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Theology on Tap addresses religion behind bars

March 31, 2017

Last night, Macauley Lord ’78 and Reverend Jeff McIlwain, volunteer chaplains at Cumberland County Jail in Portland, spoke about their work during this month’s Theology on Tap event at Jack Magee’s Pub and Grill.

Bowdoin Catholic Student Union co-leaders Jack Lucy ’17 and Sam Hoegle ’17; Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Reverend Robert Ives; and Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland Campus Minister Joy Segovia organized the event. Theology on Tap at Bowdoin is modeled after a lecture program with national and global reach that brings spiritual leaders and the public together—usually in bar settings.

Lord and McIlwain discussed their experiences serving inmates, correctional officers and other employees in Maine’s largest jail.

Lord volunteers about twice a week; McIlwain is at the jail almost every day. Estimating they serve a population of almost five hundred, Lord and McIlwain work with inmates who identify as Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Wiccan, Santerían, Odinist and others.

“Portland’s grown quite a bit [with the arrival of] refugees, immigrants,” said McIlwain. “I’ve met people from all over the world in that jail.”

Although the two are Protestants, they seek to help all those they can in navigating their lives in jail.

“We try to meet the spiritual needs of the person, whatever that may be,” said Lord. “We try to start by listening.”

Lord and McIlwain meet people in classrooms within the jail, where inmates have access to a variety of programs in the vast amount time they are suddenly confronted with.

“They were going 5,000 miles an hour selling drugs, selling dope, running, worried about looking over their back, doing this, that and the other, out there on the street, trying to get the next hustle, but now everything comes to a complete stop,” said McIlwain. “Through processing things—it changes somebody’s path.”

Lord and McIlwain find value in their work in helping others transform themselves through faith. On Thursday morning, Lord took communion with sexual predators; at-risk inmates who are segregated from the rest of the jail—in what is called their own “pod”—because it is dangerous for them to be among the general prison population, according to Lord.

“The sense of the holy in that space is beyond anything that I’ve ever experienced in my whole life,” said Lord. “To be in a small room with them and just giving them communion and opening the floor to prayer, you might be sitting there wondering, ‘Why do these guys do this work?’ There’s nothing in the world more beautiful than that. ”
While he often finds the work rewarding, McIlwain admitted that dealing with such a group can also be difficult because of heinous things he encounters in such work. He tries his best to remain professional as he grapples with his impact in people’s lives.

“We like to measure everything; get the statistics and the facts and the figures but there are some things—you just can’t do that,” said McIlwain.

He finds solace and belief that his ministry matters when he runs into people he’s helped outside of the Cumberland County Jail and they tell him about their lives and sometimes their marriages and families and children and jobs.

“I call those God moments,” said McIlwain. “And then God speaks to me and says, ‘Excuse me! Look. You take care what comes in front of you for the day, and I got the rest.’”

Sam Hoegle ’17, co-leader of Bowdoin’s Catholic Student Union, finds the lecture program provides an accessible route to religion.

“[Theology on Tap] is able to reach students and the Bowdoin community in a very accessible and kind of, like, user-friendly way if you will,” said Hoegle. “It’s ways that religion can play a role in your life without it being like, ‘You must read scripture, you must go to church,’ because that’s not all of what religion is.”

Thomas Lucy ’19, a member of the Catholic Student Union’s leadership, finds Theology on Tap events relatable beyond Bowdoin.

“When you leave Bowdoin religion is an ever-present thing—even if you’re not religious yourself. It’s like really interesting to have an insight into how people think and why they do what they do,” said Lucy.

Frank Daggett, Associated Catholic Chaplain at Bates, was also in the audience, said the event meshed well with his own work. Daggett is speaking about the environment at a Theology on Tap event in Portland soon and has also volunteered with the Windham Prison for the past few months.

“I have a great respect for people who do work like that,” said Daggett. “These little shiny, ‘Ya, you’re doing the right thing’—that was really beautiful.”

Bates and Bowdoin’s Catholic student groups are considering collaborating in the future. Bowdoin’s Catholic Student Union will hold another Theology on Tap next month and intends to hold a lentin drive to gather supplies for refugees in Maine.

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