Inspired by Eucharist, prisoner initiated into Catholic faith
March 19th, 2014
By Christina Gray
A San Quentin prisoner sentenced to life for his role in a double murder when he was just 17 was one of four inmates confirmed by Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone Sunday, March 9, at the prison chapel.
In an interview with Catholic San Francisco following the Mass where he and three other men were confirmed and a fifth received first Communion, Kent Wimberly, 52, talked about coming to faith in a prison environment and finding what he’d been looking for where he least expected it – inside the doors of the Catholic Church. His Catholic sponsor, John Grein, 54, a fellow inmate who is also serving a life sentence for murder, joined him for the conversation in the chapel library.
Both men come from Protestant faith communities. Asked what drew them to the Roman Catholic Church, the pair answered in near-unison: “The Eucharist.”
“I always felt there was so much more to Communion than a purely symbolic gesture,” said Wimberly, who was raised in a Bible-reading, churchgoing Protestant home in San Diego.
Grein grew up Catholic and became an ordained Protestant minister in prison. He returned to the Catholic Church 10 years ago.
The Eucharist “doesn’t just represent the body and blood of Christ,” he said. “It is the body and blood of Christ.”
In 2005, 26 years after Wimberly’s conviction for participating in the murder of his best friend’s parents, he said he experienced the assurance of God’s love for the first time while on a Kairos prison ministry retreat at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. He admits that what he had most wanted from the retreat at the time was the attendance certificate that could improve his chance of parole. He got the certificate and more.
A Zen Buddhist at the time, Wimberly was nonetheless open to the possibility of an encounter with God.
He recalled sitting motionless with his eyes closed and asking God to reveal himself if he was “for real.” He said he sensed a tiny dot of light near him grow larger and brighter until, he said, “it filled me up so much I literally thought I was about to die.”
“The way I see it, I received a pinhole vision of heaven,” Wimberly said. “I met Christ that day.”
Given his upbringing, Wimberly said his inclination at that point was to connect with a prison community with a “fundamentalist bent.” He finished Bible college, taught Bible classes and thought he was content until he got an impromptu invitation to meet someone at the prison’s chapel and was talked into attending Mass for the first time.
“It just felt like it was where I was supposed to be,” he said.
He was moved to San Quentin last year and credits prison chaplain Jesuit Father George Williams for allowing him to participate in the community even though he knew he wasn’t Catholic. “I had no intention of getting confirmed,” he said.
After checking out some catechism books at the prison library, Wimberly decided to commit to the path of Catholic initiation.
“I had always identified myself as a Protestant,” he said. He finished the catechism and asked himself, “What exactly am I protesting?” He realized he was a “Protestant practicing Catholicism” and decided the Catholic Church is where he wanted to be. Soon after, Grein became his sponsor.
Wimberly completed the Rite of Catholic Initiation of Adults, along with fellow inmates identified by Father Williams as Charles L., Daniel E. and Fernando L. The four were confirmed May 9.
Wimberly understands that there are many people inside and outside the prison who are skeptical of a jailhouse conversion.
“Sometimes we are ridiculed by staff and fellow inmates who say ‘you had to go to prison to find Jesus,’” he said. “But they have come across too many phonies and cons in their lives.”
Wimberly said an upright Christian walk is the best way to witness his faith inside the prison or on the outside, where he hopes to be soon.
San Quentin spokesman Lt. Sam Robinson said the California Board of Prison Hearings found Wimberly suitable for parole last year but the governor rejected the board’s decision, “citing several concerns he had with inmate Wimberly's history.” The board declared Wimberly suitable again last week and the governor has 150 days to review.
Wimberly said immediately becoming part of a Catholic community and living a life of discipleship will be critical for his new life outside prison.
“You can’t be a Catholic all by yourself,” he said. “That’s why they call it the universal church.”
From March 21, 2014 issue of Catholic San Francisco.