Crumbs from the Banquet Table

Robyn Presdee, 30 March 2023

As COVID started to loom large, more and more restrictions came into place. The South Coast Correctional Centre decided that everyone over a certain age had to work from home. This affected one of the chaplains, Deacon Peter Presdee, who was working inside full-time. His wife, Robyn Presdee, was doing an administrative role for the prison part-time. So together they created an ingenious solution: why not swap?

So Robyn began her full-time prison chaplaincy role, a ministry she continues today. However, it is something she “would have never picked for myself.” Robyn did not have a happy childhood, and grew up outside the Catholic church. She struggled to flourish, to be the best person she could be, but felt dragged down by those around her.

That changed when Robyn met her husband, Peter, and started to attend Mass regularly with him. She admits that she was searching for something to fulfil her in a spiritual sense. Then one midnight, the couple was rostered on to a prayer vigil before the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux. Robyn heard a female voice say “You’ve been coming here for so long now, isn’t it about time that you joined us?” So she started the journey and was confirmed under the name of St Thérèse next Easter. Robyn felt a great connection with the saint; both of them were without much education or professional skills, yet “open to the opportunities presented before me, to do the best I can.” 

Robyn was drawn by the Catholic imagination and tradition, but it was much more than that. Her horizons opened up to a social justice perspective, Jesus’ demands and Catholic Social Teaching. She felt a responsibility to encounter people on the margins, moved by Jesus’ parable about the final judgement. Robyn learned that what we do has eternal implications, and the challenge was to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and visit those in prison.    

She mourns that few people take up this last calling. For Robyn, the prison is a desert place, where people are thirsting for the life of Jesus: compassion, empathy, a listening ear and a patient presence. She sees people who have never had this in their lives, and they “certainly don’t get it in custody”. While staff are paid to keep them safe, healthy and educated, it is chaplains who have the role of walking a mile in their shoes.

And Robyn takes that responsibility seriously. She reflects on Jesus’ words to Peter: “when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” John 21:18. Robyn has felt this in her ministry – it is full of challenges, and there are many reasons to leave or to seek jobs with less pressure. But she also firmly believes that it is God’s ministry, not her own. At first, being married to a Permanent Deacon, she found she was in it “by default”, but soon she “started to make it my own.” And now they both share in the prison ministry in their different ways.

Robyn and Peter have often worked as a team in their many voluntary and professional roles. When he started as a prison chaplain, she learned more about it, and then there was a vacancy that needed to be filled. So she offered to help – it was “a natural thing” to work on things together. Robyn did courses on spirituality, pastoral care and counselling, though she recognises that prison chaplaincy prerequisites are usually higher these days. She admits that she is “not a theologian or scripture scholar”, but has something more important: life experience.

The people she meets in prison are “eucharistic people, blessed and loved by God, but they don’t realise it. No one has talked to them in that way.” Robyn finds that there are so many life tragedies that have brought people inside, that they are “broken in so many ways repeatedly.” As a chaplain, she tries to help people deal with their personal stories, their causes of offending. And she deems it a privilege and a humbling experience for them to come to her for help. In another biblical image, Robyn says, “They are the crumbs that fall from the banquet table that get crushed underfoot.” Some see crushed crumbs, but she sees the banquet. While Robyn suggests that prison ministry can be lonely, it is also “where I go for my mental health.” She appreciates her life a lot more now, and learns from the journeys of others.

One such journey, Robyn reflects, was with a man in prison who was “really yearning” to be baptised. He kept asking and “almost became a baptism pest” until they walked him through the 6-month process. Finally, he was baptised in the little prison chapel. The simple, humble gathering, with about a dozen others from his section, was special. With little fanfare or the frills that would be present in a church, it was all about the man “wanting to be identified as a follower of Christ.” In fact, he felt that it was “absolutely necessary” for the healing of his past life, reconciliation with his family and identity for his future.    

The man was full of tears throughout his baptism. He had been estranged from his mother – who was a Catholic – for 20 years. After the sacrament, they started to talk, and soon after, she visited him. The man saw his baptism as the catalyst for mending and restoring their relationship. He is now on the journey towards Confirmation, and there are at least six others who want to be baptised too. 

Robyn reflects how this makes her feel inadequate, that she has taken her faith for granted. Men who receive their sacraments in prison are so appreciative and feel it is an honour. When they have been denied so much, it is such a grace to receive the gifts that show they are blessed and loved by God. 

Yet these moments of sacramental grace are dependent on ordained ministers who can perform them. Robyn thanks God that she has a deacon for a husband – “the ace up my sleeve” – who was able to come in. Usually, it takes 3-4 months for a religious volunteer or visitor to complete the required accreditation and paperwork, and it is “quite a challenge” for a lay person to find an ordained Catholic minister who has done all of that. Therefore, there are many in this marginal prison community who are missing out. Robyn sees that “that is where the diaconate has a great opportunity to highlight what it is all about – ministry on the margins.”  

Robyn wants to continue her prison ministry “as long as I have the strength and the health.” She keeps herself grounded with prayer and discernment, and values regular supervision. It is a journey of humility, about which she quotes CS Lewis: “it is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” Although Robyn believes that her life skills help, it is the Holy Spirit who gives the ability to minister. Ultimately, she is following what Jesus has demanded in the gospel, reflecting, “I can’t do it by myself, so I have to let go of a lot of things and let God do it.” Thanks, Robyn!

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