The minister goes where the need is
The Rev. Laura Buchanan Ahart walked past the grave, directly to the dead man’s mother. She wrapped her arms around the crying woman, spoke to her, and held her for a long time. When she let go, the dead man’s father was waiting. Ahart looked at him, bopped him on the head, and then gave him the same kind of hug.
Moments earlier, she had said prayers over the body of their 20-year-old son as he was lowered into the snow-covered ground at Mattapan’s Oaklawn Cemetery.
She knew the man’s father because he had been locked up at Boston’s Nashua Street Jail, where she is a chaplain. She baptized him there. Ahart knew the young man, who had been shot and killed a week earlier while breaking into someone’s house, because he had been imprisoned at Nashua Street in 2012. She knew several of the mourners from the same place.
One of those mourners was on her mind. She noticed him during the service at the church and later found him in his pew. She gave him a hug. She knew him because he was a member of her church in Jamaica Plain.
He had also spent some time in the jail. She was worried about him. He could be going through something right now.
“I don’t want him to die,” she said to a fellow pastor after the service.
This was the sixth funeral Ahart had preached at or prayed at in 2014. It was Jan. 23. It was 19 degrees out at the graveside. She was going to minister
to the men at Nashua Street later that day.
Months before, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, Ahart scanned an empty room at Nashua Street Jail and declared, “This chapel is dirty.” Guards were already walking her parishioners to the service. “It’s too late now, but can we get a detail up in this chapel? Because we have dirt balls in here.”
Her congregants arrived moments later. She greeted each man at the door. They carried worn paperback Bibles. The prison chapel has space for 50 worshippers, and only a few chairs were empty. They started the service with a round of applause that lasted as long as an encore. Then she took hymn suggestions from her congregation, and they sang together. Five men came to the front of the room and offered testimonies of Thanksgiving.
She told them a story about something that had happened to her that week. She was standing in the parking lot of a Stop & Shop when she saw a young man coming toward her.
“I’ve been looking for you,” he said.
She had ministered to him in jail not long before.
“What? Why are you looking for me?”
He had his pants down almost to his knees. Among his peers, he is known as a shooter. She remembered a time she had lit into him for his ways, and wondered if the Lord had decided to take her right there in the parking lot.
“I need some prayer,” said the man.
“Oh, you need prayer?” she said. “Well pull up those pants and I’ll give you some prayer.” He put his hands in hers, and they closed their eyes while she prayed out loud.
The men were silent. She matched their silence. Then she told them they can seek her out any time, even after they are released. She wanted to see them at her church in Jamaica Plain.
When the service was over, the men milled around, shaking hands and talking.
“We’re lucky to have her,” said one man.
Another stood alone, looking out the window, waiting to be escorted to his cell. Cars were coming off the Zakim Bridge, speeding up I-93 North. There was no snow, yet Boston looked cold. The Charles River looked cold. Ahart would be on the road herself in a few minutes, on her way to preach the 11 o’clock service at her church.
Ahart keeps a document that maps her life from her birth in Dorchester, in 1960, up until January 21, 2006. On that day, she awoke at 3 in the morning and said, “God, we really don’t have to do this.”
She was meant to deliver the document, her 13-page ordination paper, to a council of pastors that afternoon.
Ahart’s grandmother, who was actually her maternal step-grandmother, raised Ahart and her two siblings, who are actually cousins. Ahart’s parents worked so many hours that they were not home often. Her grandmother taught her that Jesus would see her through any trial, any joy. By the time Ahart was 12, however, Ahart was the trial, too wild for her aging grandmother. So her grandmother sent her to live at her parents’ house.
Ahart turned away from the church. She became pregnant at 16 and bore a son. Her father died while she was pregnant. Ahart and her mother began raising Ahart’s beloved baby boy. Seven years later, her mother died, and Ahart found herself on her own in a way she had never been before. Her aunt asked her to go to church, but Ahart did not see the use. She fell in love in 1990 and became pregnant with a second son. After his birth, she began to have dreams about God. She tried to ignore the dreams, but they recurred.
In January 1991, at the age of 30, Ahart went to church.
“There was a woman in the choir praising and worshiping God with all heart, caught up in the spirit. It touched my heart, and I said to myself, ‘I want what she has.’ ”
She began attending Morning Star Baptist in Mattapan, where she met Gwendolyn Spence, who became her spiritual mother, guiding her in her burgeoning faith.
“She just went forth,” said Spence. “She was outspoken. She was her own person no matter what. When she was with us, she brightened up the world in the midst of storms.”
At a breakfast event at Morning Star in 1996, Ahart met a woman who ministered to inmates at a nearby prison. She asked the woman if she could come along. She asked out of curiosity, but she had been to prisons before. She used to visit people she knew, just to check on their well being. She never told her friends that she was going. In 1996, she went for the first time as a volunteer for the church.
And she kept going. Ten years passed before that January morning in 2006 when she woke up before dawn to present her ordination paper. She was 45. As she faced the council of two dozen plus bishops and pastors who could grant or deny her ordination that day, the Rev. Spence was in the audience.
“She spoke very well,” Spence said of that day. “She spoke right to the point about everything.”
Ahart won a unanimous vote.
Funerals became a constant. Her first, five days after her ordination, was a graveside service for a man she had known growing up. She preached one or more eulogies a week. Her first homicide funeral was in the winter of 2008.
Tyrone Credle, whom Ahart knew as T.Y., was Boston’s fifth homicide victim in four days. He was the eighth homicide victim that year. It was January 18. T.Y.’s sister asked Ahart to eulogize her brother.
“I was petrified,” Ahart said. “I’m not even going to sugar coat it. I called my pastor, the Rev. Borders, and I said, ‘Sir, it’s my first time doing a homicide.’ I was waiting for this long, maybe 15-minute conversation. He gave me two sentences. He said, ‘Preach Christ. And keep order.’ I was like, ‘That’s it? That’s it?’ That was it.”
Ahart remembers the pallbearers carrying T.Y.’s corpse into her empty sanctuary, and the woman doing T.Y.’s makeup right there on the altar, two hours before anyone arrived.
“For homicide services, they bring the body earlier than they would any other time because they don’t want any problems,” Ahart said.
She recognized the mourners as they walked in to her church. She greeted each one at the door. Her spiritual mothers from Morning Star Baptist were there. Ex-prisoners she knew from Nashua Street were there. By Ahart’s count, members of 14 gang organizations walked in to her church that day.
“As they were coming in, I said, ‘Good morning. Praise the Lord. How are you? I need you, gentlemen and ladies, to do a couple things. Housekeeping rules.’ They said, ‘What’s that, Sister Laura?’ I said, ‘I need you to take off your hats because it’s disrespect. I need you to turn your phones on vibrate or silent. I need you to keep your guns in your pockets.’ And they did. They did.”
Reverend preached from Second Chronicles, 7:14: If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
Three weeks later she was doing her rounds at Nashua Street Jail when she heard a knock from inside one of the cells. She approached. The man inside asked her whether she remembered him from T.Y. Credle’s funeral; he’d been especially reluctant to take off his hat.
“I said, ‘I see you’ve taken it off now, though, huh?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘OK.’ He said, ‘Can I get a Bible?’ and I said, ‘You sure can, baby. You sure can.’ ”
That funeral was the beginning of her breakthrough with the people she most loves to serve.
“God said to me yesterday, He said: ‘You have a gift. You have a remarkable gift.’ I said, ‘I know.’ ”
It was late November, and she had just finished preaching a funeral for an elderly man. She had two more funerals to preach in the coming week. She also had a handwritten letter from an inmate at Nashua Street to be read at a funeral service in a few days. The funeral was for 21-year-old Andrew McGee, shot before Thanksgiving and buried after. The letter writer was Andrew’s cousin. Ahart delivered the letter and then said a prayer over Andrew’s body, on an altar bedecked in poinsettias and Christmas trees.
But the funerals are extras in an already busy schedule. Every Monday and Tuesday, Ahart works the overnight shift at Rosie’s Place, a Boston homeless shelter for women. She sometimes works an evening shift on Rosie’s outreach van, where she talks with people from “all walks of life.” She chairs the Criminal Justice Committee for the Black Ministerial Alliance. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday she works out at Shelburne Community Center’s boot camp class. She hosts Bible study on Wednesday evenings. She preaches two sermons each Sunday: one to the men at Nashua Street and one to her congregation at United Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain.
She works 25 hours a week at the jail, mostly providing one-on-one spiritual counseling to inmates. Every fifth Sunday at 10 p.m. she hosts a radio show called “The Hidden Box” on 1330 AM Boston Praise Radio. The people at Nashua Street and South Bay House of Correction can tune in. On Mondays (“My day to sort of zone out,” she said) she usually gets her hair and nails done, and she personally cleans her church. She occasionally hosts an all-night prayer vigil, officiates a wedding, or prepares a special baptism.
Ahart almost always has a change of clothes in her car so that she can don the right outfit for her next job.
She wears a white-collared clergy shirt when she is preaching funerals. When she is at the jail, she wears what she likes. Shopping is her release. She pairs her clergy shirt with a black blazer and a straight black skirt. She wears black flats with jewels on the toe or black boots that zipper up the back.
Ahart wore her funeral skirt and a gold sweater trimmed with black and white spots up one side at a recent panel discussion at Dorchester’s Grace Church of All Nations. Ahart was one of nine pastors invited to speak on churches’ efforts to reduce recidivism. Attorney General Martha Coakley kicked off the discussion with a few words (“I believe the time has come to spend more money on education than on incarceration.”) Ahart took a seat at the far end of table — the only woman on the panel, the only one in yellow.
Sometimes the parishioners at Nashua Street comment on their pastor’s look. They like her outfits. They wear prison uniforms.
One Sunday she told them: “Don’t count yourselves out because you’re sitting here in gray and gold suits.” Then she pointed to her heart. “Real freedom is in here.”
Ahart shares a shallow desk with the Rev. Timothy Allen, Nashua Street’s other Protestant chaplain. The Catholic chaplain, Deacon Jerry Ryan, keeps the desk to her left. The Muslim chaplain, Imam Ma’alam Abdullah, keeps the desk to her right. The four chaplains compare schedules, challenges, and joys when they have the chance.
“I tell Laura all the time,” says Imam Abdullah, “this is a movie and a book deal. A woman pastor in a men’s facility for 15 years? It’s unheard of.”
The prisoner population grows every year, and Ahart constantly sees familiar faces returning. According to the Massachusetts Department of Correction, 39 percent of the 2,718 inmates released in 2008 returned within three years. Seven percent of those committed no new crime; they went back on technical violations of their parole. Nashua Street is a jail, not a prison. Most of the men there have not yet been sentenced. Yet even those who win their cases often return. All four chaplains are striving to rehabilitate these men. They know former offenders who have transformed their lives. They see those men on the outside.
In her 2006 ordination paper, Ahart wrote:
“God has given me a vision through a dream to open a house for the homeless, ex-offenders. It will also be set up for reentry services for broken lives to get back on their feet in society and in their respective communities.”
She still has that dream.
On a recent Sunday after preaching at the jail, Ahart walked along the sidewalk toward the Nashua Street parking lot. Her hair was curled, her nails were done, and her bracelets jangled a little. She was wearing an ankle-length fur coat she got at the Goodwill in Jamaica Plain for $69.99. She heard a thumping sound — something fainter than the cars or even the wind. She looked up and waved at the men who were knocking on their windows from inside the jail. They waved back.
The service at her own church in Jamaica Plain had already begun, and she was not yet in her car. When she arrived, two orange cones were blocking off a spot right outside the church. Someone had written “Pastor” on each cone.
A guest minister from Morning Star delivered a sermon on surviving transition times in life. Keion Rowell, a man Ahart ministered to while he was in jail, led her congregation in song throughout the service. He has a nice voice. He gets nervous before church, but he comes, he says, because his life depends on it. Ahart is his spiritual mother. The Rev. Allen is his spiritual father.
Rowell picked up the microphone to sing the last song. The organist joined in. Ahart was rapt — eyes open, cheekbones high, clapping the heels of her hands and singing along with him, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”