Refuge in Hell: Finding God in Sing Sing by Ronald D. Lemmert.
Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2018.
Nonfiction/memoir, 186 pages.
The story of a chaplain at Sing Sing, New York’s infamous prison, over the 16 years he worked there.
I debated quite a bit over whether to review this one. Our church library has been getting quite a few of these Orbis books with the little red dots. They’re Christian, but cover a lot of social justice topics, which it’s nice to see people getting interested in locally.
Lemmert himself is not diverse within his own context. But the people he works with definitely are, and can be counted among the most disenfranchised in America. So in the end that tipped the scales in favor of reviewing this book, especially since I had several other books on imprisonment to read and review.
Lemmert is an interesting character. He’s a Catholic priest, but spoke out against the abuse when he encountered it. He got into working at Sing Sing because of a nun who came and gave a talk which only one person showed up to hear. She chose to still give her presentation saying that if even one person heard the talk, it was worthwhile to her. Certainly that persistence paid off though Lemmert’s 16 years at Sing Sing!
This book suffered in comparison to Just Mercy, which I read right after. While Just Mercy has a strong overarching narrative, Lemmert’s writing is more choppy. The quality of the writing doesn’t vary, but the transitions and sense of overall story are lacking. He starts by explaining how he got into prison ministry, then goes over some notable characters he met. The goal isn’t clear – truly more of a memoir style which sometimes covers the stories of people he meets in prison, sometimes discusses logistics of prison ministry, and sometimes relays particular events or anecdotes.
That’s not to say that there weren’t interesting or good points, but I found myself approaching this read more as a collection of short stories or essays, reading one daily and not expecting a cohesive whole. Lemmert includes snippets of many different prisoners, but what I found more interesting were the bits, especially at the end, where a few of the guys tell their thoughts on his ministry.
At times Lemmert gets angry and frustrated with the prisoners, other times with the guards and the prison establishment. He generally respected how being incarcerated can have a negative affect on a person. In the end, as often happens in a bureaucracy, his willingness to speak out against injustice and testify against cruel or incompetent employees wore on him. The final chapter of this book is about how he left prison ministry, an abrupt and traumatic fashion which left him bereft.
One thing that I appreciate is Lemmert doesn’t seem to be pushing a particular agenda. He’s outraged over prison conditions, he’s a Christian there to teach about his faith, but he seems to work mostly amiably with other faiths. The views he advances in this book seem to be reasonable ones that a moral person who gets heavily involved in the prison industry would likely reach.
On the other hand, not everyone would have made the same choices Lemmert did. He grew to have what seemed almost like a savior complex, viewing most of the administration as evil or antagonistic, and treating his congregation as a giant family. I definitely believe that every person deserves to feel unconditional love, including incarcerated persons. But should the minister who must balance many opposing forces be the source of that love for all? Challenging moral situations like these would make this an interesting read for a Christian book group to discuss.
Many trigger warnings: suicide, rape, prostitution, drug use, violence, institutional violence and predjudice, incarceration, etc. This is an adult book, although it might work for mature teens with strong interest in the subject.
I don’t think this book would have wide interest. It would likely appeal to Christian readers who already have some background about prison life and social justice. People interested in prison ministry could find this useful, especially the parts that detail various programs and challenges.