I never intended for prison to become part of my life. I actually hate that it is part of my life. I never intended on becoming a mom either. I felt God tell me when I was 18 that I would never have children. I was 31 when the doctor told me why. (I was still single and the doctor was so sure I was going to fall apart with the news. I was just assured that what I already knew was true. I think the moment was more comforting for my doctor than me.) It was just after that doctor visit that this story of our kids started. Never saw that one coming! I was always ministering to young teens. This group was no different, yet they were different. The difference became even more pronounced when we told them that I was getting married to John. They were the first to know. We were already that close. John and I expected a shared joy moment. Instead I got the boys pulling me aside and these words I will never forget, “We like John and all, but we think he will be like every other stepfather and take you away from us.” That is when I knew something was different here. It was just months later that I felt God call me to raise these kids all the way through. They became different at that point. They became ours. They still are.
Even though they are ours, prison still became our future. Even with a good support system, this trajectory of their lives could not be diverted. I have a lot of questions for God about that for that one day when I get to have his ear to ask all of my questions. Two of our sons made continual choices and now prison is their home. Now this is a part of John’s and my lives.
When I hear the words “prison ministry” my eyes roll. Once you know someone who is incarcerated, once you yourself have to go through the processes to visit with your loved one, you wonder if those doing “prison ministry” really understand what is being asked of them. Those incarcerated are not the dregs of the earth they have the privilege of ministering to. These are human beings with stories and shame and searching for hope in a system that squashes hope like hope is a freedom. As one incarcerated person asked in this article I’m referencing, “Are you one of those Matthew 25 Christians?” Or “Are you here because you view us as the least of these?”
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I invite you to read this article from a college professor who teaches classes to those inside. He shares grippingly all that he’s learned in this process. These humans have taught him. He mentions this Marin Luther King Jr. quote, “The image of God is never completely gone from a person no matter how destructive or perverse their actions are.” This applies to the correction officers who do dehumanize us visitors to the prisoners who made dehumanizing decisions which led to them losing the responsibility for their lives.
There is pain here. There is beauty too. And there is holy tension. I invite you into the holy tension so something good may be done, whatever that may be. When you give God a “whatever,” extraordinary things happen.
Many years before I set foot in a prison, I passed an afternoon in conversation with the writer, provocateur, and Baptist minister Will Campbell at his home in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. A friend to Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Merton, and Kris Kristofferson, Will was that rare white Southerner whose witness throughout the civil rights era was famously—or notoriously— exemplary. At the risk of life and limb, he ushered the Little Rock Nine past an angry white mob in 1957, he counselled and supported Freedom Riders in the sixties, and he ministered to imprisoned Klansmen in the seventies. He was in his eighties when we met, and while his obituary appeared on the front page of the New York Times when he died in 2013, he did not conduct himself in the manner of a legendary historical figure. He looked after and loved the distinctly unfamous marginalized, estranged, and incarcerated people of middle Tennessee while steadfastly refusing to credit any hierarchy or system that would place any person even a little bit higher (or a little bit lower) than anyone else. As a relentlessly witty and intensely articulate opponent of every ideology that degrades the human form and an aggressive ambassador of reconciliation, it was as if he’d never met a snob he wasn’t hell-bent on talking out of—or delivering from—their own snobbery.
I begin with Will because of one exchange, one question within an exchange actually, that has followed me, haunted me, and remained essential to me in my six years as an alleged teacher of individuals within the Tennessee Department of Correction.