the cell and the prisoner with holy water and, after greeting them with a paschal kiss, I gave out the colored eggs. What a tempest of emotions I saw in the eyes of these "desperados."

Will we ever have another such experience?

Of the fifteen hundred inmates in the Ishim prison, the percentage of believers is miniscule. Nevertheless, I visit these living souls, and some of them turn to the faith with such sincerity and childlike directness as to make your heart tremble when you look at them. One, for example, acknowledged that he could have had his sentence shortened substantially, by writing a paper on reprieve, but he did not do this since he considered his punishment to be justified, and as a Christian he could not act against his conscience. Another declined to be transferred from prison to a settlement, because in the settlement there is more corruption than in the prison, more temptations. Several prisoners have already asked me if, on being released, they might arrange to settle near a church, near a priest. How can one refuse?

I ask you, Orthodox readers, as Christ commanded, pray to our Heavenly Father, that He send His laborers into Russia's harvest fields, that there would be fewer orphans thirsting for spiritual nourishment. Are there any pastors out there who would answer this call? I would gladly welcome them into my Siberian diocese.

Bishop Evtikhi
Translated from Pravoslavnaya Rus', No. 17, 1994.