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Monday, September 14, 2015

The First Time I Went to Jail

"I was in prison and you came to visit me" (Matthew 25:36, NIV).

So the truth is, the first decade I spent in ministry was really very (physically) safe.  Safe churches.  Safe neighborhoods.  Safe people.  And then we moved to this little town in Indiana, which, by all reasonable definitions of small town, Midwest, U.S.A., should have been among the safest of them all.  Early on a handful of people referred to this place as "Little Chicago," and I laughed, because we had been in towns like this before.  Generally speaking, these are the places where 16 year old gang member wannabes hang out and pretend that they are a part of a gang while smoking the cigarettes they stole from their parents.  We're talking hard core here.  Feel the sarcasm.

My amusement was short lived.  I can't remember if it was the realization that actual drug deals were taking place right under my nose, or the fourteen year old girl who came to me after she was raped by a friend of her brother and her mom refused to press charges, or the shooting at the bowling alley, or one of the nights that I found myself on the telephone with emergency dispatch... again... but it didn't take long to realize I had landed in a different world, and I had a choice to make.  I could be terrified or I could love these people.

I would like to say that my motives in choosing to love were purely selfless, that I chose love because it was the right thing to do, that I chose love because it's what Jesus would do.  I'm sure that entered into it, but honestly, it didn't take me long to figure out that everyone dangerous in my new life was preying on people who were weak and fearful.  I chose love, because, at least in part, it seemed like the safest way to go, and I was right.

But it's one thing to love when people are on your own turf, where you make the rules and have some sense of authority.  It is a completely different game when you're taking a walk through town and are suddenly informed that one of these people, whom you've poured a lot of time and energy into, is in jail... and could you maybe visit him?

Oh.  That was a new one.

I showed up at the jail and had no idea, whatsoever, what to do.  As it turns out, you have to have some sort of relationship with the inmate, which you declare, and there is no category for "pastor's wife".  If the inmate has already had his or her quota of "friends" during visiting hours, you might try "pastor," even if you aren't one (It wouldn't be a lie now, but I admit, it was then)...  This title will get you admitted, and they might not even ask for credentials of any kind if you are lucky (which I was) or pregnant (which I was) or just seem a little crazy (which, undoubtedly, I did). 

I'm not exactly a germophobe, but nothing could have prepared me for the next twenty minutes of talking through a dirty piece of  glass, utilizing a sticky phone.  Note to self - always carry hand sanitizer (The fact that I didn't have any proves that I am being completely honest about not being a germophobe, although I admit that I don't love germs). 

I know a lot of people feel that our jails and prisons are too humane and that the people who end up there do not deserve the treatment that they receive, that they should not have access to education, decent food, medical care, etc., while people who have never done a single thing to merit incarceration struggle to attain these things.  I guess, in theory, I understand where they are coming from (although I do not agree with them).  However, I just have to say that in this first, limited glimpse of inmate life; I found it to be rather humiliating, both for the inmate and for the visitor.  This guy was my friend, but I really cannot imagine what it is for a spouse, or parent, or child to communicate for months or years on end through the sticky phone... through the dirty glass... without privacy or dignity.  And yet this goes on, day after day after day.  And some prisoners are not fortunate enough to have anyone in their lives who is willing to visit at all.

So, I started thinking about Jesus and how he says that visiting those who are in prison is just like visiting him.  That doesn't even make sense if we think of prisoners as undeserving and less than human.  An argument can be made for the other people in this group that Jesus cites that they have come to be in these circumstances by no fault of their own.  But prisoners?  Can Jesus possibly be serious?  Do we really have to get our hands dirty like that?

I would say yes.


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