by Sarah Messner

In 2005, Emmanuel Bourjolly (M.Div., 2006) missed the deadline to choose a site for his field education. PTS’s associate director of field education Chester Polk called him and said, “Bourjolly, your time is up: you’re in violation of the rules, so I’m going to send you to prison.”

Bourjolly laughed, assuming Polk was joking.  But the following week, Bourjolly warily approached the metal detectors at the Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility in Bordentown, New Jersey—the site determined by Polk to be the best fit for Bourjolly’s field education placement. Bourjolly met prison chaplain supervisor Sister Rose Hubert at the entrance.

“In Haiti we tremble at the word prison!” said Bourjolly, who was born and raised in Les Cayes, a coastal town north of Port-au-Prince.  “Conditions are horrifying: it feels as though if you go in, you’ll never get out alive.” While perhaps not as sinister as the prisons in Haiti, a sentence at Wagner is severe. To enter the facility, one must pass through a metal detector, be patted down by an officer, leave one’s cell phone, driver’s license, and personal items at the door, and pass through three sets of locked doors. Ceilings are low, and windows are dim, few, and barred.

Guiding him through a monochrome labyrinth of passageways, Sister Rose introduced Bourjolly to the inmates, many of whom belonged to rival gangs—Bloods and Crips, Nietos and Latin Kings. Guards jokingly referred to Wagner as “gladiator school.” If you can survive conditions here, they said, you could work anywhere.  It is not unusual for the prison to go into lockdown mode as a result of rioting or violent attacks. Anything can be made into a weapon with a little creativity—even a plastic water bottle. Such incidents did not inspire confidence in Bourjolly. He found reassurance from the presence of Sister Rose, who mentored Bourjolly through the introductory phase of his placement until he found his footing, quickly gaining the confidence of inmates and staff alike. When he finally said his goodbyes at the end of his term, Bourjolly assumed that was the last he would ever see of the Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility.

When he graduated from PTS in 2006, Bourjolly took a position as a math teacher at Trenton High School.  One day after work, he arrived home to a blinking light on his answering machine with a message from an administrator at Wagner.  He returned the call. “Reverend Bourjolly, you are the best candidate we have for this position.”

“I’m sorry, what position are you speaking of?” Bourjolly asked, perplexed.

“For the position of prison chaplain supervisor: Sister Rose is retiring, and you’re the best replacement candidate we have.  Do you accept the position?” To this day, Bourjolly has no idea who anonymously submitted his name for consideration. He accepted anyway.            

On Bourjolly’s first day, a prison administrator shrugged off Bourjolly’s initial enthusiasm. “I have news for you, Bourjolly: you might have great ideas, but we can’t change the way things operate around here,” he said. Undeterred, Bourjolly went to work. He led weekly chapel services (both Christian and interfaith), as well as regular Bible studies.  Inmates started referring to Bourjolly as “the Phantom” because he would appear throughout the prison at all hours of the day and night.  He made a point of walking the halls, visiting inmates in their cells and in common spaces. Lines formed outside the cell where Bourjolly was meeting with an inmate; many were desperate for an attentive ear to hear their fears and concerns. 

“I practice the ministry of presence,” said Bourjolly. “These young people have lost everything: their families, friends, homes, the opportunity to work and contribute to society. In January 2008 alone there were six suicide attempts, one successful. How can I instill hope in the midst of such desperation?”

The answer, Bourjolly found, comes from the practice of embodying God’s presence to the inmates. Mostly, Bourjolly just listens.  Sometimes he finds that sharing his own story of immigrating to the United States from Haiti can offer encouragement and hope.

“If they are interested, I offer my own pain; I do not hide it,” said Bourjolly, who arrived in the U.S. at thirty-five years old, with no English language background or family connections. Bourjolly points out to those who will listen that if he had allowed despair to get the upper hand, “I would have betrayed myself and my family. I had a wife and two children to feed.  We knew no one and had nothing—I needed to cling to the God of hope, just like Job when he lost everything.”

While most respond to Bourjolly’s stories, at times the stories have little effect. Inmates succumb to despair, an all too common effect of living in the prison system. In such cases, prisoners have grown to feel more safe and cared for in prison than they did back at home. As difficult as life can be at Wagner, inmates still eat three meals a day, exercise, and sleep through the night without fear of violence. They don’t have to fear ending up on the streets. One inmate confided to Bourjolly that he was already anxious about leaving the prison in the year 2014! 

There is a word for such a state of being: institutionalization. This is an ugly word at Wagner, one of the worst insults an inmate can hurl, because it implies that the person has lost his ability to fully function as an autonomous human being. He has become dependent on the prison system, a state that often leads to re-incarceration: according to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 67.5 percent of inmates are rearrested within three years of release. It is the mission of Bourjolly and others like him to fight against such a withdrawal into despair. They do so by calling upon faith in the redemptive power of God, and translating that faith into practical initiatives that equip prisoners for life on the outside.

Not long after he began his work as chaplain, Bourjolly and others helped form the Petey Greene program, a volunteer program through Princeton University’s Pace Center for Civic Engagement. The program incorporates trained university students to tutor and teach inmates, and recruits volunteer professors and graduate students to teach courses.  Bourjolly also helped to tackle an abysmal technology center, which consisted of a single computer he described as one “my great-great-grandmother probably used.” With some persistence, Bourjolly and others managed to convince Princeton University to donate more than twenty computers to Wagner when the university switched operating systems. Computer skills render inmates more employable once their sentence is finished. Bourjolly has observed a growing sense of hope in those who are participating in the educational programs, designed to develop practical skill sets—and occasionally even a degree.

As for Bourjolly, three years of ministering at Wagner “feels like twenty years’ worth of growth” in terms of spiritual understanding and development.  When he encounters the inevitable challenges in ministering to prisoners, Bourjolly draws inspiration from Dietrich Bonheoffer’s experience with the underground seminary. “Bonheoffer left his comfortable life in the U.S. for the dangers of the front. I believe Christ wants us at the front, where the crisis is happening. That’s why I appreciate this calling to prison ministry: it’s a place where the stakes are high!”

Bourjolly says that his classes at PTS “educated biases out of me,” challenging him to venture forth from his previously sheltered Christian paradigm. “PTS helped me to better understand other’s beliefs so I could be receptive to learning from them, without closing myself off.” He cites the role of the Practical Theology Department in helping him to learn about the formation of community and developing a ministry of presence, as well as Professor Ellen Charry, who with her high standards “taught me how to read and write!” He appreciates the many intangibles he learned at PTS that have continued to serve him in ministry, including the cultivation of his spiritual life, the ability to relate to others across societal and cultural boundaries, and a lifelong practice of theological inquiry that follows him all the way to the front.