How I Became an Adventist

“Oh no, it’s plunger chicken for lunch,” groaned Nick.

“What’s plunger chicken?” I asked.

Nick and I were sitting at a table bolted to the floor in the common room on B Pod waiting for the call to chow.

“You haven’t heard the story?’ Nick asked.

I shook my head.

“Well, when I first got to prison, I got a job working in the chow hall. One day they told us to put a box of frozen chicken parts in hot water to thaw. When we tried to drain the sink, nothing happened. So, one of the guys ran to get a plunger and plunged the drain. Problem solved, they cooked the chicken and served it. And the plunger got returned,” Nick said with a wry smile, “to the bathroom.”

“No,” I said, “tell me it’s not true.”

“Every word’s true,” said Nick. “I wrote a complaint to the Director of Food Services and cc’d it to the prison administration. But as far as I know, nothing happened. Of course, I don’t work in the kitchen anymore.”

After that story, I resolved to become a vegetarian.

To get served a special diet at the New Hampshire State Prison, you had to have a diet sticker on the back of your ID. Those stickers were hard to get. Dan, the prison chaplain, dispensed them like consecrated wafers to the faithful few. Muslims and Jews got “no-pork” stickers. Buddhists and Hindus got “vegetarian” stickers. I knew a few prisoners who converted to Buddhism just to get the sticker.

The prison didn’t like special diets. It’s so much easier to cook the same meal for everyone. The guards looked for any reason to pull a prisoner’s diet sticker. If they caught you buying salami in canteen - say goodbye to that sticker.

Out of thirteen hundred prisoners, only thirty-five were diets. Those thirty-five wore their stickers with pride. They got called first to meals. The intercom announcement “Diets! Diets!” meant chow hall was open.

I arrived at prison a semi-vegetarian. I had stopped eating red meat several years before - for health and conscience reasons. Now I gave up chicken and fish as well. Each meal, I traded my entree to another prisoner for his vegetables or salad. I was a popular guy to sit next to. Before I even found a seat, someone would holler “Hey, Horner, want to trade that hamburger?”

I was also protein starved. I looked longingly at the vegetarian's trays with their garden burgers and imitation chicken nuggets. After about a year, and a ten pound weight loss, I decided to talk to the chaplain.

Dan wasn’t your typical clergyman.  He rode a Harley to work. He wore his hair pulled back in a ponytail. He was nearing retirement and, as best I could tell, had decided to use his remaining time to make the prison as humane as possible.

I explained my predicament. I told him I considered myself a Christian and wasn’t willing to deny the faith for the sake of a vegetarian sticker. What should I do?

Dan rocked back in his chair, rubbed his chin and asked, “Would you have any objection to being a Seventh Day Adventist?”

I reviewed mentally what I knew about Adventists. They were sabbatarians, vegetarians, and abstainers from alcohol, tobacco, and caffeinated beverages. Sure, they had a few quirky doctrinal beliefs, but nothing heretical.

“Well, I do attend the Saturday evening worship service here in the chapel,” I remarked.

“There you go,” said Dan.

He filled in a few lines on a form and handed me a green vegetarian sticker.

“Uh, Dan, just one thing,” I said, as I put the sticker on my ID.

“What’s that?”

“I love coffee.”

The corner of Dan’s mouth turned up in an ever so slight smile. “Well,” he said, “it’s not my job to monitor whether or not you’re an observant follower.”