As I walked down the narrow concrete hallways, with thick steel barred gates every twenty feet or so, opened by guards I never saw (though they steadily watched me through multiple barely hidden cameras) I couldn’t hold back the rigid claustrophobic gut reaction – especially when the barred gates clanged behind me.
I’m generally good at words, but as I think back on that set of sensations, my mind is drained of adequate adjectives to capture the inherent inhumanity of the barred, supervised steel and clammy concrete labyrinth I was embedded in.
No matter how prepared I was, with lessons or by prayer, by the time I reached the pod where my class was held, my mind was as blank as these block concrete walls.
This was a set aside part of my local county jail. Local jails, like this one, are essentially temporary holding tanks either for those being held for petty crimes or those who are being held awaiting trial or transfer to long term sentencing for more serious crimes.
I was told on more than one occasion that I had multiple murderers in my group.
Besides myself, everyone else I saw on this seemingly endless maze of gates and unmarked concrete hallways was in uniform. The inmates, those few I saw en route to my class, were in the one-size-fits-all pale gray jumpsuits with pink (they called them salmon) socks and T-shirts with rubber slip-ons. Any inmates were locked together on a long leash-like chain with about eight to ten sets of handcuffs – chain gang style.
The guards were also in uniform of course, with guns in holsters, walkie talkies and individual sets of handcuffs. I was the only one in civilian clothes. In every phase, in every hallway or cell, it was obvious that I was the one that didn’t belong. As often as I was “in” that place, I was never “of” it.
I, who actually chose what I was going to wear that day, and got to walk out of there in a bit over an hour, was the ultimate foreigner. And yet, even though I spent such a minuscule amount of time inside those cold, sterile walls, it still took a lot out of me. Everything about it was dehumanizing. The guards seemed as brutalized as the inmates.
The constantly buzzing low-budget fluorescent lighting bleached the life out of all of us.
As I approached the final set of barred gates before the dayroom, there were two sets of gates about five feet apart, I had to pass the final clearance and was given my little pocket sized alarm system “in case anything happened.”
Like the naive person I am, I had to ask the guards what that “anything” might be. They assured me that I really did not want to know. But they would be there right away.
Soon, but perhaps soon enough.
I don’t know if they intended to scare me, but they did.
It just added to the ever-growing plummeting gut-wrenching panic. Like the inmates, there was no escape for me.
As usual, I was in no shape to teach anyone anything.
We met in an antiseptic day-room with plastic chairs, bare concrete walls and unbreakable glass barricades between us and the armed guards. No outside windows. No reference to the real world of seasons or weather.
We might have had harsh and echo filled acoustics, but we were in our own world. Certainly no one would ever be there by free choice.
Before each class session the guys sang old time Gospel songs from ragged song sheets. I always wanted to record these songs (it would have been strictly prohibited, of course). The singing was as unearthly (in the good sense) as the environment was hostile and numbing.
Picture the opposite of a polished and robed choir. No musical accompaniment. Just male voices in a large concrete box. No musical training. No harmony. Just harsh male voices singing in clumsy unison as they praised and moaned in a distended atmosphere of pain, joy, regret, isolation and forced community.
They would give me a song sheet as I entered their world, but I could never sing. I just soaked in it. And watched their faces.
I couldn’t explain the theology, but Jesus was plainly there.
I felt saturated by the glorious brokenness. I felt drained and filled at the same time. The outside world seemed callow and shrill. The petty concerns of my daily routines seemed like litter scattered across a pristine alpine landscape.
There was something unidentifiably lost. Something indelible about this unlikely semi-monastic order entered only through crime and incarceration.
This was a searing initiation into a surreal masculine, concrete, sterile unearthly glory. But glory it was.
No mega-church with a near infinite budget could match the glory of these ragged voices. Chills ran through me as I took it in. It was far more than listening. It was like drinking in eternity.
They sang the old funky hymns that few churches use. Songs like “That old rugged cross”. Songs of fierce faith and bare-fisted courage in the face of near certain catastrophe. No chirpy songs of easy victory.
They knew, with every breath, the brutal stakes, drudgery and deception inherent in a life of truth. They hungered for justice like the roving Old Testament prophets.
They would almost always close with Amazing Grace. These guys, in their ill-fitting, issued jump suits, knew all about being lost – and found. They knew human fears and dangers. They knew God’s Grace and refuge.
They sang with searing redemption, these words…
T’was Grace that taught…
my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear…
the hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils and snares…
we have already come.
T’was Grace that brought us safe thus far…
and Grace will lead us home.
Then they stopped.
They gathered the song sheets as if they were precious currency.
Then they all turned to look at me expectantly.
One of the song leaders opened our teaching time in prayer.
Other than feeling like the floor had just collapsed under me and I was utterly alone and vulnerable in an alien world, I felt just fine. Sometimes it takes losing everything we thought we were to find who we really are.
It is in this strange territory where weakness is really courage, and foolish vulnerability is the purest strength, and all the usual rules of hard-earned professionalism fall away like brittle and dead leaves and we finally see something eternal shimmering that was there all the time.
I did my official teaching and before I knew it, one of the guards knocked on the thick plexi-glass window to let me know it was time, for me at least, to go. It could have been hours…or seconds….
I was always glad, but at the same time, deeply sorry, to leave that place. There was a reality there I can’t define. I was a visitor, perhaps even a tourist, on a temporary cruise through eternity.
I can see how many people would hate this experience, and at some level, I did. But I also knew that I was seeing something rare, harsh and beautiful.
It’s a cliché to say that diamonds are carbon under pressure and time. That’s what I was stepping into – a world of ragged, battered and rejected men who, under pressure that would break most of us, grasped every shred of truth and restoration that just might lead them into a life of freedom and self-respect, perhaps even, into the world where the rest of us might accept them as equals.
Grace is word I hear fairly often, but these guys knew it – not as a word – but as a shimmering, healing blast that heals and restores.
I’ve been to countless “spiritual” events, but nothing like this.
I made my way out silently through the grueling hallways into the barren sunlight, and into the pale world that had been, and would quickly become, my “normal”.
Morf Morford considers himself a free-range Christian who is convinced that God expects far more of us than we can ever imagine, but somehow thinks God knows more than we do. To pay his bills, he’s been a teacher for adults (including those in his local county jail) in a variety of setting including Tribal colleges, vocational schools and at the university level in the People’s Republic of China. Within an academic context, he also writes an irreverent ESL blog and for the Burnside Writers Collective. As he’s getting older, he finds himself less tolerant of pettiness and dairy products.