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The Priest & The Prisoner

I was ordained to the Roman Catholic priesthood on June 16, 1950 in St Mary’s Cathedral, San Francisco for the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Shortly afterwards I was appointed as an Assistant Pastor at St Mary’s Church in downtown Oakland, California, a poor Mexican-Black neighborhood which characterized a community also of social security pensioners living in one-room transient hotels, as well as a lively group of skid row alcoholics. Among my many responsibilities were weekly visits to the Oakland City Jail, the Alameda County Jail, and the county Juvenile Hall. Although born and raised in this city I had never set foot in this part of town nor had I ever seen the insides of a jail. So my first visit was filled with fear and trembling. It was here that I started my education on crime, criminals, and contrition.

One of my first encounters with ex-cons was with the one who pleaded for money to visit his mother in Los Angeles. Besides getting a Greyhound bus ticket from me, he also stole my golf clubs out of the back of my station wagon, tried to pawn them, was arrested, and jailed. When I reported the theft to the Robbery Detail of the police department, it was suggested that I come in and identify a recent set of clubs. Sure enough they were mine. So as I exited the Oakland City Hall, dressed in black suit and roman collar at lunch time, hordes of departing city employees smiled and said “18 holes today, Father?”

Years later as a Pastor in Santa Rosa, I had another interesting experience. Seated on the toilet seat I heard the musical refrains of “Las Mananitas,” the traditional Mexican morning song sung on one’s birthday. I opened the window to see a group of my Mexican friends singing below. We celebrated with pan dulce, coffee, and Presidente, a Mexican brandy. Among the group were two Chicano former State prison inmates who had just been released and who were pretty well “snockered.” As the group left through my garage the duo lifted a gallon jug of homemade wine that had turned into vinegar. Years later at a barbeque in San Jose, a well tattooed Chicano male approached me saying, “Hey man! I seen you somewhere! You ever been in the Joint?” (Read San Quentin State Prison). When I mentioned “Santa Rosa,” immediately he recognized me and exclaimed “Yeah! You’re the priest whose wine we stole and got sick as dogs!” So as a result of my experiences I guess I always have had a soft spot in my heart for jails and their inmates.

One of my favorite organizations that I support is the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. SPCL publishes a magazine of their activities. One of the issues featured an article “A Jew In Prison,” written by David Arenberg, an inmate in a Western State penitentiary. He described his total exclusion on the part of other prisoners because he was Jewish. He was forced to eat alone in the dining room, and was even physically beaten with metal objects wrapped in sweatsocks. My compassion reached out to his loneliness and exclusion. I wrote To SPLC asking about a possible pen pal relationship with him. The answer was “yes,” so Jerry Cox, former Roman Catholic Priest, and David Arenberg, Jewish prison inmate doing 13 years for forgery, started a four-year correspondence that has continued to today.

A strange venue for Catholic-Jewish relationships? We initially shared our political philosophies and experiences: my social action activities with the Civil Rights Movement, my close friendship with Cesar Chavez and the UFW, as well as my continued activity with Chicano communities in Northern California. David’s confirmation as a Socialist was a gift from his father.

Born with a twin brother in Chicago, and after graduating from high school at age 15, David received his BA in Psychology at the University of Chicago. He acquired community organizing skills and became an organizer. He later moved to New York City where he became very successful in developing low cost housing units as well as conducting some successful rent strikes. One of his staff members was Alan Ginsberg. Eventually the “Devil made me do it” phase takes place in his life, as he mastered the art of forgery, scamming banks and insurance companies, and living a life of cash, cocaine, and cars (read BMWs). The Justice System caught up with him and gifted him with a 12 year prison term.

David’s response to the Justice System was very creative. He studied it, digested it, and turned it around for his own benefit, as well as his brother inmates. He has conducted federal and state trial and appellate litigation, and has drafted pleadings and motions that have led to negotiated settlements for other prisoners. This new role turned racial hatred and exclusiveness into inmate admiration. He referred to himself as a “jailhouse lawyer,” and hoped that his legal expertise might eventually lead to meaningful employment upon his release.

David experienced weeks and days of severe depression as he evaluated his past and looked at his future as a 58-year-old ex-con. My letters to him sang of “hope” (Out of the mud grows the lotus), as I tried to bolster his self confidence that he could make it on the outside. I also sent him various books, helped draft a resume, wrote to prison officials on his behalf, and contacted several legal firms and organizations.

David’s exposure to prison racial hatred became an opportunity for him to evaluate himself as a Jewish person. An 80 year old prison volunteer Rabbi introduced him to Zen meditation, but his PST robbed him of concentration and stillness. He described his demons as little “file clerks who opened the cobblestone drawers of his memory, and threw them in his face.” The discovery of a personal Jewish spirituality led him to request a copy of the Jewish Study Bible, a commentary on the Torah, which he used in a prisoner study group. He was convinced that he would remain “clean” upon his release by remaining faithful to the Hebrew concept of “t’schovah,” a returning to the mark from which one has strayed. “I am convinced,” he wrote, “that I won’t return to a life of immediate gratification at the expense of my soul.”

Some years ago I rescued a woman from drowning in the Mexican ocean off of Acapulco. She had swum out to a raft 50 yards from shore and was worried about making it back. I suggested that she swim alongside of me, but after a few strokes she cried out that she couldn’t make it. So I placed her on my hip, and one stroked her back to shore. This was my image of our relationship. “I want you to know,” he once wrote, “that I really value this correspondence with you. I was spiritually starved, and although I am not a religious man, I have started saying the Shema daily.”

David exited his fraternity house on November 8, 2013, found an apartment, and employment with a tenants rights organization, while he looks around for other possibilities. We have continued our contacts and hopefully plan a face to face reunion in the future. My association with David has not only won me a friend but also a teacher who has taught me what it’s really like on the other side of the bars.

“L'chaim! To Life!”


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