“From Behind the Walls” is a series of stories and prayers on encounters Michael McRay had while serving as a volunteer prison chaplain.
Disclaimer: The names of inmates have been changed.
That Friday, I saw Jesus in the infirmary.
Encountering Christ in prison was one of the primary purposes for my first visit behind the walls nearly 4 ½ years ago. I have often struggled in my life to understand how and where God “works” in the world. Everything changed for me when, at 19, I stood next to my father before the death-filled ovens of Auschwitz in Poland on a cold, wet winter day, and he said, “Whatever you believe about God has to make sense right here or it can’t make sense anywhere.” From then on, little has made sense. But I have held tightly to Jesus’s claim in Matthew 25 that he is encountered when we encounter the “least of these”: the hungry, the naked, the alone, the sick, the imprisoned. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of learning to the see the world “from below…from the perspective of those who suffer.” When we see the world “from below, ” we see where Jesus is hanging out. This particular day, he was in the infirmary, and his name was Charlie Vick.
I have known Charlie for a while now. I actually roomed with a relative of his for three years during undergrad, and around two years ago, Charlie joined the Saturday-night contemplative study group I’ve been a part of since early 2010. Charlie has lived incarcerated for nearly 20 of his 40 years on this earth. When the head chaplain at the prison asked me to make rounds at the infirmary, I assumed it would be to visit with one of the men from the maximum security side – like the young man I saw the week before who set fire to the shirt on his back in order to gain attention. But instead, the chaplain asked me to see Charlie. “Mr. Hudson died, ” she said.
I walked out of the chaplain’s office and up the sidewalk to the infirmary, a long white brick building adjacent to Building 11 where the chaplain’s office is located. Inside, I entered into the Long Hall, one of the two corridors housing inmates who, among other reasons, are placed on suicide watch, mental health seclusion, or have serious medical needs. The halls are cold and lifeless, except for the warm bodies kept in solitary within the dull cells. Charlie was caged at the far end of the Long Hall. As I walked toward his temporary residence, other men on the hall called out to me. “Damn dude!” one greeted, “you look like a rock star.” This was undoubtedly in reference to the previous day’s haircut, returning to a look that had unfortunately elicited many a “Hey Justin Bieber!” from jeering voices inside Units 3 and 4 on the max side. Charlie heard me enter the hall and was standing at his window waiting for me.
“Hey Mike, ” his bass voice welcomed, “Thanks for stopping by.” I always love to see Charlie. He is a warm soul, kind and compassionate, with an embrace you could get lost in. He is a big man, tall and stout, with long, graying hair, fashioned like a mullet pulled back in a ponytail. His face often shows stubble, sometimes even a goatee, but that day he was clean shaven. His laugh is deep and inviting, and he often tries to lift other’s spirits with encouraging words. But when I saw him that day, his eyes showed grief. After all, Mr. Hudson had died.
I knew Mr. Hudson’s health had been in rapid decline for months. His stomach had swollen to the point of seeming pregnancy and required frequent drainage. The prison’s private medical provider, however, did little to assist Mr. Hudson’s healing or even alleviate his excruciating pain. “Time and again, ” Charlie told me, “Hudson’d say he wished he had a gun so he could just end it already and stop hurtin’ so bad.” Mr. Hudson was only 55, but he appeared to be approaching his late 60s.
His health failure required constant care-taking, an activity the prison did not feel obliged to undertake. But Charlie did. Though he had only met Mr. Hudson less than a year ago, he requested Mr. Hudson become his “celly” (cell-mate) back in the summer when Mr. Hudson’s health began to plummet. I wondered if Charlie realized just how serious a responsibility he had accepted. Regardless, from the moment Mr. Hudson moved into Charlie’s cell in Unit 6, Charlie rarely left his side. But now, Mr. Hudson had left Charlie’s, and Charlie was under lockdown.
As I stood outside the massive steel door dividing us, I wondered what to say. For a few moments, we just stood there, looking at each other and the tile floor, as if something more powerful than us was compelling a reverent silence in memory of the recently departed. Finally, I broke the initial quiet, saying the only appropriate thing I could think of: “I’m sorry, Charlie. How are you feeling?”
He looked away and began nodding. “I’m OK. My emotions are everywhere though. I feel angry, then sad, then relieved, then angry again.” He looked back at me, tears beginning to brim. “I’m just real happy he’s not suffering no more.” Charlie told me Mr. Hudson passed peacefully in his cell, surrounded by Charlie, the chaplain, and a couple other friends. The months leading to his death nearly incapacitated Mr. Hudson. His pain was immense, but it’s gone now, and for that, we felt grateful.
I wondered if there was more to Charlie’s feeling of relief than simply that Mr. Hudson’s suffering had ceased. I wondered if he felt relief that his full-time care-taking role had also ended. I suspected that such thoughts produced guilt and were unwelcome in his processing. I carefully explored this with him, gently encouraging him to release such guilt and allow himself to feel the very human emotion of grateful relief from such exhausting service.
“It definitely was a lot of work, ” he allowed, chuckling to himself the way one does when reminiscing about an unbelievable happening. “I was with him through it all.”
His eyes reddened as he recounted the months of constant attentiveness. A while back, Mr. Hudson lost the strength to walk even relatively short distances. Frequently, as I entered the compound for chaplaincy work or to teach, I would see Charlie, leading the evening procession to the chow hall, pushing Mr. Hudson’s wheelchair in front of him. Anytime Mr. Hudson required moving, Charlie’s sturdy arms guided his wheelchair to the necessary destination. Back in their cell, Charlie cooked hot meals for Mr. Hudson in the microwave and fed him when Mr. Hudson lacked the sufficient strength for even such simple actions. In the last couple of weeks, Mr. Hudson lost control of nearly all physical faculties.
“He couldn’t even go to the bathroom without help, ” Charlie confessed, shaking his head. “I’d pick him up off his bunk and carry him to the toilet. He couldn’t even sit up, so he’d lean his head against my chest. He was bleeding internally so he had blood on him, too. ‘Don’t worry. I’ll clean ya up when you’re finished, ‘ I told him.” Charlie cared for Mr. Hudson like that until the end. He gave completely and unreservedly of himself to preserve whatever dignity he could for Mr. Hudson, to ease his suffering, and ensure that he would not die alone. Mr. Hudson died on a Saturday night, and Charlie was placed on lockdown in the infirmary.
Apparently, this is prison protocol. Because Mr. Hudson died in his cell, the cell must be declared a “crime scene.” Charlie was present, so he is contained in solitary pending the conclusion of the investigation. Besides the fact that the chaplain herself was also present, the prison knew for months that Mr. Hudson was dying. His death was expected, perhaps even encouraged though the system’s dehumanizing apathy. Despite all this, Charlie – the man who exhausted himself for months in selfless service to the needs of Mr. Hudson – must mourn in solitary.
When Charlie finished his story, I placed my hand on the thin glass window in the door, pointing at him. “I am inspired by you Charlie. You have done exactly as I suspect Jesus would have.”
In retrospect, that statement seems obvious, since it was in fact Christ with whom I spoke, God-in-the-flesh. His hair was grayer than most religious paintings depict, and his skin much lighter than the Middle Eastern Jew of the 1st century.
Nevertheless, I talked with Jesus in prison that day. His name was Charlie, and the prison had him under lockdown.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us.
If the system that we’ve created baffles me, it must surely baffle you – for you are just. We humans can astound sometimes with our inhumanity to one another. To punish a man for showing compassion and selflessness, to punish Charlie for love, devotion, and kindness… It hurts and angers me. I want to tear down the steel doors and set him free! Christ, the Scriptures say you have come to set the prisoners free. How long must we wait, O Lord, for it to be so?
I struggle with waiting. I am impatient. I know this. When I see something I want, I want it now. At that very instant. I am a child of the culture of instant gratification. You know that I work diligently to change this about myself. But this is an ongoing process, and today, living with serenity in the moment is a true challenge for me.
This is especially true regarding injustice. Witnessing the powerful abuse their power boils my blood. I want to throw tables like you did. I want to drive them out like you did. I want to yell and scream and curse.
God of justice and mercy, grant me the courage to cleanse the temple, grant me the serenity to wait and watch patiently, and grant me the wisdom to know which is needed.
And please, please, have mercy.
For our inhumanity to each other – Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
For our condemnation of broken people to broken systems – Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
For believing in punishment when restoration is needed – Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
For abusing our power and creating suffering – Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
For not always seeing the image of you in each human being – Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.