LIFE-RELIG-98YROLD-CHAPLAIN-PRISON-2-TB

Helen Sinclair, a 98-year-old volunteer prison chaplain known as Queen Mother, dances with David Carter, 55, as an inmate choir performs during a church service last month at the Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Ill.

She doesn’t remember the Scriptures or her sermons the way she used to.

And where the former chaplain once strode easily into prisons across Illinois, now a guard guides her through the gates of Stateville Correctional Center in a wheelchair.

But at 98 years old, Helen Sinclair is still as resolute in her mission as she was when she started ministering to men in prison nearly 75 years ago.

The way she sees it, it’s her job to remind men who have been convicted and condemned that they are still loved by God, and that they have a purpose to fulfill, even while locked up.

“I feel like I’m here to serve,” she said during a recent interview at her home on Chicago’s South Side, decorated with artwork made for her by inmates. “How can I quit when people need me? I know I wouldn’t have lived this long if I hadn’t been doing this work.”

And so Sunday after Sunday, despite her aging body and fragile memory, Sinclair journeys to state prisons to lead worship services she has designed to resemble traditional church affairs. She sings, offers prayers, teaches about black history and shouts words of encouragement. She offers hugs and broad smiles. She listens as the inmates testify about how God has helped them find their better selves and a sense of peace.

The inmates call her Queen Mother. It’s a name that’s been embraced by her entire community.

“In her work, she found her name and her passion,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who through his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition provides support staff and other resources so Sinclair can continue her weekly prison visits. “There are some people in prison. Some have done things that are horrendous. Others are victims of their circumstances. They all need parents who will adopt them in a spiritual sense.”

On a recent Sunday, Sinclair and her six-member team gathered in her living room in Bronzeville and said a quick prayer before making the hourlong drive to the prison near Joliet.

Wearing her signature colorful fabric head wrap and a long, colorful kaftan — to resemble African royalty, she says — Sinclair searched the room for her sermon notes.

At Stateville, about three dozen maximum-security inmates were gathered in a drab gray and tan theater building on the prison grounds.

As the men sang gospel songs, Sinclair sat listening, at times nodding her head to affirm them. At one point she slumped her petite body into her chair and wrapped herself in a blanket to keep warm amid the drafts.

But when it came time to deliver the sermon, Sinclair stood from her wheelchair, tossed the blanket back from her shoulders and used her cane to walk to the wooden podium. As the men in the choir sang out, she turned to face them and rolled her shoulders, bopped her head and started to dance and sing along.

“I am so happy to be here,” she called out to the crowd, her voice strong. She told them she wanted to preach about a passage in the Bible’s book of James and how life’s circumstances can shape character.

“How many people got patience?” she asked, then looked among the men for their responses. “Now you do. Before you came here, you didn’t have an ounce of patience.”

She told them she knows many of them are fathers and that they must stay involved in their children’s lives.

“We look at our young people and wonder what’s wrong,” she said. “Well, the old people didn’t make time for them.”

Sinclair has transformed into that spiritual mother for dozens of men, some who count her as their only family, Jackson said.

“She doesn’t collect lawyers’ fees or a salary,” he said. “She does it because she cares.”

A pioneer’s daughter

Sinclair was born in Hot Springs, Ark., in 1920.

When her stepbrother, Eli Watson, was arrested and later died in custody in a prison farm, it lit a fire in her family.

Her mother, Jessie “Ma” Houston, began visiting the local jail every week with her Bible in hand, and she became one of the first and few African-American women to focus on ministering to prisoners. She continued the work after the family moved to Chicago in 1925.

Sinclair would later graduate from DuSable High School, get married and work as a phone order clerk for Montgomery Ward. She started accompanying her mother on her inmate visits in 1945, at first just because Houston needed a ride.

“What I remember is how brave my mother was,” Sinclair said. “When my mama went into the prisons, there weren’t many black preachers. All the prison chaplains were white. My mother insisted on being there.”

Eventually Sinclair became not just her mother’s chauffeur but her partner in spreading the gospel.

“When I started, I was standing in my mother’s fame,” she said. “I became her shadow.”

As life went on, Sinclair would wear many hats. She worked in administrative positions, as a hairdresser, a salon owner and a classroom assistant, and she taught early childhood learning. Eventually she became an ordained minister at Chicago’s St. Paul Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.

In her 60s, she joined the Peace Corps and served in Malawi. A few years later she enrolled at Northeastern Illinois University and obtained her bachelor’s degree.

“I’ve lived so much, I can’t remember everything,” she said.

Through it all, her weekly prison visits continued. She believes it’s where she’s needed most. She’s had a hand in creating programs that have helped prisons become places where inmates can transform their lives, not merely serve time. She realized she could advocate for inmates who were overlooked and often voiceless.

“There is so much that happens in the prisons,” she said. “I don’t just pray, jump up and down and preach. I investigate. I speak up for the brothers who can’t do it for themselves. I make sure they are treated with humanity.”

Eventually she was tapped to work full time as a chaplain for the Illinois Department of Corrections, and she made it her mission to get to know the inmates and their families. She drove hours to visit each institution to conduct her Christian worship services. And she focused on ways to reform prisons so they actually rehabilitate men.

“Rev. Sinclair served on an IDOC committee that was instrumental in selecting the first African-American director of IDOC,” said George Adamson, the chaplain at Stateville prison. “She has held seminars with state legislators to address prison conditions and initiated programs designed to assist ex-offenders with training and job skills as they re-enter the workforce. She has assisted families in the aspects of the what, where and how to go to court.

“She is always looking to help someone,” he said.

Not a ‘high-glitter, high-glamour’ job

While many of Sinclair’s contemporaries like the Rev. Addie Wyatt, DuSable Museum founder Margaret Burroughs and historian Timuel Black went on to become widely recognized, Sinclair labored mainly in the shadows.

“When you are dealing with the prison population, it’s not a high-glitter, high-glamour position that people want to put a spotlight on,” said Devorah Crable, a Chicago-based filmmaker who’s been working on a documentary about Sinclair’s life. “She has been a soldier on the field standing up for inmates’ rights and fighting for the programs that restore their dignity, their self-esteem and their pride.”

The Rev. Curlee Adams, who leads the congregation at Sinclair’s home church, St. Paul CME, said Sinclair sees that prisoners are “forgotten people.”

“She has often said many of us probably have nephews, cousins, brothers who are in prison. They need to know they are loved in spite of the mistakes they have made,” Adams said. “She wants to give them hope.”

Anibal Santiago met Sinclair in the 1980s while he was serving a 70-year sentence at Stateville for a murder he says he didn’t commit. He attended one of her church services and felt emotionally connected in a way he never had before.

“She would call me up to the front,” he said. “I wasn’t too comfortable coming to the front and reading Scriptures in front of everyone, but it made me start reading the word on a daily basis. She would speak to me on a personal level, and I encouraged other prisoners to attend her services. We filled all the seats when she came.”

As Santiago served his time, often being moved to different facilities, he’d see Sinclair on her visits. When he was involuntarily moved to a prison in New Jersey, placing him far away from his support network, Sinclair lobbied to have him transferred back to Illinois, he said.

“She campaigned and wrote letters,” he said. “She’d say, ‘Where is my son?’”

After serving 35 years, Santiago was released. He still calls and sends text messages and cards to Sinclair.

“She’s got a genuine love for God that extends to all people,” he said. “She saw that we were human, even though we were there. She’s my spiritual mother and she’s a strong woman … courageous in a way I can’t put into words. She’s a blessing, a warrior of Christ.”

Howard Morgan left prison in 2015 when he was granted clemency, in part because he was convicted with shaky evidence.

Ten years earlier, the former senior railroad police officer was accused of firing a weapon at four Chicago police officers during an encounter in which he was shot 28 times. After two trials, Morgan was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

He met Sinclair when she visited him as he was healing from gunshot wounds at Oak Forest Hospital in 2005. She prayed with him and for him. She became a close ally to his wife, who said he was innocent, and was fighting to get him released.

Sinclair “worked with my wife constantly. When my wife couldn’t locate me in the prison system, (Sinclair) went to the warden and found out where I was,” Morgan said. “I was a cop and I didn’t get special treatment. They threw me in a hole. Mother Sinclair was a hand to hold. Whenever she came to the prison, she’d have (staff) notify me that we were having church.”

Now he’s someone Sinclair calls on to tell his story at community gatherings.

“She never gives up on you,” Morgan said. “She’s determined to knock away the depression on (inmates). She is well-loved.”

While Sinclair’s contributions may be little known to outsiders, at Stateville the inmates and staff have a special affinity for her. Her image is painted on a hallway wall and the inmates dedicated to her their re-entry clothing closet, which provides suits for men to wear when they leave prison.

On the recent bitter-cold Sunday morning when she visited Stateville, Sinclair told the men it is more important to live like Christ than to talk about him.

“I ain’t got time to tell you about Jesus. I’m busy doing what he did,” she said.

At points during her talk, Sinclair recognized faces in the crowd and called out to them.

“I just saw your brother,” she said to one inmate.

“I don’t come here without asking about you,” she told another.

As she spoke, Sinclair’s words wandered, sometimes randomly, from topic to topic.

She talked about food deserts in black communities. She pontificated about why gangs have so much power. She vented about school buildings not being properly cleaned and discussed advice she gives her grandchildren.

Then, as if she were just remembering, she reminded the men that she was there, in that room, to support them.

“We come in to preach and pray, but we also fight,” she said. “We’re going to be for you — whatever it takes.”

And with that, she broke out in song.

“In the name of Jesus, we have the victory,” she sang.

And the inmates sang with her.

Copyright 2019 Tribune Content Agency.