a message from a friend

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I’ve been seeing the prison system close up for the first time in many years and from a new perspective - as a Pastor -  and it’s frustrating!

It has been years since being involved with prison ministry…many, many years in fact.  But a few friends have had their share of legal difficulties this year.  Some, from a life of systematic, institutionalized human warehousing, and others finding themselves where anyone of us could wind up in a quick instance, under the yoke of a legal system that has less to do with wisdom, and more to do with mechanistic process.  I am appalled at what I’ve seen and experienced.  In fact a very dear friend of mine was denied Chapel visits with me – for the last 6 weeks of his incarceration.

 

Imagine a prison denying a “model prisoner” access to his friend and pastor.  Imagine a prison that would not answer its phone – for weeks on end; and once getting through being disconnected, once again without being able to get through for hours of redial, and finally getting through to an answering machine never to have your call returned.  Frustrating!!!

 

Is Jesus found in the walls of a prison?  Yes, but more often than not, he is found in the inmates, rather than those in charge.

The story that I’m about to tell is true. 

For the last three months of my life, I was incarcerated at Berks County Prison. 

 

Prior to going in, I had mentally tried to prepare myself for the incredible emotional and physical strain that I was about to be put under.  As I arrived at the prison and was finally processed in, I found myself in a phenomenally small room of cement, iron and steel.  It was cold, it was loud, it was demeaning, it was prison. 

 

I had spoken to God many nights prior to this moment.  I had asked God for strength, I had asked God for guidance, but more importantly, I had asked God for forgiveness for the things that I had done wrong.  I was told by so many people that we all have made mistakes and we are also all capable of knowing the differences between the things that will bring us good and the things that will put us in a place like prison.  As much as I felt prepared, I truly was not prepared at all for the incredible pain and fear that is prison. 

 

My first six nights I spent with a fellow inmate.  I can only say he belonged there.  He was not repentant in any way.  He blamed everyone else for his situation.  I could plainly see why he was there, and I could also predict that he would be back again and again. I asked myself why any person could allow themselves to fall over and over again into the hands of the people who run a place like this.  The absolute despair and anguish attached is more than enough of an incentive to keep the average person straight and clean.

 

Over the years, I always considered myself to be a good person.  I have worked with children and taught students at all levels, and have achieved much success and rewards for my efforts.  The kids I have worked with have been wonderful to me, and never once believed that I would wind up in a prison cell.  Despite what has happened to me, which was a mistake of my own doing, I never felt like I belonged in such an awful place. 

 

During my three months, I saw some very unbelievable things.  I saw beatings, I saw bones being shattered, I saw lives being shattered, I saw pain, I saw fear, I saw hopelessness and tragedy.  With all this around me, I wondered how any goodness or Godness could exist.  Though I prayed nightly for my sake, I also prayed for the well being of several of the inmates I had encountered.  God spared me one great anguish after another during my stay. 

 

The cellmate I wound up with turned out to be a very wonderful young man who had made one tragic mistake which he was caught for and sent to prison.   He had a beautiful tattoo on his right shoulder depicting Jesus with blood dripping from the crown of thorns.  He told me how he prayed and prayed for help through his ordeal.  I came to understand that, unlike many of the men who definitely belong in prison, this young man should have been given a better fate.  I completely understand the laws of justice and how society, having heard his case, would want him put away.  But I got to know this man.  He is a good man.  I trusted him.  He has a loving nature.  He is fair.  He is smarter than his years.  Why did this happen to him? 

 

He is, to me, a victim of his environment.  I say victim, not because he did not commit a crime, but because he couldn’t see the distinction at that point in his life between those things that are potentially going to have grave consequences.  He was simply a confused kid who needed that one moment to consider what inevitably could happen.  He didn’t consider it.  He did what he did, and unlike most, who don’t get caught, he did get caught. 

 

There were many other men that I came to know during my stay.  Most were dangerous-tempered people who obviously need help, but in most cases, are unwilling to accept help, or to even accept the fact that they are truly wrong and dangerous. 

 

These people I fear have no hope of rising above that low level of judgment. 

 

On the other hand, the men that I felt most attached to have a common denominator.  Their faith in God and their genuine caring for one another was very evident.  Once again, these men, at first glance, wearing their prison uniforms, would be judged immediately as guilty simply by the nature of their surroundings.  Underneath that outward appearance beat the hearts of a goodness that is readily visible and perceivable once you’ve stripped away the coldness that has etched into their skin.  They all know why they’re there, but they also know that their lives could have been different. 

 

God does touch them because they ask for help.  These very men touched me and gave me the help I needed.  That act, in and of itself, was proof to me that God understood my plight.  He gave me the opportunity to meet these men and to share our similarities, our pains, our angers, our hopes and tears. 

 

It has been said many times that every human being should experience prison even if it’s just for one day.  This prison was not about correction, nor was it about rehabilitation, or love, or understanding, or compassion, or hope.  This prison was simply a cage to keep human beings who’ve crossed the line away from others who’ve crossed lines, but have not been caught. 

 

I could have believed how I felt while in there.  I was so afraid and so hopeless, but the words of these strong-spirited men kept me going.  They did not care to know what I did to get there.  They simply saw in me the same thing I saw in them.  There is a goodness.  There is a gentleness between those steel doors.  There is a softness between the cement floors and ceilings, and there is a hope wrapped up in barbed wire that no one could ever understand. 

 

We were all criminals.  We were convicts.  We were society’s garbage.  But, together, we knew differently.  A second chance, perhaps, a new beginning.  A born again.  A dream. 

 

We all cling to that which is so precious, though some of them may never see freedom’s light again.  These are not bad men, but men who have made bad decisions, and there is a vast difference.  God would understand.  God would hold them close to his heart and tell them not to fear, for what they are experiencing will make them new.  I know they believe and I know they pray.  I believed and I prayed, and I cry for them.  They became my brothers.  They were my gift from God.

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Still Waters is a Grace Brethren Church located in Pottstown PA. We are a different and re-imagined way of being Church. Church is not a building, but God's loving people serving his creation.

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