A Heart on Fire:
Aaron Pierre, SJ
Aaron Pierre, SJ, a Wisconsin native, earned a BA from the University of Notre Dame. After graduating, he spent one year with Rostro de Cristo, a volunteer program in Guayaquil, Ecuador. During this experience of trying to live in solidarity with people in poverty at the margins of society, Aaron first actively considered the religious life. Shortly after meeting the Jesuits in Omaha, Neb., Aaron entered the Jesuit Novitiate in the Twin Cities and professed First Vows in 2014.
The prison guards guide our six-person retreat team down the chilling corridor of a “supermax” prison in Northern California. We’re doing cell-by-cell visits to inmates in solitary confinement. I’m struck by the eerie silence of existence beyond the whitewashed cinderblock. Within these walls nearly 1,800 men wake each morning to go about their day with little sunshine or human contact. Although I’ve visited three cells already, I’m only halfway attentive, still reeling from this harsh reality. The men are on “lockdown” 23 hours a day. They spend their one hour of “recreation” time alone pacing a 25 ft. x 10 ft. corridor. Meals are passed through the cell door. No communication and no visits.
With every move I feel painfully aware of myself, uncomfortably conscious of the differences that seem to separate me from these inmates. I’m a Midwestern white male from a middle-class Catholic family who has been privileged with a quality education, boundless opportunities, and participation in a successful religious order. My life is marked with gratitude, yes, but in this moment, awareness of my privilege steals my attention. Not knowing what to do with my hands, I jam them into the front of the bulletproof vest all visitors are obligated to wear. A safety precaution, I’m told.
We are ushered into the next unit. I approach a cell but the grating on the front makes it difficult to see. As my eyes adjust to the dim light, I’m struck by a strange familiarity. The walls are littered with posters of the Green Bay Packers and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
The man inside approaches me hesitatingly with a look that searches my intentions – visitors are extremely rare in these units. I stumble through a quick introduction, and in my excitement I blurt out: “You’ll never believe this, but I was born and raised in Green Bay and I went to college at Notre Dame!”
He lights up: “Not many cheeseheads out here in Cali!” As he dives into his thoughts on the upcoming Packer season it doesn’t take long to move beyond my limited sports knowledge. I shift the conversation to Notre Dame. One of his uncles attended the university years ago. In two steps he’s standing next to the built-in cinderblock shelf, pointing out several books about the University and the football team. He eagerly shares some details about its history that I had yet to learn. No question, he’s a fan.
The guards interrupt. We only had eight minutes to visit, and they’re up. Before I walk out of this man’s life forever, we pause, looking each other in the eye, briefly allowing the moment to sink in. “Thank you,” he says with a sincere smile, “I needed this.”
I needed that encounter too, maybe more than he.
When I began working in restorative justice in Los Angeles last summer, my mind was full of stereotypical images of inmates I’d seen on the news. These high security prisons are described as housing California’s “worst of the worst” criminals: killers, thieves, and gang leaders. Men entirely defined by their criminal actions.
Unintentionally, yet with great authenticity, this particular inmate offered me a glimpse of his humanity. Though our conversation was brief, our connection reframed my approach to the work that summer. Through this man’s openness, God revealed Godself and loudly communicated to me that I’m not all that different from the people caught up in our criminal justice system. With God’s grace, I strived to be unencumbered by differences and instead to find those inevitable points of human connection that eclipse the imaginary chasms which separate us from one another.
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