Camel's Hair and Locusts

The Pearl of Great Price

In the days when I was Catholic Chaplain at the Saginaw County Jail, I knew an inmate named Quincy Jones.  This wasn't Quincy Jones the famous music producer, but Quincy Jones the gang-banger from the notorious East Side Gang.  I knew his brother Alex also, and this Alex Jones is not to be confused with the caustic alternative talk show host of this same name.  In fact, Alex's full name is Alexander Jennifer Jones III.  I swear to you, I am not making this up.  Both Joneses were affiliated with the East Side Gang, and both cycled in and out of the jail due to various offenses, most of which had to do with the illegal drug trade.  I actually knew Alex a little better than I did Quincy, but I knew both well enough to know that they spent their time in jail vowing that they were going to go straight, and each time they would get the chance to do so, the lack of opportunity in the economically ravaged ruins of the community of Saginaw, Michigan would lead them back to the old familiar family business of dealing drugs.

When I became Catholic Chaplain in 2008, it marked the first time in the 31 years since I graduated from college that I actually worked professionally in Christian ministry.  This was my original career goal, and when I did finally get the chance to pursue it, I discovered that I was pretty good at it.  This was gratifying to my ego to say the least, and it fed into one of my great personality flaws, which is that of believing that if I am good at one particular thing, then I can do anything else I choose to do with the same high expectation of achievement and success.  This has the tendency to lead me into situations in which I take on more responsibility than I can easily handle.  As a younger man, I could compensate for this by just knuckling down and working harder, and being known as a "workaholic" was something I actually took a perverse pride in: it served to fuel my inflated ego all the more.  I would soon discover that in my mid 50's my stamina and enthusiasm for this sort of thing was much diminished and this would lead to tragedy.

A couple of blocks from the Saginaw County Jail was a failing nonprofit called Partnership Center.  The partnership was between the Catholic and Lutheran Churches, and the purpose of the operation was to assist the many who found themselves stranded in the dire economic straits of poverty ridden Saginaw.  Limited cash assistance was provided so as to help with such crises as energy or water shutoffs.  On the opposite side of the building from where the office was that dealt with this, there was a thrift store that offered various used items, ranging from clothing to major appliances, for sale for very reasonable prices.  The challenges were many, the resources few, and the demand for services far exceeded the supply of funds to provide them.  Due to the stress inherent in all of this, Partnership Center tended to chew up and spit out directors, and when this happened in October of 2009, I saw the potential, not only to serve the general community as a whole, but specifically those coming home from jail and prison, and I did a sales pitch to the board of directors that would have made P.T. Barnum proud.  And I soon found myself sitting in the director's chair.

Egging me on in all of this was a little man named Michael Geoghegan, who had done 35 years in prison for bank robbery.  When Mr. Geoghegan was released from prison on parole, he showed up on the doorstep of the Diocese of Saginaw.  He was referred to my Jail Ministry office, and we set about the rather daunting task of helping him rebuild his life from scratch after three and a half decades in state and federal prisons.  Due to some very caring people who were drawn together into an ad hoc committee for the purpose of addressing his needs, Michael Geoghegan was successful, and he was determined that he would turn this success into an organization that would do the same for others.  We asked the committee that had come together to help him if they would continue to serve in an advisory capacity, which they did, and we named the fledgling organization that resulted "FAITH," an acronym for "Faith Alliance Initiative for Transitional Healing."  Michael Geoghegan was certain that Partnership Center was the perfect platform from which to launch FAITH into meaningful reality, and so encouraged me toward the directorship in no uncertain terms, and with all of the manipulative skills acquired during his long career of incarceration.

The stressful reality of Partnership Center quickly became apparent, and, mind you, this was added to the hardly stress free circumstances involved in being a chaplain in one of the most challenging county jails in the United States.  The crew I worked with there was comprised of seasoned corrections professionals who were extremely skilled in what they did, but the jail was perpetually overcrowded and underfunded, its physical plant woefully dated and inadequate, and the ability of the chaplains to provide meaningful programming and counseling was severely limited, as was the staff's potential to do meaningful rehabilitation.  We all struggled on as best we could in relation to the circumstances, and actually managed to do some good, but it was never easy.  I came to realize I had a tiger by the tail trying to do both jobs at once, and I quickly proceeded to a point where I was doing both of them rather poorly.  My thought originally was to break in a replacement chaplain at the jail, but it soon seemed easier to do this at Partnership Center, and I suggested having my title changed to interim director so this could be pursued.  In the meantime, I soldiered on in both positions.

After a particularly grueling week at Partnership Center; a week in which I was in constant conflict with the patrons seeking assistance, the staff, the volunteers coming in on work release, and particularly Michael Geoghegan for not pushing his FAITH agenda hard and fast enough to suit him, I found myself entering the jail on Sunday to perform my usual weekly routine both mentally and physically exhausted. 

The first thing the sergeant who was shift commander that day hit me with was an 18 year old young man whose mother had died suddenly.  I made arrangements with the tower to have him pulled from his cell and put in a conference room so I could break the news to him before my volunteers came in to do the women's and first of two men's church services.  One of the officers on duty that day was a big guy named Tex.  And I mean big like 6 foot 7 or 8, and 350 pounds or better.  Tex was as gruff as he was big.  He usually just grunted his commands to the inmates he moved around, and they all knew him as no one to trifle with.  I did too, for that matter.  One of the jail rules was that officers never physically touched inmates in the normal process of escorting them from point a to point b, and everybody knew Tex as a "by the book" kind of guy.   Knowing the circumstances of the young man I was going to talk to, Tex reached a big hand out to the kid's shoulder and gave it an affectionate and understanding squeeze as he put him in the little conference room with me.  This spontaneous act of compassion from such an unexpected source choked me up, and also alerted the young man further to what he already knew: the chaplain on a busy Sunday never pulls you out to give you good news.  After an emotional half hour, I was able to have this distraught boy escorted down to the intake desk, and Sarge was gracious enough to give him unlimited phone time to talk to his family.

I ushered my volunteers in, coordinated having the inmates for the women's and first men's services pulled and placed in classrooms with them, and went up to check with the tower to make sure they knew I had a second service, and that the same officer who escorted the inmates from the first service out would need to escort the new batch in, while I coordinated a change of volunteers for the second service.  Usually, the volunteers stayed for both services, but this was a day of complications and I knew the officers weren't going to like it any more than I did.  They didn't, but complied.  I was told that Bob Jankoviak, an inmate I knew from Partnership Center, was insisting on seeing me, and this was just the icing on the cake I needed.  Jankoviak on a good day was a pain in the butt, and this wasn't a good day. 

Tri-Cap was an alternative to incarceration program in Saginaw that provided work release opportunities to jail inmates the judges selected for the program, and to parolees from the Michigan Department of Corrections who were assigned there for transitional housing.  Bob Jankoviak was one of these parolees, and had been sent to Partnership Center as a volunteer laborer.  I had requested two guys that I knew from the jail, and was told that I could have both if I took Jankoviak as part of the bargain.  He was a rapist who looked like a character from a horror movie, and no one else would have him.  I agreed and laid the law down that he had to work under staff supervision at all times, and couldn't leave his assigned first floor work area. When one of the women employees complained that he had confronted her alone on the second floor, I had Tri-Cap come and pick him up.  Further investigation found that he had downloaded porn onto a laptop computer, and for this he got his parole violated.  He was in the jail awaiting a ride back to prison, and he blamed me for getting him busted.

The gist of my conversation with Bob Jankoviak was essentially that since I had gotten him violated, I in turn owed him a laundry list of favors.  He wanted me to go to some location and pick up a bicycle and backpack that he claimed he owned, and he wanted me to store this stuff at Partnership Center until this "misunderstanding" with the Michigan Department of Corrections was straightened out.  Five years later, he remains incarcerated at the Newberry Correctional Facility in the great frozen north of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, so my point that this wasn't going to happen should have been well taken.  Our conversation turned rather animated as I repeatedly refused to comply with his increasingly unrealistic demands.

Bob Jankoviak was being housed on the 5 East Rock (row of cells) at the Saginaw County Jail, which was reserved for juvenile offenders, and which we referred to without affection as "Kid Rock."  The idea was that judges would assign youthful offenders here to teach them a lesson for misbehaving in juvenile detention, but the reality was a "Lord of the Flies" atmosphere that was loud and unpleasant in an environment that was largely loud and unpleasant.  When cells were open on this rock, older offenders were placed in them, and, at this time, Jankoviak was in number one and Quincy Jones was in number two.

I felt for Quincy being housed between the obnoxious Jankoviak in one and the even more obnoxious 15 and 16 year olds who occupied the rest of the rock.  Understandably enough, he looked miserable, and when I was finally able to get Bob to shut up long enough, I looked over at him and asked, "You all right, Quince?" 

"Yeah, Chap, I'm okay.  Just a little down I guess."

I wasn't surprised to hear this.  Shortly before Quincy had been arrested yet again, his mother had been found dead, presumably after freezing to death in a swing at a local elementary school playground in Saginaw.  It turned out she had committed suicide.  One of the officers told me that the toxicology report done at her autopsy showed something like 17 different controlled substances in her system at the time of her death.  She had gotten into an argument with Alex and Quincy's dad, and ended it all by ingesting enough pills to prove fatal several times over.  Alex was in jail when this happened and learned about it watching the news on TV.  He was understandably freaked out about it.  The Protestant Chaplain, Sue Jones (no relation), and I had both spent a considerable amount of time with him, and this is why I knew him better than I did Quincy.  At Alex's request, I had called his dad and had talked to him about all of this, and let's just say that this conversation revealed how dysfunctional the Jones family really was.  It certainly didn't come as a surprise.

I looked at Quincy Jones and told him, "There isn't anything I can do today, but when I come in tomorrow, I'll pull you out and we can talk somewhere where it's quiet."

"That'd be good.  I'd like that," he said. 

As I was walking away, I could hear Jankoviak loudly complaining that he wanted me to pull him out and talk to him in a conference room too. 

I couldn't wait to get my second service over with and get the volunteers out.  I climbed into the '99 Mazda Miata we owned back then and hit the gears hard all the way back home to Alma.

Partnership Center was closed on Mondays, and I usually went to the office in the morning to catch up on paper work and prepare and plan my week at the jail.  In the afternoons, I would go to the jail and do some individual counseling, like I planned to do with Quincy.  On this particular Monday, Michael Geoghegan was waiting for me when I arrived and proceeded to let me have it for not promoting FAITH in the aggressive manner he thought we should be pursuing.  We were actually using some acquired funding to provide much needed assistance to individuals as they were coming through Partnership Center after their release from the jail or from prison, but Michael was concerned that we were doing so without sufficient fanfare and publicity.  "We have got to get that FAITH name out there!" he insisted.  I suggested a more low key approach that didn't have him assuming the role of well-heeled spokesman for the organization, complete with a FAITH purchased new suit or two, and sans the laptop computer he wanted.  We went round and round about all of this until he grew frustrated with me and left, and, after finally getting some work from the week before caught up, I decided to call it a day without going into the jail, and without seeing Quincy Jones as I'd promised.

The next day I put in my usual morning hours at Partnership Center, and, as soon as I could in the early afternoon, I went over to the jail with the intention of pulling Quincy and talking to him.  The mood inside the jail was unusually somber and I could sense something was wrong.  One of the officers gave me a curt greeting and hurried off down a hallway.  Chaplain Sue came out of her office, grabbed me by the arm and pulled me in. 

"What's going on?" I asked.

"One of the inmates tried to commit suicide!" she told me excitedly.  "Orders from upstairs are that nobody is to say a word about it.  He's in the hospital, but the rumor is he's in bad shape and isn't going to make it." 

"Oh my God!" I exclaimed, "Who is it?"

"Quincy Jones!"

My head spun and it felt like the floor rose up underneath me. 

It seems that Quincy this last time around really had tried to straighten his life out.  The death of his mother and the circumstances around it strengthened his resolve, and he was in a relationship with a young woman who was adamant that she would marry him only if he truly did make a break with the East Side Gang and lead a crime free life.  He tried and he did all right for a while.  But then there was a favor called in, he muled a delivery of cocaine, and he took the fall in the bust that ensued.  He was looking at a felony conviction as a habitual offender, a long, long time in prison, and his girlfriend, true to her word, had dumped him.  And so, that Tuesday morning, he had tied his sheet around his neck...

It was Tex who walked by on his rounds and found Quincy hanging there.  He pulled him out of his cell and started CPR while calling for help.  According to protocol, the jail's CPR instructor arrived and took over from Tex, and soon the ambulance arrived and the paramedics took over from him, and away they went to the hospital.  Somehow in this process they got Quincy's heart beating again.  My theory has always been that it was likely Tex who accomplished this through sheer strength and force of will, but that's speculation on my part.  Quincy was put on life support, and it was soon determined that his brain activity was nil.  The decision was made to pull the plug, and the official word came back to the jail that he was dead.  I saw Tex in a hallway with tears streaming down his cheeks and didn't have to be told what the news was.  Quincy Jones was 31.

Once again, Michael Geoghegan was waiting for me when I got back to Partnership Center, and he picked up on the same theme he had been harping on the day before.  He suddenly noticed that I had just slumped into my chair and was still clutching my briefcase. 

"What's the matter with you?" he asked.

"We had an inmate commit suicide."  I said wearily.

"Ah, so what?" Michael replied. "Guys in prison off themselves all the time!"

At this point, the wind left my sails and the ship of my deflated ego now stood becalmed in the sea of my own incompetence and failure.  I was done, and I think I knew it at that moment.  I would shortly resign both positions and retreat to a life in Alma that entailed no direct pastoral responsibilities.  In the course of long and prayerful night time walks, I sorted out my life and decided to continue, and expand upon, the correspondence ministry I had started with some of the men I knew from the jail who subsequently had gone off to prison.  After six months I found a part time job with the City of Alma as a custodian.  I made good money for the work involved, and found myself working with, and for, very nice and decent people, and this proved to be very good for me if not downright therapeutic.  I worked half days answering letters and solving various problems for inmates as best I could, and was able to direct some parolees to meaningful assistance through my old connections in Saginaw.

After Quincy's death, I had received some counseling from my boss and friend at Catholic Family Service, Tom Conklin.  Until recently, I had never told him the full story of breaking my promise to Quincy, and when I did this recently, it felt pretty good to finally get it off of my chest.  I told the entire tale to my pastor and spiritual director, the late Father Will Prosepero, SJ.  We began this discussion during the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the form of one of his famous "take a tissue" confessionals, and beyond this he was kind enough to counsel me further in weekly sessions that helped me come to terms with what had happened, and which cemented my decision to leave my jobs as Catholic Chaplain and Partnership Center Director.  Over the past five years, life has gone on like this, and I conveniently put the incident with Quincy behind me and went about my business as described above.

During the past year, events began to happen that slowly, and imperceptibly at first, would push our life in a new direction.  In the spring our youngest daughter, Martha, graduated from high school.  At about this same time, my wife, Jean, and I began participating in regular Eucharistic Adoration.  And anyone who has followed what I have been writing in this space every month since is aware that this is something that has been life changing and transformational.

The more recent events I am about to describe will illustrate just how much this is so.

Martha left for college in the fall, and Jean and I suddenly found ourselves alone in the house and realizing that the absence of children in our lives wasn't all we had cracked it up to be.  In October, we learned that Jean was about to inherit some money from an unexpected source, and we would be able to pay off some long term debt and gain a level of flexibility in our lives that we haven't enjoyed in many years.  Christmas came and went, and the long and brutal winter that settled in got us thinking about our intention to go back to Florida once the kids were gone.  This time was suddenly upon us, along with the resources necessary to actually do it.  We were unhurried in this, and thought that if we were down south in time to avoid another long, cold Michigan winter, that would be plenty soon enough.  It was more of a daydream to combat the winter doldrums than anything else. 

We entertained ourselves by looking at housing opportunities online in and around the Safety Harbor area where my mother and sister live, and by checking out potential employment opportunities there just to see what might be available.  In doing this, I came across an ad for "cottage parents" with the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches.  This is a position in which a couple works together in providing a loving and nurturing home environment for kids removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect, and when I bookmarked the link, and later showed it to Jean, her response was, "This sounds like what we ought to be doing!"  There was a line in the ad that said simply, "We need you." I told Jean that I thought maybe that worked both ways.  She agreed, and we decided that we would apply for the position.  After scrambling to update resumes and pull together the required references and associated materials, we mailed our packet in on a Thursday and got a call back the following Monday.  And the following Tuesday, we were interviewing for the position at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch in in Live Oak, Florida.           

Understandably enough, my time with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament lately has been concentrated upon discerning the will of the Father in all of this.  I began to realize some things in retrospect that had never consciously occurred to me before, such as the fact that my job as a janitor with the City of Alma was actually something of a self-imposed penance for leaving the Jail Ministry and Partnership Center.  And then, suddenly, I realized that it was for the way that I had failed Quincy Jones.  I hadn't thought of this in a long time, and I had conveniently forgotten about my short conversation and promise to him on that Sunday afternoon five years before.  The Lord put it upon my heart in no uncertain terms that this was a self-inflicted wound upon my soul that needed to be reopened, cleansed and dealt with if it was to heal properly, and that this proper healing was necessary if I was to move forward and be a cottage parent for the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches.  And so, I have dealt with this in the confessional, in a long conversation over lunch with Tom Conklin, and in sharing this story with other key people in my life.  I told this story in our interview at Live Oak.  I am sharing it here with you, dear readers, in full view of the public today.  And this feels good.

In Matthew 13:45-46, Jesus describes His kingdom in this metaphor: "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it."

Perhaps that pearl of great price can be many different things to as many different people.  For me, I have discovered that it is an unexpected second chance to make a living doing work in Christian service to others, and especially to children.  Perhaps the best way to save those like Quincy Jones, his brother Alex, and the many young men (and women) who have had their lives so tragically ruined by drugs, and the dead end life of the street gangs, is to put these lives on another path that leads in another direction, and do this when they are kids -- to change their future rather than attempt the more challenging task of helping them overcome their past. That's what I want to do.  That's what Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches does.  That is why in them I have found my pearl of great price.

When one finds that pearl of great price, one sells all that he has and buys it.  For me, that means ending my ego involvement in things and seeking my own self-aggrandizement, which in the past led me to tragically turn my attention away from someone who needed me  --  someone God put in my path.  Never again must I do this.  And so I have quit updating the Radio New Jerusalem web site and it will cease to exist altogether by October.  I have closed the antique radio rebuilding hobby business that bears my name.  I have ended my correspondence based prison ministry, which had come to largely outgrow its usefulness.  And, finally, I end this column with this story and my best wishes and sincere and heartfelt prayers for you, my loyal and gentle readers.  May each of you find your own pearl of great price as God so intends.     

Somewhere over the rainbow, and in a time and place that only God knows, I believe that Quincy Jones knows that I seek his forgiveness.  Somehow, I believe that I have it.  And somehow I think he knows that I want to go to Florida and help boys like he once was avoid the life that cut his short.  And, once again, I can hear his last words to me: 

"That'd be good.  I'd like that."

And this time, by the grace of God, I'm going to show up.

Phil Ropp

Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.