Fire in the Hole: A Communion Story from Solitary Confinement

This story was used as a communion meditation for worship at United Reformed Church of Clifton, on Sunday, May 3, 2020.

To hear Pastor Mike and Sherry read this story, follow this link:

Picture of an Unknown Gang Member

My real name’s José Israel Garcia. I’ve always gone by Neaners. But in here they call me Huesos, or Bones, cuz I’m so skinny. I’m twenty-nine, in a cell, tatted up in the face and arms, doing nine and a half years for blasting my ex-homeboy.

(quoted by Chris Hoke, Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders.  2015, HarperCollins)

This morning our church celebrated the Lord’s Supper for the first time since the outbreak of Covid-19, two months ago. It wasn’t quite the same since we couldn’t be together in person. In preparation for the service, I was reminded of story about a Mexican gang leader, named Neaners, who was imprisoned at Clallam Bay Correctional Facility on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.  His story is found in a book by Chris Hoke, called Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders (2015, HarperCollins).

In this book, Chris tells how he befriended and became a pastor to many Mexican gang members, including Neaners.  In the chapter entitled “Fire in the Hole,” Chris tells the story of how Neaners, while still in solitary confinement, had a spiritual awakening that transformed him and made him into a pastor to his fellow inmates. Interestingly, Neaners found a way to celebrate a sacramental meal with his fellow inmates even when they were isolated from each other in solitary confinement.  In a time when the church can no longer gather for worship or the Lord’s Supper, perhaps Neaners’ has a lesson to teach us.

I told this story in conjunction with my wife as a meditation for our online communion service. She read the part of Chris Hoke and I read the part of Neaners. All lines are direct quotes from the book with a few minor editorial revisions . All of Neaners’ words are italicized.

Fire in the Hole, by Chris Hoke

When I last visited my friend Neaners in the solitary confinement unit of his maximum-security, he had been changing. He had been a criminal most his life and was now, possibly, becoming a kind of saint.

My real name’s José Israel Garcia. I’ve always gone by Neaners. But in here they call me Huesos, or Bones, cuz I’m so skinny. I’m twenty-nine, in a cell, tatted up in the face and arms, doing nine and a half years for blasting my ex-homeboy.

Because he had been a gang leader on the outside, Neaners was often housed in the Intensive Management Unit, a polite euphemism for what the prisoners call “the hole”—solitary confinement. 

They can put us in the hole for years, it seems, just on hearsay. Allegations from another inmate. I’m serious. Sometimes I get so f***ing lonely, it hurts.

As I walked the corridor alone, that day, I remembered the first time I’d walked down this sterile passage to the solitary confinement wing—with Neaners’s five-year-old daughter Adelita at my side.  Her small presence had taken the chill out of these halls. That was the day she sang “You Are My Sunshine,” the day Neaners began to cry.

Before his daughter’s visit, he hadn’t cried in more than fifteen years, but in the months that followed, Neaners began to really weep.

I feel now that I have let down my guard, and am trying to put down all my hardcore attitude and let go of hurtful emotions, I’m real f***en sensitive. Like a child, bro. A baby who you yell at and who cries. I cry for everything, bro. It’s beautiful.

In the letters he wrote me after that visit he started to sound less alone.  He started to read an old Bible he had picked up from the library cart and there he found a companion in the prophet Jeremiah.

“This Jeremiah is sick. It’s crazy how long he kept faith in jails, in a damn well. He’s a strong vato. I wanna read more of his story because it says in my Bible that they called him ‘the weeping prophet.’ That’s like me now that I’m letting my guard down.

I’ve seen so much, and after all these years I can’t stop crying. It’s kind of like where he says, “Oh that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears.”  Almost every day now, something makes me tear up, for deeper reasons than I understand. I used to stop it. But now I just let it flow. It’s beautiful, bro. It’s just so f***en beautiful to know I’m God’s babyboy.”

“I’ve come a long way.  I still trip when I think that two or three years ago, I wasn’t even giving a f*** about my daughters or who I was playing or manipulating.  It’s weird to say this, but this solitude has really brought me. . . closer to . . . . Jesus.

La neta, man. I’m serious. I can really listen in here.”

Over the past few months, whenever Neaners shut his eyes to listen and pray, he began to have visions of a small farm.  It was a place where teenage boys in gangs, and girls who ran away from home, could finally be together and be safe.  He believed it was a vision from God and that God wanted him to help start this farm once he got out. He called it “Hope for Homies.”

Know what I hunger for, homie?  This might trip you out, but I’m serious. I wanna be a pastor. But I don’t want to wait until I get out.  That’s why I’m getting started here already.

Leaning forward he drew a crude blueprint on his hand showing the layout of the solitary confinement unit.  It looked like a suburban cul-de-sac, his local community of solitary neighbors. 

See, this is Monster’s—I mean Hector’s—house, right here, next to mine. There’s Sicko over here . . . Lil’ Rob here . . . It’s not exactly a farm, or a church, but this is my flock and I’m bringing some of the most unloved and unwanted motherf***ers in the state together. We’re kickin’ it, and we’re even eatin’ together.

I was confused. “How exactly do you do that—you know, with the walls and locked doors and all?” He lowered his voice and said, “We go fishing.” Then he explained to me how you went fishing in solitary confinement.

Inmates make long “lines” out of the material available in their cells: elastic they carefully harvest from the lining of their boxer shorts, threads from their sheets and socks. They cast these lines through the cracks under their cell doors and across the empty space between locked rooms. For hooks they used twisted paper or plastic comb bits tied to the ends. With enough patience and persistence, the lines met and grabbed hold of each other. Then the lines became one and could move in either direction.

“In prison fishing is usually used for passing drugs, or gang politics. Inside the little folded notes, they write the names of people to punish. But I’m usin’ it to break bread together, to share what I got.”

“Break bread?” I said.  Now I was really confused.  What kind of food could be fished between the locked and separate cells?  What could slip through the cracks?

Fireballs! You know, the red candy, Atomic Fireballs.

Well, I crush it up into powder in its little packet, until it’s totally flat, see? Then I patiently fish it to the others in the hole. It takes days to reach each lonely inmate in the unit but I make sure no one is left out. It’s a mission.

You’ve got to understand what that means to a guy in here.  Compared to me they got nothing. I got you to visit me, and all your friends who write to me and pray for me. But these guys got nothing—no one to visit them, no one to write them, no one who cares for them. These homies got no one. Sometimes, late at night, I can hear ’em cryin’ a lil’. So when a fireball slides under his door, it’s not just candy, babyboy. That’s love sliding into his cell. They can see it. Eat it, taste it. You know what I mean?”

You see, love, here in the hole, tastes like sweet fire. My friend Neaners was preparing a kind of communion table I’d never imagined, one that defied even prison walls. And if God can reach out to prisoners in solitary confinement, he can also reach to us in this time of social isolation.

Credits: The entire story consists of direct quotes from the chapter, “Fire in the Hole,” pages 317-348, Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders, by Chris Hoke, 2015, HarperCollins. I highly recommend the book and encourage you to purchase it.

3 thoughts on “Fire in the Hole: A Communion Story from Solitary Confinement

  1. Loved this. I am not telling many people this, (not letting the right hand know etc.) but I have finally (after years of excuses or not finding the “right fit”) started being involved in a prison ministry. This post and the book recommendation could not be more apt for me right now. Thank you. Jane


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