Two weeks ago my plane lifted off from sunny Los Angeles, where I had met with old friends, families and new acquaintances to raise funds for our growing .
With the Pacific sunset out the airplane window to my left, I thought over all the conversations of the week, in living rooms, at breakfast cafés, on back porches. I was struck by the variety of unique people who–through supporting us–are joining their stories to young men they may never meet. Folks who work in special education, beach cities real estate, faith-science multimedia ministry, construction management. I even reconnected with an old friend who is now working as an officer in a maximum security prison’s solitary confinement cell block.
The plane grew dark. We were headed back to the rainy Northwest and early nights.
I set all the brown response cards from new supporters on my fold-up tray table. I pulled out another small stack from my bag: prison envelopes from men writing me from cell blocks, letters I had yet to open and read while traveling.
One of them made me pause and tear up.
It was from a man I’d visited in our jail several times over last spring and summer. He’d never come to the Bible studies. I’d heard of this man, gang-related, in the jail’s solitary confinement blocks–for over two years.
People talked about him like “the man in the iron mask”–a monster caged up for the facility’s safety. I rarely ask officers for a visit with a guy who doesn’t ask for it. But I eventually built up the courage to make a cold call with this guy.
The guards let me know it was a burden to ask for him, because he required a two-officer escort unit, for staff security. But eventually two officers walked this man in chains down the hall and we met through the glass.
Let’s call him Moses Jimenez.
Moses had been reading Montaigne’s essays in his cell, Marcus Aurelius, Julius Ceasar’s speeches. He had awkward eyeglasses, a high, nasal voice. He told me he was an “autodidact.” And that he was wary of me, He needed to make clear he wasn’t interested in being converted or evangelized. I told him I was just interested in him. Asked if there was a way I could help him.
He said it was enough to just get visits like this. I could come back. Talk more literature. Even Bible, if I kept it cool. Two guards had to come escort him away.
This turned into at least five more visits over the months. He was inspired by stories of Neanes and Ramon, ex-gang guys with felony records now giving back to the community. He told me about a dream he had to rent an apartment in the projects and have college students tutor kids, there in the hood. I said I’d love to help him make that happen.
Now, months later, after he took his deal from the prosecutors, Moses had finally written to me from prison. I thought he’d forgotten about us. Instead, he wrote that something broke inside him since we’d last met. He said God’s love had found him. He described how humbling it was to surrender to love. He cited long passages from Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”
But at the end, he signed off his letter with this PS: “I hope God will continue to delight in me. See, you did make an impression.”
I teared up on the plane. All those visits, pursuing a man locked away like a monster, communicated something greater than the sum of our talks: he feels God’s delight in him.
That’s what we’re after in this thing called “church.” By bringing together the most unlikely of friends, God aims to embody this armor-piercing presence and love in hard places. This is what I get to do: connect a variety of wonderful people to guys like Moses. I get to be a messenger of delight to the “unwanted.”
One day Moses might be knocking on our door, like Neaners, out from prison, ready to join our mission.
Or, maybe he’s joining us now, writing epistles from his cell, like the apostle Paul before him. Showing us what it means to become a body where this is no longer “Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free.”