A Czar and an Inmate Walk Into Church….by Christopher Warren

As I approach the Orthodox Cathedral on Green Street in San Francisco, I notice the Belltower next to the bright blue dome.

The bell towers, the building, hold a breathing and captivating history. 

I walk up the stairs to enter this place of the kingdom on earth, and knowledge of that history grounds me, humbles me.

The congregation has been in San Francisco for 150 years. That is a long time. And one of those church bells was donated by the second to last Czar of Imperial Russia, Emperor Alexander the 3rd. 

The Bell Tower
Bell Tower and Dome

What were his thoughts?
Did he hope that Eastern Orthodox Christianity would plant new roots in the United States and grow like a mustard tree?
Was he seeking God in thanksgiving for saving him from a train crash? 
Or did he seek guidance to keep an entire nation in peace? 

The problems he faced were significantly greater than the ones I have faced both in prison and now. The gifted church bells ring, and that cloud of witnesses speak.   

But seeking spiritual meaning and significance is one destination where a Czar and a former inmate will meet. Along with the wide mass of humanity confronted with the realities of joy cut with pain, hope dampened by suffering, and life confronted by death.

It reminded me that spiritual journeys are highly individual and embarked on at one’s prerogative. 

Based on my own life choices I am in a poor position to lecture on religion or religiosity. So I choose only to express my journey as I live it. 

I was raised an agnostic who found support, subsistence, and empowerment by relying on God. And that happened in the context of eleven years of straight imprisonment.

It could be said it takes what it takes. I think I put myself in a position where ego and self-reliance are utterly shattered. In that protracted epoch of failure and suffering (experienced mostly by others but caused by me), I sought help, comfort, and (most importantly) truth. I sought liberation from myself. I continue to find the freshness of breath and the tools necessary for victory, community, and overcoming in asking, knocking, and seeking. However, I know there is more that I don’t know than I do. 

As I light the candle and put it in a stand in front of an icon, I walk to the main standing area of the church.

There is a glorious gold chandelier hanging from the ceiling dome, which is masterfully painted with the angels. That chandelier was donated by the last imperial Czar of Russia, Nicholas the 2nd.

What were his thoughts?
Was he praying for his own country as it was going to be gripped by a revolution of atheist communists?
Was he worried for his family’s lives, which were about to be cut short?
Was the gift one of repentance for the errors of the ruling family?

His stress must have been greater than my stress.

Cathedral Street View
Cathedral Street View

His suffering would end up being ultimate, and the voices of generations of peasants and dissidents probably had little mercy for that suffering.

And seeking the truth is like that for me. There is no isolation of time and individual: my pain, your pain, my joy, your joy, our life. Everything is in the context of everything.

This helps me learn to be more empathetic. By relating to another individual – or groups of people – and their perspective and experiences, I can stay in my proper size and stature, more willing to help, less quick to anger or judge. I’m called to help and be present, not to debate theology or judge another person, or group of people. The faith I have been gifted is rooted in the twin demands of humility and loving action.

Coming into congregational life has not been without its awkward moments.

Just last week, I was in line for a community meal. In front of me was a young mom and her children, and behind me was a man asking me questions. Normal, no big deal questions for normal people. But not for me.

So the question comes, “You are new here. Where are you getting in from?”

Now the dilemma….

The strangers, the young mom, and the kids are right there.

My immediate – conscious – concern is the mother’s comfort for the safety of her children. She would have no way to know I was in for “just fraud,” as if that makes it any better. 

So in the moment I answer, “the Midwest.”

Half true. Half omission.

The tough pill I chose to swallow.

A few minutes later when I have the individual I was speaking to in more adult company, I explain further. I could see in his eyes the mental whiplash was hard for him to take. In my mind, someone was possibly going to be uncomfortable: a mom, or him. And I had chosen him.

I was reminded of Abraham’s struggle in describing Sarah…., wife or sister? At least God continues to remind me how little I have figured out. Reminding myself to decrease so that HE may increase is ongoing work.

I cannot say if I will ever feel at home anywhere other than a prison church.

I assume yes, but I know that it will take time. Prison church had grown comfortable. It is more than a place to hide for people who need hiding in prison. It is a place where many men and women genuinely seek resolution to internal battles, and demons come to find healing, where iron sharpens iron in a real and visible way. 

I studied and learned in the prison church. I grew and engaged in spiritual work, academic work, pursuing my own maturity, and building a foundation. I am thankful for that time in the prison church. I felt missing parts being filled in. 

And in my mind and heart, this is what it means to be saved…to be healed, to be made whole.

For me, that did not happen just at one point along a timeline but is a continuous, ongoing process that only has maximum efficiency when I stay humble and connected to that body we call the Church.

I am either going forward or backward.

I am not static. My progress is not gauged by how well I follow the unwritten rules of the modern church but by how much I help others and keep focused on what is important: those two things tasks He gave us – love God and love all humans. So I will keep going and hope that my two left feet fall away as I keep walking forward, God willing.

 

St Patrick’s Altar

Just the past week I had spent time in prayer at St. Patrick’s, a Catholic cathedral on Mission Street in the city. I reflected on how I could best conduct myself in my career reboot.

How can I not only do the least amount of harm but also do the greatest amount of good? I was reminded of the words of Francis to “Evangelize always. When necessary, use words.”  

I hear and read and use buzz terms like ‘creating value for all stakeholders’ in the business ecosystem, but it begs the question: am I? Am I introducing value and benefit for other people and society? Or am I in a zero-sum equation where my gain is another’s loss? In me is the bound energy of eleven years, wanting to go out and produce, to be creative, to earn, to help, to join/build teams, to be engaged, to serve. Staying connected to Christianity helps me be grounded in what purpose that energy ought to be used in. 

As I walk out of the service at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, I reflect on an invitation I received to visit RealitySF, a non-denominational church in the city. I accepted the invitation to visit and look forward to meeting new people and experiencing their method of community. Hopefully, there will not be too many more “tough pills” to report!

And when I walk into their doors of the middle school they meet in; I will bring the Emperor and Czar and the entire prison church with me, my future work, my past failures, my faith in future grace, my two boys, my parents, my foreclosed dreams and open ones.

Everything in the context of Everything.

150 Years
150 Years

Other Stories By Christopher Warren:

The Bagel Cutter

The Gifted Table

Interview of Christopher Warren

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Joe Joe Medcalf

“A Czar and an Inmate,” a Chris Warrenism. Very insightful and thought provoking. Making sense of the world post-prison takes time and at times is exhausting. But for me personally it has given me a very different perspective on life. I see the world through a completely different lens, particularly with respect to the church. I have no appetite for “church as usual.” Yet I am a pastor part-time at a very traditional church. I am still trying to make sense of the dichotomy. Everything has a season and for now this is mine, but it is not the final… Read more »

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[…] was released from prison about four months ago and have documented my journey looking for work and going to church for the first time. And I even got to meet Morgan and Jordan and spend some time together discussing […]