Some 900 parishioners and long-time volunteers of San Quentin’s Christian communities gathered on two Saturdays in December to celebrate the return of the annual Christmas banquet.
“This is the first time I’ve seen Kentucky Fried Chicken, coleslaw, mashed potatoes, gravy and a biscuit with honey since 1972,” said Peter Bomnerito, 83, imprisoned since 1972.
Bomnerito faithfully attends chapel despite receiving a recent three-year denial from the Board of Parole. “I feel more accepted when I see our Catholic volunteers,” he said.
SQ’s Jesuit priest, Manuel Chavira, supervised the events for both the Protestant and Catholic chapels.
The event’s cooperative nature reflected a unification of SQ’s Christian community, said Father Manny.
“The energy and just praying with all servers from the Protestant, Pentecostal and Catholic Churches was very humbling and gratifying. I could not have accomplished this event without Pastor David Lal or Steve Piscascio’s assistance,” said the chaplain.
Judy Perella, volunteer at SQ’s Catholic Church for 32 years said, “It’s a wonderful gathering, and I love seeing all t he s miling f aces.” P erella’s husband, Vic, has run the Catholic Chapel’s Spirituality class for 32 years.
Father Manny prayed and blessed the food and requested nourishment for all of the resident’s callings. He then gave grace to the Lord, as did the residents of SQ who congregated for the dinner.
Danny Gomez, in prison for four years, celebrated his first Christmas at San Quentin. “It’s good to have everyone here helping together, inside and out … this is our Christmas and the time to celebrate Christ,” Gomez said.
Luis Figueras, 60, incarcerated since 1998, has been a regular at the Catholic Chapel for years. “It’s God’s gift to me and my family outside and all my family in blue who worship Christ,” Figueras said.
During the second day of the banquet, 30-year volunteers Willis and Linda Rice renewed their vows after 55 years of marriage. Their wedding ceremony included approximately 100 men-in-blue who attended the dinner and witnessed their nuptials. Willis is a veteran pilot who served his country in three wars while his wife Linda is a world-renowned harpist, performing more than a thousand concerts in jails, prisons, and churches.
She currently teaches a humility class at San Quentin on Friday afternoon while her husband assists throughout the Christian community.
“Our relationship is Linda, myself and Jesus ― that third person in our relationship is what has sustained us,” Willis said.
Decked out in an elegant morning suit with bow tie, Willis spoke about the cancer diagnosis he received 15 years ago. Doctors thought his cancer was incurable, but the cancer has slowed dramatically. “We are blessed to be here with all of you!” proclaimed Willis after the wedding ceremony.
Resident Ruben Girom, 70, said, “Our incarcerated family and the volunteers unite to remind us we are not forgotten in the family of Christ.”
Michael Callahan, 40, took part in his first SQ Christmas. “We’re blessed to have the opportunities we have here — this feast, Toys for Tots, Christmas caroling. San Quentin makes you feel like you’re normal again instead of being labeled as a prisoner,” he said.
“[The dinner] gives us a chance to mingle with fellow believers. It’s a good feeling to be treated to an annual Christmas banquet by fellow Christians,” said incarcerated resident Pedro Espinal.
A presentation of certificates by incarcerated residents for the volunteers showed their gratitude for their continued service to the church.
Father Manny said generous donations were made by both the Catholic and Protestant congregations to cover the costs of the Christmas banquet.