I visited at the prison this week.
I had meant to go sooner, but other demands got in the way. This week a friend, a fellow pastor, was making the trip and she asked if I wanted to go as well. I did.
If you have been tagging along with me for a while, you will recall me speaking of the one I went to see before. Of how I had called upon her at the County Jail starting just over a year ago. Of how I had taken her a Bible and how her faith had started to blossom. Of how she was sentenced and taken to prison on the day after Ash Wednesday. Since then, we have exchanged several letters back and forth, so at least I had some idea of how things have been with her before I made my way to her a few days back.
I filled out my paperwork ahead of time. I gathered up my driver’s license, my clergy i.d. card, and my passport just in case more than one form of picture i.d. would be required. I stopped to get some cash so that I could purchase and load a special debit card for the vending machines should she want something to eat or drink. When we arrived I filled out some more paperwork, walked through the metal detector, went through the requisite pat down to ensure I was not carrying anything in that I should not, and looked on as one of the corrections officers took note of what jewelry I was wearing and the color of my shoes. The latter, I presume, was to ensure that I would not be exchanging shoes with the one I was going to visit. Contraband of all sorts is a real issue in this prison as it is in all of them, I would guess.
I was not particularly anxious. This was helped out, of course, by the fact that I was with a friend who has done this a few times already so she was able to coach me through a lot of it ahead of time. In addition, as we made our way in, I observed another woman walk in and go through the same steps with ease. Her name is Sharon. She lives an hour away. When she learned we were pastors she offered that she has been a Christian for many years. She shared that she has been making this drive, this visit for a long time. By now, it was routine for her. Perhaps it will be for me one day as well.
One of the guards walked us across campus through various doors: inside and outside and inside again as we made our way to the Visitor Center. I was told I would sit on one side of Table 13 where we were assigned for our visit. I sat and waited for the better part of half an hour, mostly staring at the vending machines across the way. I also found myself observing others around me, even as I tried not to stare. I was not trying to make out words exchanged, but I could not help but notice the tears shed and the laughter shared at nearby tables. I also saw this: others who have done this before making their way to the vending machines as they waited, purchasing the food they knew their dear ones would want and arranging it at their tables so it would all be ready when they arrived. Some pulled out decks of cards perhaps so as to have something to do with their hands while they sat and caught up during the time they shared. Maybe it somehow made all the rest a little more normal. Or maybe they just liked playing cards.
All of this is introduction, of course. When finally she walked through the door, she approached my table and offered a hug. I got her coffee and a yogurt parfait. And then she talked. In the next 90 minutes:
- I heard about her daily routine, which is much the same day after day.
- I heard about how much idle time she has and how she spends much of it reading — something she never had time to do before.
- I learned that there are 4 telephones for 200 women in her ‘house’ and so a lot of time is spent sitting in chairs waiting to use one of them, hoping for the chance to hear a loved one’s voice.
- I heard that her family visits her every week and of how she is more fortunate than many.
- And yes, I heard about how her faith is growing and of how she is able to share this gift with others.
As I sit with this week’s Gospel, though, — as I consider how it is that ‘truth’ brings freedom — this is what I especially carried away from the time we shared.
She talked, you see, about the various houses she’s lived in since March. She spoke of how when she first arrived she spent time in ‘intake’ and after that was moved into House 10. She talked about what a wild experience that was: of how loud it was there and how the fighting was frequent. And then she explained how one ‘earns their way’ into different houses and now she is in House 1, where things are much quieter. But then she paused and spoke of how she wept to leave House 10 and of how, in some ways, she really preferred it over where she is now. She must have seen the surprise on my face and she went on to explain that in House 10 when people disagreed, they just fought it out and got over it.
They spoke ‘truth,’ often shouting it. They fought it out. And then they were able to move on.
In House 1, on the other hand, many of the women are on ‘programs’ and are trying to earn early parole. In House 1 the disagreements still happen, but no one wants to get in trouble, so their disagreements go underground and make their way to the surface in whispers which divide people one from another. Oh, she offered, in House 10 she knew who she could trust and she made good friends. In House 1 her circle of trust is much smaller.
Now I know that the ‘truth’ Jesus speaks of today is so very different from the sort of ‘truth’ that is spoken in House 10, that is also denied and goes underground in House 1 at Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Illinois. But truth is always truth, nonetheless, even if it one’s own version of it. Indeed, where ‘truth’ is allowed into the light of day, everything has the possibility of changing.
As I sit with this week’s Gospel now and it’s promise of freedom, this is also so. Where I spent a few hours the other day, there was no freedom. Indeed, as the woman I went to see reminded me, she is not the only one imprisoned. Her family is, too. Recalling the dozens of faces at those numbered tables on Thursday morning, this was obviously so for everyone in that room. (I would go so far as to say that those who work there experience a kind of ‘prison,’ too, although not having asked, I won’t try to speculate now on what that is for them.) And yet, in the middle of locked doors and rigid routines, and desperate loneliness, somehow the one I went to see has experienced profound glimmers of freedom. In fact, she shared with me the story of a young woman who asked her for help and with whom she has been able to share her faith. These days whenever this other woman sees her on their way to a meal she shouts out asking for a verse. And so she shouts one back to her — something she can look up when she gets back to her Bible. Not the ‘freedom’ she yearns for night and day, no, but the sort that has her living in a sort of community, sharing what matters, helping someone along the way. So in a very real way the ‘truth’ that is Jesus has helped set her free, wouldn’t you say?
So it is today that Jesus speaks to us now of truth that sets us free.
Freedom from sin and slavery.
Freedom that leads to life.
And so, yes, it must be so that this truth which leads to freedom is so much larger than simply speaking the truth about what divides those in House 10. But there is something of the ‘truth’ Jesus speaks of even there, it seems to me. For even this is truth that sheds light and occasionally allows for reconciliation and perhaps even true community. Perhaps.
So no, perhaps this is not the ‘truth’ Jesus speaks of now.
- And yet, this ‘truth’ of Jesus is rooted in grace.
- And grounded in love.
- And offers up the possibility of reconciliation.
- And potentially leads to communities of trust.
- And is a place where hope can be born again.
So maybe this ‘truth’ is more like what the inmates in House 10 at Logan Correctional Center experience than I first believed.
I don’t know how or if any of this ‘preaches’ this Reformation Sunday. I am grateful, though, for a place to put some of my experience of last Thursday morning. Thanks for walking alongside as I sort through the ‘truth’ of what this was for me, for her, perhaps in some way for all of us. Thanks for bearing with me as I ponder the meaning of Jesus’ truth and the gift it is meant to be for us all.
- When Jesus speaks of a truth that makes us free, of what do you think he is speaking?
- Is it fair at all to compare this ‘truth’ to that which the woman I visited in prison encountered in House 10? Why or why not?
- When have you been set free by ‘truth?’ What has this freedom meant to you?