On a dark night the winter I first started going to the Skagit County Jail bible studies, the jail theologian guy I came to study under, Bob, said something that struck me: that the Bible offers a series of mug shots of God’s presence.
“We study these testimonies, these stories, ” he said, leaning forward in his chair among the circle of men in red scrubs, “so maybe we can recognize God’s presence among us, breaking in and out of our lives. That’s why we study. How does God move? Where? What does God sound like? What’s his style when he commits his acts?”
I looked down at the cheap Bible in my hands, feeling I was holding something suddenly new. I noticed other men in the circle looking at what they held with similar reconsideration.
“I suspect, ” Bob continued, “you’ve come across this God before, and didn’t know it. Maybe he’s broken into your life before, spoken to you, rescued you, touched you. Maybe God didn’t finish with the folks in these pages. Maybe he’s after you, too.”
This was not a pious nor a skeptical theology. It was a pursuit. Or, a sense that we were being pursued, with a love we did not understand nor expect. Prayer was how Bob imagined we might surrender to, or confront, our pursuer.
A tall man in red inmate scrubs approached me the following week after our bible study, after the doors back to their cells had popped open. He had wide eyes, red hair shorn close against his scalp, wild, runelike tattoos from his elbow to his wrist.
“Some night, can you come and, like, visit me? There’s so much shit running through my head, I—I really need to talk with someone.” The guard waiting at the door for this last straggler finally clear his throat loudly. “So can you meet with me? Like, right now?”
I asked Bob whether I could. He told me he used to spend years doing just that, visiting guys after the groups until lights-out, then coming back other evenings throughout the week. But now, he sighed, his kids were getting older and he was needed at home, so he could only stick to the group studies two evenings a week. “But you, on the other hand . . .”
I, on the other hand, was single, unemployed, newly friendless in a strange valley, and already prone to stay up until two a.m. These were slacker traits (the very traits that had so far disqualified me from most available options for a spiritually or socially helpful vocation). But when added to my awkward and undying desire to know God (which made me a failed hipster, no matter how much I tried to look the part), those traits now made me a perfect fit for this off-the- radar, dark and lockdown monastery.
My background check was clean, allowing me to return as a regular volunteer to the facility. The officer would unrestrain one of the men who’d asked for a visit and let him into the lawyer visiting cell with me and lock the door. In these tiny, sterile rooms, a world opened to me.
They told me about running through the desert from immigration searchlights with their children in their arms; about demonic shadows prowling over them in a meth trailer’s bed; about gunshots in the forests; about fathers’ cracking belts or routine leñazos in their village back home; about pockets—or whole car trunks—full of cocaine; about rowing frigid boats over clam and oyster flats for twelve-hour night shifts; about girlfriends who’d walked out on them, leaving them overdosed in cold empty bathtubs; about orphanages in Mexico and juvenile halls and foster families in the United States; about rehabs, sometimes twelve of them in three years; about childhood churches and priests’ groping hands and ensuing threats; about mothers’ boyfriends in their beds; about drive-bys and stashes of guns and fistfights in alleyways; about mothers dying in the hospital and judges who denied them twenty-four-hour release orders to visit either the bedside or the graveside; about distant sons and daughters who wouldn’t forgive them or reply to their letters.
But against this dismal backdrop, a distinct light in their eyes, the spark of spiritual beginnings I had followed through so many nights myself, shone more fiercely than in most people I’d encountered outside those jail walls. And through it all, as I had growing up, many of these men had also heard a faint music. They too tried to write their own songs in the night hours in their cell. They wanted to share them with me here—a cappella. Some of the songs had power and original charm. Some were simply bad and belonged only in that room. Our tight cinder-block chamber hummed like a bell with their melodies, seeping out into the jail’s night shift corridors.
They asked to hear my own songs, the not-so-disguised prayers that had been left in dusty CD sleeves after recording in my friends’ after-hours studios. I faced their encouraging smiles across the bare table between us and began to sing my songs, without my guitar. Young gangsters beat-boxed along. Soon the jail became my constant venue for writing and singing new music, the high hard walls making each note sweeter than any reverb effect I’d channeled through recording studio headphones. Our laughter echoed out through the graveyard lobby in the same way.
Men who had felt closed and dead all day in court proceedings and over lunch trays now wept onto the dry table where their tattooed hands squeezed mine and we prayed.
I came back three, then four, then sometimes five nights a week.
Excerpt from WANTED: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders (HarperOne, 2015) by Chris Hoke.