San Quentin has many different organizations that minister to the men through religion. The organizations hold banquets every year, each for their specific religious affiliation, to acknowledge the impact they have had.
San Quentin Chaplain Mardi Jackson emceed the annual Christmas banquet, an event for the Protestant affiliated organizations that has been held for decades. This past December, nearly 200 diners broke bread together in the Protestant Chapel, praising each other’s yearly accomplishments.
At that banquet, inmate Chris Scull spoke of his experiences in several of the self-help programs. He has been a part of Victim Offender Education Group, VOEG’s Next Step, and is currently enrolled in the Addiction Recovery Counseling program, training to be a drug counselor.
“I believe that a person cannot conquer the power of addiction until they are able to teach it,” Scull said. “That’s why I want to be a drug counselor.”
Scull arrived at San Quentin in 2008 and is serving a life term with a chance of parole this year.
Chaplain Jackson opened the evening with a blessing, before presenting Certificates of Appreciation to volunteers.
“It is a blessing and an honor. This is truly a family,” said one of the members of Cornerstone Ministries while accepting the certificate.
When volunteer Ilene Gilbert was awarded her certificate, Chaplain Jackson praised her, saying, “This is a woman who labored here for more than 20 years and asked for nothing. A lot of the table coverings before you, she made herself. I have contributed a little, but she’s contributed a lot.”
Referring to the two Death Row ministers in attendance, Chaplain Jackson said, “They come in here when it’s rainy, cold, even when they’re not feeling well. I know the Lord looks down on these men with favor.”
When Linda Jackson and members of the Community Presbyterian Church received their certificates, Linda said, “It seems funny to be leaving church to go to church, but that’s what we’re doing, bringing you with us.”
As members of the local Baptist church in Tiburon received their certificates, their pastor spoke with tears streaming down his face. “It is the highlight of our lives to come here. My God is a rock in a wary land,” he said.
Hillside Covenant, a suburban church in Walnut Creek, donated dozens of irons to San Quentin so that the men can press their clothes and go to church looking neat.
Referring to the wide diversity of race and culture in the chapel, one speaker said, “It is the closest picture of heaven — all the different people and different backgrounds.”
“I feel like I’m coming home,” said Al Featherstone, a facilitator of a self-help group called IMPACT. “They say you cannot change, but every time I come in here and go out, I prove society a liar.”
Christian creative writing teacher Kathleen Jackson took the stage with her students to talk about the group’s anthology, Bind the Testimony.
“Most of them were good men, until bad choices turned their lives out,” Jackson said of the 19 men who wrote personal stories about their conversion to Christianity.
The idea for Bind the Testimony, Jackson said, came from inmate James Metters. One of her close friends helped her get the anthology published.
“This book is about who God is,” Metters said, “God came to take something that man has thrown away and shined it up and made it brand-new.”
Music for the event was provided by inmates David Jassy, vocals and guitar, John Holiday on congas, and Greg Dixon and Albert Flagg on keyboards
“This year, it was more organized,” Dixon said. “People really prepared themselves for live music instead of CDs. I get my blessings from the Lord, Mardi Jackson, and Brother Holloway. I allow myself to be used in any way they see fit. That’s how I get my blessings. It’s about us worshiping together. I had to learn how to do that.”
The meal for the night was prepared by inmate John Parratt and his dedicated crew of inmate workers.