Feltham Lenten Project: Blog 1 “The angels looked after him”

In Uncategorized on February 23, 2012 at 11:29 pm

The entrance to HMP Young Offenders Institution, Feltham.

This week I started a new project at HMP Feltham Young Offenders Institution, writes Martin O’Brien.

It’s a different type of project for me and for Ten Ten.  Although we’ve done quite a lot of work in prisons over the past  two years, particularly at Feltham under the watchful eye of prison chaplain Fr Roger, this particular project presents a couple of fundamental differences:

  1. It takes place over six consecutive weeks (as opposed to five consecutive days)
  2. It started on Ash Wednesday and will continue throughout Lent

These two factors provide new opportunities and challenges.

I was meant to be going in with two other actors / facilitators – Ray and Liz – but owing to the drawn out security procedures, their clearance did not come through on time so it was just left to me to lead the session.  To be honest, I felt a bit naked going in there without the backup of a couple of talented actors who could wow the lads with a dramatic scene or two – all I had was a couple of warm-up games and a big idea to share.  More of that in a minute.

Normally at Feltham I work with lads drawn from different faith backgrounds, but for this project I was just working with the Catholic lads.  So Wednesday’s session was shorter than normal because it started with Mass; it was of course Ash Wednesday.

I’m often struck by the respect that lads in prison have for church and the Eucharist.  I never forget three years ago when I went to Feltham and joined a group of half a dozen young offenders sat together and praying the rosary.  On Wednesday, about 50 young offenders were brought to the Catholic chapel for Mass.  There was solemnity, respect, focus and prayer.  Every single one of them went up to get ash on their forehead, despite Fr Roger telling them it was optional.

After Mass, the officers broke the prayerful mood and took most of the lads back to their cells, leaving me with a group of seven.  It should have been more but unexpected court appearances and no shows meant a reduced number.  This atmosphere of uncertainty is pretty normal in a place like Feltham.

Feltham is a remand centre.  That means it holds young men waiting for their court appearances and trials.  When convicted (or released) the lads are quickly shipped off elsewhere.  However, this group that Fr Roger had got together have actually been waiting for their trial for a considerable time – some many months – and long sentences are anticipated for lots of them.

They were nervous: “Do we have to act?”  They always ask that.  It’s quite funny really: they sign up for a drama project and then say that they don’t want to act.  But really, all they need is a bit of encouragement and they’re away…

I explained to the lads my plan for the next six weeks.  It is two-fold.

Firstly, I want to create a new character and story from scratch for a novel that I intend to write.  I explained that the only thing I knew about the story at this stage is that I want to write about a teenager who is in prison, will be in prison for a long time and during his time inside he changes.  One lad asked me does he change for the better or worse?  I said I didn’t know yet.  I explained that, at this stage, I don’t know what he has done, his personality, his background, his friends, his family, his current life in prison, his inner life, his future.  All of these things I want to explore over the next six weeks with the help of the young men through discussion, improvisation and reflection.

However, as I said, the aims are two-fold.

This exploration of character and story is going to follow a pattern.  And that pattern is based on the Sunday readings throughout Lent.  Each week, I will take a piece of Scripture from the Gospel reading, draw out a theme and use that theme to explore the new character and the story.  I have no doubt that the lads will also explore their own character and story through this process.

“The Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan.  He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him.”

That was the piece of Scripture which became our focus on Wednesday.  It’s taken from this Sunday’s Gospel reading.  The theme… temptation.

We started with a few warm-up drama exercises.  Every single one of the participants dived in and had a go with a seriousness and intent.   This, then, led on to some simple improvisations in pairs on the theme of temptation.

At the end of our short session, we sat down in a circle and Fr Roger and I led a reflection.  Having seen their prayerfulness during Mass, I was confident in their capacity to take this on.  They were each given a beautiful image of Jesus and, gazing at the picture in front of them, I led them in a few minutes of self-reflection:

  • When have I been tempted by Satan?
  • When have the angels looked after me?
  • Repeat the prayer over and over: “Jesus, help me in times of temptation.”

I gave them a little card with those questions on.  I invited them to take the card and image of Christ back to their cells and find time to do the reflection every day.

It’s going to be an interesting project.  Certainly for me I’m looking at the Gospel readings in a new way and this exploration is going to challenge me throughout Lent.  I also think that the process of producing a character and story which is ultimately rooted in an exploration of the person of Jesus Christ could be an extraordinary journey.

For the lads, only God knows where this will take them.  Next week I have a three hour session and I’ll be bringing in Liz and Ray with me.  Maybe I can persuade them to starting blogging too…

Blog 1: The Angels Looked After Him

Blog 2: Listen to Him

Blog 3: Anger

Blog 4: Everbody Who Does Wrong Hates the Light

Blog 5: Unless a grain of wheat falls…

Blog 6: Humility

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