Three weeks ago, I sat in a prison’s small, sterile waiting lobby on a Sunday morning, alone. We’d waited for this day for seven and a half years.
I laced up a pair of new Converse sneakers for my friend to wear on his first day out, walking out the groaning metal gates to the rest of his life.I had a plaid shirt, new jeans, socks, boxers, and undershirt in a bag next to me as well.
Looking around in the silence, waiting the final minutes, praying, I realized this was the same lobby of the same prison I sat in 9 years ago when I first came to visit a man named Neaners. That night so long ago, I’d helped carry his newborn daughter in an infant cradle through the metal detector, alongside the mother.
But this day, almost a decade later, the guards called Neaners’ name and the gates started to open.
He did not look happy. He stared at the ground as he wheeled his property boxes out and the guards made small talk with us. Neaners didn’t jump, or open his arms, or smile, or exhale. It felt horribly awkward: Is this how things are going to start?
But after we slammed the trunk shut and drove away from the razor wire gates, the sniper towers and the prison disappeared behind the trees. My friend began to breath. “I just want to take a shower, ” he said shakily. “Wash this prison grime off.”
Over the next few hours, after the prison disappeared behind us, it was almost visible how his years of protective emotional armor began to slide off as well.
(In the next several days, I would learn what a horrible hell my friend has truly been locked inside all this time–stories he has had to wait all these years to say without letter/visiting/phone surveillance.)
Neaners started to come alive with the prison gates miles behind us. Our first stop was a dark monastery chapel we visited, where we snuck in before morning Mass. We prayed and breathed in the silence, the stained glass windows around us. Neaners led my friend Holly and I in prayers. He picked a tiny rose out of the garden for his daughter.
At the first place we went for tacos in town, one of his worst enemies walked in the door while we stood in line. We discreetly left, quickly. Then the same enemy showed up at church, in the back of our worship service. A temptation thrown at him his first day out.
How did he handle it?
He pulled me outside with him, to catch the guy. “Let’s pray for —-, Chris.” Really? On the sidewalk outside, Neaners put his enemy at ease, said he forgave him, and put his hand on the guys’ shoulder, and mine as well, and led us in prayer. His enemy and I looked at each other, shocked.
I could write–and hope to one day, with Neaners–many pages about his first week out. The cabin we went to, the fly fishing, the late night conversations, the amount of people who have come around this released, tattooed inmate to celebrate and welcome him as a brother finally home.
I never expected, or hoped, things to be going as well as they have. A real transformation has begun in this guy: he is peaceful, prayerful, with a healthy fear of which temptations could take him back to a version of himself he no longer wants. (Though he wants to keep and redeem his moniker “Neaners, ” still.)
I get teary most days, just for a moment: my friend whom I’ve enjoyed through the veil of gang involvement, the years accompanying him on our valley’s night streets so long ago, the prison distance and turbulence . . . that friend is actually a healthier, more whole presence in Rachel’s and my home, sharing normal days with us now. Joking around, landscaping our gnarly front yard together, doing Orthodox monastic morning prayers together, clothes shopping, washing dishes and reading books. I feel so grateful that my hope all these years was not foolish, but is coming true.
His parole officer who was uncooperative in months leading up to this–she loves him. He walked out of his first meeting with her smiling. “She’s cool, yo. She’s down for me. She hates YOU.” And he pointed at me and laughed kindly. “She thinks you’re manipulating ME, with all the things she heard we had planned, ministry and stuff. She doesn’t know all you’ve been hustling for was MY ideas and dreams!”
It was a role reversal. Often people pre-judge Neaners before they meet him or assume he’s playing me, not the other way around. I felt gross with her characterization cast over me as a creep.
“It’s okay, bro, ” he said as we walked away from the office. “Now you got a taste of how I feel most of the time. Sucks, huh?”
Coming home from prison isn’t easy. I’m glad we have such a good guide.