© 2010 David's Harp and Pen
DISCLAIMERS: This blog is based, in part, upon actual events and people. Certain actions and characters have been dramatized and fictionalized, but are inspired by true events and real people. Certain other characters, events, and names used herein are entirely fictitious. Any similarity of those fictional characters or events to the name, attributes, or background of any real person, living or dead, or to any actual events is coincidental and unintentional. Therefore, I don’t want to hear any complaining from anyone from the New Jersey Department of Corrections. I promise to stay on my side of the Mason-Dixon line if you stay on yours.
*All Scripture quotations are and forevermore shall be from The Amplified Bible
I have a friend named Jerry from middle school currently serving a life sentence in the New Jersey State Prison. I won’t go into detail about his crime, but let’s just say no one gets a life sentence for jaywalking. Even though I had not seen or talked to Jerry since we were 16, I felt a nudge from God to get back in touch with him a few years ago. We’ve written back and forth pretty consistently, so when I had to go to New Jersey last month, I decided to pay Jerry a visit. It was going to be the first time I’d seen him in 20 years, and I honestly had no idea what to expect.
It’s difficult for me to describe what I felt when I laid eyes on the prison for the first time. Located in Trenton, New Jersey, smack dab in the middle of a residential district, the prison looked as scary as every penitentiary in every prison movie and television show I’d ever seen. The outside walls were towering and impenetrable, and I could feel the sharpness of the barbed wire coiled on top of each wall as if I’d cut myself on it. The building itself filled my entire line of sight, regardless of the angle from which I looked. When I walked into the building, I felt terror I’d not felt in a long time, not even when I had gun at my head a few years back (anyone who wants to hear that story, let me know).
The lobby and waiting area of the prison were just as intimidating as the exterior. Steel, cinder block, brick, and red paint darkened all of my thoughts. As I sat down to wait for my name to be called, I observed the prison employees and the other visitors waiting to see their incarcerated friends and loved ones. The two prevailing attitudes of those around me were sad and disgruntled. I wondered if any of the other visitors were as scared as I was. Amidst the nervousness I couldn’t shake, my eyes kept getting drawn to the mile-high red brick walls that led all the way up to the huge skylights on the ceiling. After looking around for a while, the first thought that popped into my head was, “There’s no beauty here! There’s nothing here that speaks of hope or testifies to anything warm, inspiring, or joyful.”
I ended up having to wait almost 90 minutes before my name was called. The unquantifiable anxiety I felt grew with each successive minute I waited. I was nervous about seeing Jerry in person after so long and afraid I would say the wrong thing to him. A voice I’m sure was Satan kept saying maintaining a relationship with someone who had done what Jerry was convicted of was only asking for trouble. Each time I heard that voice, the Holy Spirit would remind me of Matthew 25:34-40. “Then the King will say to those at His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father [you favored of God and appointed to eternal salvation], inherit (receive as your own) the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you brought Me together with yourselves and welcomed and entertained and lodged Me, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you visited Me with help and ministering care, I was in prison and you came to see Me.’ Then the just and upright will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and gave You food, or thirsty and gave You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger and welcomed and entertained You, or naked and clothed You? And when did we see You sick or in prison and came to visit You?’ And the King will reply to them, ‘Truly I tell you, in so far as you did it for one of the least [in the estimation of men] of these My brethren, you did it for Me.’” [emphasis added] So, I kept pushing the intimidation down in my mind and prayed that God would orchestrate my conversation with Jerry.
As I waited to see Jerry, my thoughts drifted, as they often do, to film. One of my favorite movies of all time is The Shawshank Redemption. A huge departure from author Stephen King’s usual subject matter, the main character in the film, Andy DuFresne, is sent to Shawshank Prison for life. The beauty of Andy’s story is that, through all sorts of adversity, he never loses hope for a better tomorrow, and unlike his fellow inmates, he never takes on the mindset of a prisoner. He never sees himself as confined. Even though the viewer doesn’t find out until near the end of the film whether Andy really committed the crime for which he’s been incarcerated, it’s almost impossible to not like Andy or want to see him succeed. Part way through the film, Red, Andy’s best friend, says in reference to life prison sentences, “They send you here for life, and that's exactly what they take. The part that counts, anyway.”
At that moment, things started to click in my head, and I realized why I felt so afraid. Prisons like New Jersey State are like giant breeding grounds of despair and monumental graveyards for broken dreams. Our ability to recognize beauty in the world is directly tied to our need for hope. Beauty tells us that there is a Hand behind it and points us to something bigger than our present circumstances and more wonderful than anything our five physical senses can wrap themselves around. I couldn’t see beauty in that place because I couldn’t see hope, and hopeless was precisely the mood in which I’d arrived.
People in prison suffer from terrible feelings of isolation, guilt, and regret. They often feel they’ll never be able to escape their bad decisions, that there’s nothing to look forward to. I had felt that a lot over the last year, and even though I knew God was working in my life, it seemed like everything was getting worse and a myriad of difficulties were hitting me at once. The uneasiness and despondency I felt in that waiting room arose from the fact that the giant fortress of a penitentiary was a massive physical representation of everything I was feeling emotionally.
After the first hour passed in the waiting room, I looked to the woman next to me to ask if she’d been to the prison to visit before and if the long wait was normal. Her name was Janet. She had such a lovely smile and glow to her. We began a conversation and she told me a little of her story. Her son had been in the prison for quite some time and wouldn’t be eligible for parole for another decade. A few months ago, her grandson was murdered in a drive-by shooting. Three months ago, she found out she had stage four breast cancer. Talk about everything hitting all at once! Her faith was so strong, though. She still held on to the faith that God is good even in the midst of cataclysmic personal loss. We talked for a while about the Presence of God in the midst of suffering. When I told her I lived in Tennessee, she asked me what brought me to New Jersey. I was almost afraid to talk, because compared to her, my worries seemed so small, and so often over this past year, when I would try to open up about some of the things I faced, I would be cut off and told I didn’t have it that bad compared to others in the world. Something I discovered that day, though, is the people who really do have the right to say, “You don’t have it so bad” don’t. As I told her a little bit about the difficulties I was facing then, her response to me was pure compassion and unconditional understanding. She offered to pray for me in the days ahead, and I offered to do the same for her family and her.
When the guards finally called my name, I found myself disappointed that my conversation with Janet had to end. I then had to wait in line to go through the metal detector and get frisked before I was taken back to the visiting room. While I waited, I turned back to look at Janet. There they were! Beauty and hope sitting right in front of me, in the form of woman who believed beyond all evidence to the contrary that she would see the goodness of God in the land of the living.
I went to the prison with the intention of encouraging Jerry, and I know I did, but I left feeling that I was the one who got the shot in the arm. Things happen to us in life, whether we bring them on ourselves or not, that leave us feeling imprisoned, and ugly, and hopeless. It is precisely the reason that Jesus came, to proclaim liberty for the captives, exchange beauty for ashes, and give life, particularly in the places where it seems most unlikely for life to be sustained. Life is exactly what is taken from us, and it is exactly what Christ has given back to us.