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(August 2008)

Redeeming the Time

By James (Seraphim) Blackstock, “St. Seraphim’s Fellowship,” 2771-29 Monument Rd., Unit 161, Jacksonville, Fl 32225 (Seraphim8@Comcast.net).


Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven. Continue in prayer, and watch in the same with thanksgiving. Withal praying also for us, that God would open unto us a door of utterance, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds: That I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak. Walk in wisdom toward them that are without, redeeming the time. Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man. (Col 4:1-6)

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The following is what transpired in one day at the Florida State Penitentiary, by the Grace of God.

It was a very hot day! Around 101 degrees and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The humidity was high and both the priest and I had beads of sweat on our foreheads. As we approached the ominous building, the main entrance gate to the Florida State Prison began to open automatically, apparently controlled by some unseen guard. After going through the first gate we stood in a completely fenced-in area, surrounded by huge thick rolls of razor wire, 12 feet high, facing a second steel gate. The first gate closed behind us. Only when the first gate was completely closed, did the second one open to us. We walked up the steps and entered the double doors only to be confronted by another steel barred gate. This one lead to a counter where two guards worked behind thick bullet-proof glass. Here we identified ourselves and the guards checked a list for our names. Warden Bryant had already made arrangements for us to be permitted entry on this date. We were coming to administer the Sacraments to an inmate incarcerated on the Death Row. Today, he would be received into the Orthodox Church.

We entered our personal codes into the hand biometric imprint machine and then placed our right hand on the plate where a scan was made of our entire hand in order to verify our identities. Then, another barred steel gate opened where we had to empty our pockets and pass through a very sensitive metal detector. Once we were cleared, another series of barred steel gates opened a path down a long corridor that ended at yet another steel gate. This one was next to a control room where many guards behind the thick glass made another check of our entry documents and pressed the buzzer to open the gate to another area that was totally barred in.

There were entry gates going in three different directions; we waited for the gate on the right to slowly open with the now familiar sound of metal on metal. Ahead of us was a long hallway with thick steel doors on either side marked with letters A, B, C etc. We were headed for “Q” wing so we had a long walk. Along the way, guards were stationed at some of the wings and you could see racks along the walls where chains with handcuffs and feet restraints were hanging, waiting for their next use. The inmates are always fettered hand and foot with these chains when they are moved anywhere within the prison.

We finally arrived at “Q” and waited for the guard to turn the lock on the outside of the door. Then we waited for the inside guard to place his key into his side of the lock to allow our entry into the wing.

The “Q” wing is a part of the Death Row. On the upper floors of this wing are those inmates that have shown themselves to be a danger to anyone and everyone and are kept behind solid steel doors with no bars, and only a 12” square of very thick bullet proof glass with small holes drilled through it so that conversation can take place. Few people are allowed to visit these men. The basement of this wing contains only three cells and the Death Chamber.

We were escorted down the stairs where we were confronted by another barred entry and a lone guard sitting behind a desk. He was expecting us, so he let us in to his area where we signed the registry and were permitted through another gate into the Death Watch Cells. We were greeted by Mark, he was expecting us and very glad to see us.

Mark has been on the Death Row for more than 17 years. He was raised a Baptist and his father is an ordained Baptist Minister. He and I have been talking every week for the last 7 months. I have acted as his friend and catechist and have introduced him to the Orthodox Church. I have been able to bring him many books and have sent him a series of letters on repentance that introduce one to the reality of the passions. We would talk every week about some aspect of our faith and we have come to know each other pretty well. In anticipation of our visit here today, I had previously brought Mark documents on the Rite of Chrismation and a book to help him prepare for his confession.

The priest used a table in front of the cell to lay out everything he needed for the administration of this Mysterion. After he lit a candle in front of the icon on the little table, he approached Mark in order to hear his confession and I stepped back and talked with the guard until they were finished.

This prison is a giant concrete and steel box that just bakes in the sun. There is no air conditioning and it is like an oven inside, it is filled with an ominous heat in the summer and an unbearable cold in the winter. We were all sweating profusely as we began the sacrament.

The presence of God was very noticeable. I was surprised that in this terrible place, this man-created hell, all you could feel was God’s presence. The Scriptures began to jump into my mind and heart: Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth. (Lk 15:10). And Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there. If I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea. Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me. (Pss 139:7-11).

I watched the countenance on Mark’s face change. It was shining and he was at peace. When we left, I knew the Angels were rejoicing in heaven and the newly illumined man could face death knowing all of his sins had been forgiven. For the next thirteen days Mark would be prayed for by a great number of priests and monks. Some of these men would write to Mark, welcoming him into the Orthodox Church and exhorting him to be on guard, to be alert and watchful and to pray unceasingly until his execution. Mark’s name was also given to five prison inmates, in another State, who were tonsured monks by Metropolitan Isaiah. These men would write to Mark as well and offer him encouragement and direction. Mark was to be executed in thirteen days, on July 1st.

Shortly after this wonderful day, I received a personal letter from Mark. It was the last letter he ever wrote. He addressed me as Jimmy in the letter. Oddly, no one has ever called me by that name except my family when I was a little boy. Here is the letter:

June 16, 2008

Hey, it’s Jimmy Blackstock! What’s going on my friend? I’m hoping you are doing well. I’m doing okay. I wanted to drop you a few lines and let you know how much I appreciate everything you have done for me. All that time you spent with me over on “Q” Wing. Teaching me and opening my eyes. God does definitely work in mysterious ways. I am very thankful to have met you.

The Chrismation ceremony was a very moving experience. It gave me a real sense of “belonging” on so many different levels. Most importantly that I belong to God. Every time you said “SEALED”, I felt a real sense that my friend was turning me over to God. I don’t know why I was so nervous about Confession. As it turned out there was no need to be. It was a very emotional experience, but uplifting. And when Father said I was absolved of my sins, I could “feel” it. And then Communion. It was all a very awesome experience. And you led me to that glorious experience. And I thank you.

All of my appeals are exhausted, so I want to take this opportunity now to tell you how much I appreciate all that you have done for me my friend. Thank you. And God Bless you.

Mark Schwab

Mark was executed on July the 1st at 6:00 p.m. There were 37 people who witnessed the execution, mostly press. Mark was very quiet (saying the Jesus Prayer) and compliant. When he was placed on the gurney, he just looked up. They had to try twice to find a vein. He had no final words. When the State of Florida began the lethal injection, the sodium pentothal put him to sleep and then they administered the lethal drugs that stopped his heart. His mouth opened slightly and he turned very pale. He was pronounced dead at 6:12PM.

Among the witnesses, was the family of the victim. They showed little emotion and I pray that they will find closure and forgiveness for Mark. I know that this poor family went through a living hell and I can only pray that somehow God will grant them peace and forgiveness in their hearts. The articles that appeared in the papers and the reports on Network News are very matter of fact. They informed people as to the terrible and heinous crime that Mark committed, and it was indeed terrible and heinous; but nothing is ever said about how someone may have come to repentance and new life. Mark was truly a different person than he was seventeen years ago. His life and his eternal future were changed. The World looks down on someone who “finds religion” in prison, especially one who is to be executed. We are told the darkness of the evil he perpetuated but that is only half of the story. You now know the “rest of the story.”

There were many outside the prison who were demonstrating both for and against the Death Penalty. Some were holding up signs to forgive and others where holding up signs that said “Rot in Hell” but it will always be like that! A sick and dying world, filled with passion, blindly heading for their own time of death. Me, I had a song in my heart… Eonia i mnimi, eonia i mnimi, eonia aftou i mnimi! May his memory be eternal!

There are 388 men on Florida’s Death Row. I visit them all and minister directly to more than fifty of them. There are four more inmates awaiting Baptism now. All of these men need your prayers, and I need your prayers. I am the only Orthodox man who visits these Death Row Inmates. Many times it is a challenge and I am faced with many difficult questions by the inmates and even the chaplains of the institution. Most of the men incarcerated here are Southern Protestants who have nothing to do but read and memorize the Bible. I have never met so many experts in religion as I have in the prisons. I have to be prepared to answer questions from men from many different backgrounds; Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Pentecostals and Catholics to name a few. I also encounter Zen Buddhists, Moslems and Pagans. Many times I have no idea what to say to these men, but I keep coming back, every week, and after a while they start to open up to me. I do some serious praying before I enter one of these institutions, because I know that this is the devil’s house and he doesn’t like to lose one of his own.

I am really no different than most of you. You are perhaps the only hope for many in your life to learn about Jesus. Not from your words necessarily, but from your life. What they see in you. We are so rich in Orthodoxy, we have very deep Truth and we have Dogma, but what are we, as individuals, doing about it? We have many challenges in this age of pluralism. We have challenges in unity, in ethnic churches, in ecumenism, but the biggest challenge we face is ourselves. Obviously we are filled with passions and we need virtues. We are filled with opinions with convictions and with polemics born of the flesh. It does no good to be filled with right ideas and convictions and suffer from spiritual constipation. With all my heart, I encourage you to act on your Faith. Reach out to your neighbor, invite them to Liturgy, mow the lawn for them if they are under the weather, give them a book to read, but most of all, pray for them. Let them see the light in you. Many of the people you know will go to hell!

A monk once told me a story of a vision beheld by some elder and I am afraid I cannot remember who it was, but the image, that was born of this story remains in me. The Elder saw the trees in the Fall of the year and said that the leaves that fell from the trees were as the souls of men who were going to hell. There are very few leaves that remain on any trees in the Fall, most fall to the ground. This idea is held up in our Holy Scriptures: Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat. Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. (Mt 7:13-14).

According to the CIA World Fact book, as of July, 2005, there were approximately 6,446,131,400 people on the planet, and the death rate was approximately 8.78 deaths per 1,000 people a year. According to my desktop calculator, that works out to roughly 56,597,034 people leaving us every year. That’s about a 155,000 deaths a day. Most of these people will go to Hell. Does your heart not break for them?

In another place God tells us: Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision: for the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision. (Joel 3:14)

God always answers our prayers for someone’s salvation. If for some reason a person is living a life without God and is not in a position to receive God’s Grace, then God puts those prayers in a Bank. When the time comes that that person’s heart opens, then God draws those prayers out of the Bank and floods that person with Grace. These prayers are always efficacious.

As Orthodox Christians we are to be salt and light. Ask yourself, am I salt and light to my neighbor, friends, boss, family and even strangers?

Then saith he unto his disciples, The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few. Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest. (Mt 9:37-38)

Asking for your prayers, in Christ’s Mercy,

James (Seraphim) Blackstock.

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St. Seraphim’s Prison Fellowship is located in Jacksonville, Fl. We need volunteers to write letters to prisoners and to pray. Please contact us (Seraphim8@Comcast.net) for information and details about how you can help.