31 December 2010

And at the end... Part 2

I did say I'd spent time with two offenders on Thursday, didn't I? David was on a different floor from Jaycey. When I asked the officer if I could see him, the officer wasn't sure he'd want to be disturbed again. Turns out I was the fifth person who'd asked to see him that day already. But David stirred from his sleep and came out to talk to the chaplain.

On this floor, there's a table and two chairs that I call my second office--it's right in the middle of things. Not private at all. We're in full view of almost everyone in the section, and right up against the window of the Lower A dorm. If someone wanted to be obnoxious and make faces, it wouldn't surprise me.

What does surprise me is that people generally respect the space. There may be someone sleeping on the cot right on the other side of the window, but the fifteen to twenty guys in the dorm watch TV or play cards or talk together. No one stares at the chaplain.

For my part, I keep my eyes focused on the man in front of me. (This has become easier since the guys have gotten used to seeing me. I don't get the frantic hand-waving from someone who knew me at the prison anymore. They wait until I'm done.)

David had sent a request to see me. His bible study group's leader had been moved to another section and they needed more material. But it was more than that. David wanted to know about Catholics. Why? Because I'd answered questions they'd raised before (How can I become a bishop? Why are there more books in the Catholic bible?) and I'd done it fairly quickly.

He talked a bit about the other people who'd come to see him that morning: a couple from mental health, a case worker, someone checking on his legal issues. (It was only later that I would remember that his dorm on that floor is known as the Suicide Room because everyone in there is on suicide watch.) He told me his other conversations hadn't gone well. He hadn't felt safe. "But I feel safe talking to you. I get these feelings about people, and you're okay. And I'm thinking maybe I could be Catholic because I could be safe." But then, he shrugged, maybe it's because he's a paranoid-schizophrenic that he has those feelings. No matter. 

I think often about the line: You may be the only gospel someone will ever read. My prayer is that I may be news worth reading.

David hung himself when he was seven years old. He has tried again and again since then. In his eyes is the hunger to know that he is beloved, worth caring about. He has a couple of people in his life who have begun to show him that. Wherever he may end up in church, I hope he finds a deep welcome, a place where he feels safe. 

And at the end...

Thursday I made a quick trip in to Seattle to pick up some mail and to deliver worship sheets to my office so the volunteers would have the readings for this weekend. I ended up staying a couple of hours, spending most of that time with a couple of offenders on different floors of the jail. 

One man was struggling with loving everyone. "Everyone in general?" I asked. "Or someone in particular?" We began with the general but quickly moved to the particular. How do you love someone who keeps stabbing you in the back? Who continues to be mean to you? How do you love them if nothing you say, and nothing you pray, changes them?

The conversation wandered down several alleys and we kept circling back to the examples that are given to us. We weren't talking about the kind of love that makes us lay down like a doormat. And we weren't talking about making some declaration and drawing a line in the sand. It was just the hard stuff of loving.

When he spoke, I heard hints of a tough relationship, someone he loved but couldn't quite understand. I tried to imagine her and then the conversation shifted and it wasn't the woman in his past he was concerned about. Instead, we talked about his father.

"Every time I talk to my father, I tell him I'm sorry. I ask him to forgive me. I've come to learn how much I've hurt him. Know what he says to me? 'I forgive you, but for what?'" The tears broke the dam of his fingers. 

We talked about the time he's had here in jail, time to think about who has been affected by his decisions and actions. He's been here for months, and faces years of prison time. He's had time to think. His father has been living his life, working his job, caring for friends, maintaining what is important to him. He hasn't had the luxury of time to sit around and get resentful about the hurt his son has caused him.

"He's your dad. He loves you. He forgives you the best way he knows how. Do you believe him?"

"I believe him."

"Then why don't you tell him that? Tell him 'Thank you for loving me and for forgiving me.' Maybe he doesn't think you believe him."

We talked for a long time about people who want to pick a fight and the us-vs-them mentality that is rife in the jail--and outside too, I told him. He'd refused to chime in when one of his cellmates called the officers "pigs" and had chided him with, "Hey, they're human too." I was aware that I was listening to a man whose heart had stretched, who was gathering more people into his circle and not drawing lines to keep them out. 

Where is Jesus in this place? Oh right here. Really.

All this serious talk was interrupted by an announcement to the men in that jail section. An officer stood at his station to reprimand them about the rising noise level.

"Now I know you were told about keeping it quiet in here. I was standing right here when I told you."

Jaycey and I looked at each other and giggled. "He said that? Really?" Jaycey guffawed and because I was sitting where my face was visible to the other offenders in their dorms, I stifled a laugh.

"I have a blog," I told him, "and I write about stuff that happens in jail. That's going in the blog." He just laughed again.

25 December 2010

Finding the Way to Christmas

Ever since I began working at the jail last June, my ability to get lost or disoriented has been the source of many stories, mostly ones I tell on myself. How does one get lost on an elevator anyway? And how many times have I heard a disembodied voice intone, "You can't get there from here"?

That disorientation and lost-ness is a fine template for this Christmas season in jail.

Some of the disorientation is not my own. It is on the face of the puzzled man on the 7th floor who sees me from across his dorm room and just can't figure out what's wrong with this picture. He knows me, he's sure of it, but I am not in the right context for him to put a name to me. Until we talk and I mention the name of that prison where I worked for eleven years--then his face lights up and he says, "It's you!"

For some, there is a profound sense of not being where they intended to be at this time of year. What am I doing in a red jumpsuit and orange sandals, sharing a room with 19 other people? I should be cooking dinner, shopping for presents, decorating the tree. Jerry Springer rules the TV and I'm feeling mad all the time. What have I done with my life?

I should be in the living room, putting the finishing touches on that bike, setting up that new game, breathing in hot cocoa and peppermint. Instead, I'm sleeping on a plastic covered excuse for a mattress after standing in line for three hours for a chance to call home. And no one answered.

It's a time of unsettling poverty. I have to ask for Christmas cards to send home. I can't pick them out. They are nothing too fancy. There's not enough room to write all the things I want to say.

I'm weighed down with worry, guilt, remorse, disappointment.

The commercials that punctuate Jerry Springer's antics only throw bling in my face, taunting me, "Look what you can't have! You don't deserve this! You loser!"

I try to think about that family on the move, leaving their hometown to go to crowded Bethlehem, where no one wanted one more family in the mix, no one had room for one more chore, never mind one more baby.

Those parents, they weren't where they wanted to be, where they might have planned to spend this birthing night. There was all sorts of talk behind them: relatives who had too much to say, neighbors who asked pointed questions. And now there are angels and shepherds who just won't shut up.

"How do we get to the new king's place?" the travelers from the East want to know. They are headed in the right direction, but, like so many others, you can't get there from here, in Herod's court.

There are no Christmas trees at jail, no colored lights (although at least once a day, there is a Code Blue called for some medical emergency), and no holiday muzak to drive us all nuts.

Instead, there is the mess of humanity: stinky, smelly, unwashed, rude, abrupt, short-tempered. All the mess of humanity that God so loved.

There are moments, only a breath here and there, where the sweetness of wonder enfolds us and says, "Yes" to us. That's all. Just "Yes."

08 December 2010

Ruby Bridges teaches me

Ruby Bridges was six years old when she was the first African-American to integrate her school in New Orleans. The crowds were there, every day, teetering on the edge of being a mob, yelling hate. Ruby was escorted to school by federal marshals. The first grader showed up every day and so did the crowds.

Dr. Robert Coles, who has written about spirituality and morality in children, wanted to talk with her, so he sat with Ruby and her parents in their living room. "What do you think about when you walk into school every day, Ruby?"

"I pray for them."

"You do? Why?"

"Don't you think they need it?"

Being able to pray for others means believing there may be something more to them than what is on the surface. Don't you think they need it?

A man yesterday told me he'd been praying for a guy in his tank "who is just obnoxious." He didn't know why he was praying for him. He didn't like the other guy. It wasn't a part of his usual prayer to include anyone beyond his family and maybe his lawyer, on a good day. He was mystified by this summons to pray.

"But sometimes I think Jesus is telling me, 'It's okay. It won't hurt you to pray for him' and so I do. I suggested that maybe he was beginning to pray with Jesus, to feel the needs of the world in a small way. He was quiet for a long time.

Then I told him about Ruby.

"How old was she?"

Six. First grade.

"Thank you for telling me that. I'm going to be thinking about her for a long time."

So am I.

(Here's a link to Norman Rockwell's painting of Ruby.)