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Ministering in a Mexican Prison

After a rewarding career in child welfare services, retiree Spencer Thompson (STH’69) finds a second calling

| From Focus Magazine | By Corinne Steinbrenner

“I¹ve told the prisoners that I’ll be here longer than they will, God willing, that they’ll all be released before I’m gone,” says Spencer Thompson, chaplain at Mexico's Oaxaca Central Penitentiary. Photos courtesy of Spencer Thompson

Picture your retirement in Mexico. Warm sun. Cool drinks on the veranda. Visits to the local prison.

That last bit may not fit your idea of a comfy retirement, and it wasn’t part of Spencer Thompson’s (STH’69) original plan either. When Thompson moved to Oaxaca in southern Mexico five years ago, he expected to spend his golden years enjoying the temperate climate and low cost of living. He envisioned building a bed and breakfast to host tourists drawn to Oaxaca’s ancient ruins and colorful festivals. Instead, Thompson has become a chaplain at the tough Oaxaca Central Penitentiary, visiting the prison twice a week to conduct worship services, deliver clothing and food, and provide pastoral care.

It’s not the first time Thompson has found himself on an unintended path. As a student at the School of Theology, Thompson told classmates he was preparing to serve a local church. “That’s what I always meant to do,” he says. Instead, he graduated and accepted an offer to direct a children’s home for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The job led to a nearly 40-year career in child welfare services in Massachusetts and New York—and, indirectly, to his adoption of 11 children (who were later joined by three biological sons).

Now, at the age of 67, Thompson is finally leading a congregation of his own, though not exactly in a local church.

Life Behind Bars

The prison where Thompson presides is, he says, “everything you’d expect a really old Mexican prison to be”—dirty, shabby, constructed of steel and crumbling concrete. Other aspects of the prison, however, catch most foreign visitors by surprise. There’s a strong sense of camaraderie among the inmates, who wear street clothes rather than prison uniforms and are free to move about the prison grounds during the day. With no visitation limits, inmates’ families constantly come and go. Some prisoners even care for their children during the day while their wives are at work. “It does resemble a county fairground, oddly enough,” he says of the prison yard.

Most of the prisoners are men, and Thompson finds them so good-natured and kind that he’s shocked at how many of them are serving time for murder. As he recounts their stories, it’s clear he considers many to be victims of poverty and injustice as much as perpetrators of crime.

Thompson began visiting the prisoners in 2006, accompanying an Anglican bishop he’d met who regularly volunteered her time at the prison. When she returned to the United States, Thompson worried about what would happen to the prisoners who’d come to depend on her. After much thought and prayer, he offered to take over her duties with the help of a translator.

In the years since, Thompson has provided inmates with fresh fruit, toothbrushes, vitamins, library books, and answers to biblical questions. He has baptized several children (conjugal visits are a regular part of prison life) and counseled prisoners in times of grief or despair. “I’ve focused increasingly on pastoral ministry,” he says, “listening to them, hearing what they have to say, giving some advice, talking about their feelings.” Inmates without nearby family are especially grateful for his presence—one man told Thompson he was the only visitor he’d received at the prison in nine years.

Spencer Thompson’s volunteer work at Mexico's Oaxaca Central Penitentiary ranges from providing worship services in a drug rehabilitation unit to performing baptisms for inmates’ children.

Making a Life in Mexico

Work at the penitentiary has given way to other service. Thompson now sits on the board of the local English-language library and recently began volunteering his Saturdays at a shelter for children of prostitutes. The shelter provides food and clothing, he says, but he and other volunteers give equally important personal attention in the form of hugs and piggyback rides. Considering the many years Thompson devoted to child welfare work, it’s not surprising that he’s already thinking of ways to raise funds to expand the shelter, hire additional staff, and offer more services.

Aside from the occasional visit to the United States to see family or a doctor, Thompson expects to spend the rest of his life in Oaxaca. “I’ve told the prisoners that I’ll be here longer than they will, God willing, that they’ll all be released before I’m gone.”

Delivering homilies to prison inmates and raising funds for children’s homes may be unusual ways to spend a retirement, but Thompson says he finds the people around him far more inspiring than a golf game or a nap. “I think retirees need to have more plans than memories,” he says. “There is so much for retired people to do.”

And age, he’s found, has actually increased his commitment to the social gospel. He recently stumbled upon a stack of papers he wrote as an idealistic student at STH and was surprised to see how little his convictions—his commitment to reaching out and being of service to others—had changed over the years. “Most people cringe when they read what they wrote back in college,” he says, “but I’m not ashamed of what I wrote back then. In fact, it’s matured, and I believe it more now than I did then.”

This article originally appeared in the winter 2011 issue of Focus.

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