The recent heat wave/drought in the state of Texas has been one for the record books. I am told that this is the hottest it has been since 1980. I do not remember that summer as being anything like this, but perhaps the fact that I was in my 20s then has something to do with it. July and August have always been endurance runs in Texas, even for those of us who have lived here always. This summer, any crops were burned-up long ago, and now many trees are dying in this stifling, take your-breath-away heat and humidity. And my recent stay in the hospital reminded me that as hot as it is, the hottest place in the state is a Texas prison. During my hospitalization, there were 4 prisoners in the immediate adjoining rooms--much less the entire hospital--all there due to heat-stroke.
The day after my release, I drove down to the Micheal Unit prison, located in Tennessee Colony, Texas. I have been a volunteer chaplain for over a year now, meeting with the Orthodox offenders and inquirers every 2nd and 4th Thursday. A ROCOR priest drives down from Dallas and meets with them on the 1st and 3rd Wednesdays. This scenario is the ideal. In practice, there may be many things to disrupt the pattern, from unscheduled lock-downs, to the chaplains (through whom we have access to the offenders) simply not being there on our days. At first, I worried about being prepared, and what I would say, etc. This is a foolish and selfish consideration--the offenders are simply glad that anyone from the outside shows up at all.
I have to go through 4 gates/checkpoints before I reach the chaplain's office. She then escorts me through a maze of passageways, and 3 more checkpoints, to the gym, where all religious services are conducted. If we are lucky, we meet in a small corner room. If that chamber is being used for storage, we meet in a corner of the gym, with a few folding chairs and a large fan. As we were walking over to the gym, she told me of the death of Alexander, one of "my guys," as I refer to them. The previous Monday, he had collapsed from the heat and died. This caught me by surprise, as all sudden, unexpected deaths do. The prison buildings are concrete block, with high narrow windows. The offices are air-conditioned, but all the living and working quarters of the offenders are not. There are fans, here and there, but that is not normative. As I was led to understand, Alexander's was one of several heat-related deaths in recent weeks.
Alexander was a quiet and soft-spoken man in his mid 40s. English was not his first language, or even second, for that matter. He was a Georgian, who had spent a number of years in Russia before coming to the U.S. Of course, his remembrances were not tinged with my Georgiophile romanticism. It had been a hard existence there, and his family sought a better life, first in Russia and later in the U.S. I never knew what it was that landed him in prison, it being a question I never ask. Frankly, it does not matter. From my perspective, the only difference between us was that he got caught and I did not.
Alexander was most comfortable in the Russian language. I know that Fr. Seraphim went to great lengths to obtain a Russian-language prayer book for him. As much as it depended upon him, Alexander never missed one of our classes, or the services with the priest on alternate weeks. The last time I met with him, we passed the prayer book around during the prayers and I was surprised at how well he could now read English. He walked along side me as far as he could when I returned to the chaplain's office afterwards. I do not remember now that of which we talked--just the normal small talk of life, I suppose. When I left him at the gate and said goodbye, neither of us had a thought that this would be our last meeting in this life.
I understand that a nephew has been located and he claimed Alexander's body. We had a short panikhida service for him at our mission, and his name is now commemorated in our services. So, for Alexander, I say "Memory Eternal!" Please pray for the servant of God Alexander, and while doing so remember, if you will, the others there at the prison: Ron, William, Antonio, Mariano, James, Demetrius and Silas. Ron and William are set to become catechumens on August 31st.
With the Saints give rest, O Christ,
to the souls of Thy servants,
where there is neither pain, nor sorrow, nor sighing,
but life unending.