a sign of the Kingdom

January 19, 2008

Two journalists from the Washington Post dug up the story referenced below, and published it in a book called The Prison Angel. (More on the book later.)

The difference between fairy tales and true stories is that true stories have no natural starting point. You have to impose a beginning on a web of cause and effect that branches out in every direction. We could start, for instance, with an intensive care nurse in San Diego named Robert Cass. He is married with three children. From his house in the suburbs he can see the Pacific Ocean. Robert coaches the surfing club at his son's high school.

None of this is of any interest. When we see the Volvo and the SUV in Robert's driveway we might even feel a little hostile. This is the kind of middle-class American existence, with its banal comforts and its insulation from hardship, that neutralizes many otherwise good people. We can feel envy, we can feel contempt, but we cannot marvel. Not unless we learn something about the larger story of which the nice house on the hill is only a small part.

Robert Cass is relatively happy and healthy, a functioning father and husband. Let us rejoice, because in 1981 Robert was a burnout, fleeing Southern California for Mexico to avoid going to jail for stealing a sailboat. In 1986 he was arrested for trying to move heroin across the border and he was sentenced to eight years and four months in La Mesa, the state penitentiary in Tijuana. On the occasion of a conjugal visit from his Mexican girlfriend, he sired a son; the mother, with their baby, gave up on him a year later. He had access to pot, cocaine and downers, supporting his habits by brokering meetings between Mexican drug smugglers and U.S. buyers. He was a wicked man, surrounded by wickedness, subject to occasional stabbings by fellow convicts and beatings by guards, in a Mexican prison from which foreigners never earned parole. This is the frame of reference which makes his later life look like a startling achievement.

How did he get from one place to another? No doubt there were many factors at work. He himself attributes the greatest force to an intervention named Sister, short for Sister Antonia, born under the name of Mary Clarke.

One morning in 1989 there was a riot in response to a raid by the state judicial police in which they went from cell to cell, confiscating money, jewelry and drugs. Two rioters had already been shot dead by guards when this nun walked through the gate and, holding her arms up over her head, interposed herself amidst the bottles thrown by inmates and shots fired by guards. She said, “Mis hijos, mis hijos. Stop this. You must stop this now.” Oddly enough, everyone did indeed stop. The nun stopped the riot, without being killed herself. Although Sister Antonia had been a fixture at La Mesa since before Robert Cass had arrived (in fact, he had seen her his very first morning in prison), now she had really caught his attention.

A little while after that, he went to her cell (Sister Antonia lived in the prison) to talk. He listened while she tried to help him distinguish between his bad choices and his inmost self. She insisted that an opportunity remained to him to go back to the little boy he had been – whose embittering circumstances had caused him to stumble – and embrace him anew; she insisted that the little boy could still become a worthwhile man. She insisted, in other words, that Robert Cass was not condemned and that salvation was within reach. He was curious enough about her to read the whole Bible. He thought it was “a load of crap,” and his plans to return to smuggling drugs when he got out of prison were unchanged. The seeds Sister Antonia had planted were nonetheless alive.

In 1990, to protest torture by police, sixty inmates started a hunger strike, Robert Cass among them. He ate nothing for at least a month. He developed pneumonia, and then had an excruciating reaction to the antibiotics given him. While he was in the infirmary, Sister Antonia came to visit him every day. She brought him soup. He continued to honor the strike, partly because death looked to him like a pretty fair outcome. He believed at the same time that his troubles were the fault of everybody else and that his life was intrinsically worthless. Only by listening to the nun was he able to consider that, not only was he at fault, but the same capacity to choose that had up to that point been his ruin also gave him a chance to repent.

He started eating again. Three weeks later he left the infirmary and started working with Sister Antonia and supporting her ministry in various ways. By the end of the year he was paroled.

Sister Antonia encouraged him to return to the States to face the music. He did so. He spent six months waiting in a federal jail for his trial to start. (He read the Bible again, and found that it made a lot more sense!) Sister Antonia came to testify on his behalf at his sentencing hearing. He served eighteen months of a twenty-four month sentence (as compared to the maximum of twenty-five years) and was freed just before his thirty-third birthday. In 2000, he went to state court to apply for a “certificate of rehabilitation,” and Sister once again testified on his behalf. I'm not sure, but the account reads as though this certificate made it possible for him to get the nursing job he holds today.

When we consider how he raised money in La Mesa for a new ventilation system in the infirmary, how he volunteered in a prison hospice while serving his sentence in Texas, how he volunteered at a St. Vincent de Paul shelter in San Diego and then managed a 700-bed shelter, and now has a stable and loving household into which he could welcome his eldest son who came from Mexico to live with him… now we can marvel. Whatever Sister gave him (friendship, evangelism and spiritual counsel, material support), it was a blessing that made him a blessing to other people. Let him have his nice house on the hill. Let him have his Volvo.

Let's also give thanks that Sister Antonia, when she was Mary Brenner and had her own nice suburban existence, gave it all up to go and live in a prison in Tijuana. Robert Cass in his nice house is a sign of the Kingdom; Mary Brenner leaving her nice house is equally a sign of the Kingdom. What matters is God's call to unique individuals and their idiosyncratic response.


One Response to “a sign of the Kingdom”

  1. Robert Cass Says:

    Wow. I just came accross this and I am interested in speaking to the person who wrote it. You captured a very interesting aspect of how God works with your description of my house on the hill and Sister giving up her’s.

    Great work. Hope you are well and God Bless.

    Robert Cass

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