Preamble to “Missives from the Underground”

By Archpriest John Tomasi

We, at the Joy of All Who Sorrow Orthodox Church in Culver City, CA, are presenting the website Missives from the Underground, the idea of which is taken from a short story by Fyodor Dostoevsky, a literary work that later developed into one of his greatest works, Crime and Punishment. The articles, notes, poems, and letters presented in this website are contributions from prisoners currently serving time in the California State Prison System.

The article entitled “Monastery of the Prodigal Son,” was written by inmate Mikhail Markovic, and encompasses the spirit of how to reach repentance against all odds. The second, also by the same author, tells of the fascinating story of how Charles Manson, a former cellmate of Markovic’s, came to repentance after countless years of avoiding any attempts to bring him to Christ.

In Crime and Punishment, the protagonist Raskolnikov plans out in his mind what he considers the perfect crime. After putting much emotion and energy into developing and carrying out this “perfect” crime, in the end, he is caught, through unexpected circumstances.

Many of the people who find themselves in prison today are desperate, angry, drug addicted, and violent. Once convicted, they face the uneasiness of a life in an institution that knows little mercy. They will be living amongst the most violent predators our society has produced. For many who enter the gates of prison, hopelessness sets in and they feel as if their life is over. As the story unfolds in Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov comes to his senses and repents of his crime, and finally realizes that he is willing at any price to follow Jesus Christ.

Mikhail Markovic, who for over 25 years has resided in Corcoran California State Prison, relates to newly-arriving prisoners: “You now have a chance to start a new life,” and he welcomes them in with open arms, amongst his friends who have come to a sense of repentance themselves and are seeking a new life in Christ.

The prison system in United States of America has more incarcerated individuals per capita than any other prison system in the world. In a land that offers freedom of choices, many of these men and women have gone down a road that takes them to a point of incarceration. For each one, it is a very startling experience to hear the bars clang closed, and despair, fear, and anxiety can easily set in.

The Orthodox inmates at Corcoran Prison are trying to create not only a feeling of safety for others, but also to provide real spiritual care for the new souls they encounter on a daily basis. In prison, all those involved, including inmates, guards, and all the way up to the warden, come to know everything about each prisoner. For new arrivals, this can be a daunting experience.

During the past few years, my wife Deborah and I have taken monthly visits as “religious volunteers” to provide Orthodox services, counseling, and sacraments for inmates. Additionally, I have participated in the Christian 12-Step Program offered at Corcoran. Through these endeavors, Deborah and I have come to know not only the prisoners and their stories, but also some of their families and loved ones whom we have been able to contact directly and establish a tie. Our goal is to offer the hope of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ to each soul we encounter. We join a fair number of paid chaplains in the prison who reach out and address the needs of the inmates and their families. And the inmates are encouraged to pray daily for victims of their crimes as a part of their repentance.

We of Joy of All Who Sorrow parish are striving to put into practice the command of Christ contained in Scripture, as follows:

“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats.  And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left.  Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in;  I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’

“Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink?  When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothed You?  Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’  And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’

“Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels:  for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink;  I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’

“Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’  And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” [Matthew 25:31-46]

Below you will find a slide show presentation that was shown as part of a lecture on “Resurrection and Rehabilitation: Prison Ministry in the 21st Century,” given at St Barbara Women’s Monastery, April 2019. You can use your arrow keys (desktop) or the arrow controls at the bottom in order to advance through the slides (not available on mobile).