What chance would you give a middle-aged African American man who has been imprisoned five times and is about to be released again?
I used to write this type of guy off. I mean, he just can’t get his act together. At least we’ve got a prison to keep him off the streets.
Stan changed my perspective. I met him while volunteering for an Alpha course in a prison.
All of the younger inmates were drawn to him. He shared advice, encouragement, and whatever lessons he had learned. He wasn’t proud or arrogant. In a prison culture where you need to act tough and together, he was the odd man out with his humility and compassion for others.
How did this guy end up in prison five times already?
Stan and a small band of inmates regularly joined me to pray for about 20 minutes at the end of each Alpha session. I quickly learned their stories.
Abuse and neglect from their parents started things out. Then impoverished neighborhoods with few opportunities for success took over. With no mentors and no visible opportunities for work, they turned to drugs and alcohol. Relationships with family members and friends were already under tremendous strain, but substance abuse made things worse.
By the time these men broke the law, they had been broken in so many ways. Prison only served to break them further with the extreme hostility and tension among the inmates and guards.
Where does someone go to pick up the pieces? If you don’t have a stable family to return to, you’re going to return to the same old neighborhood where all of the same demons are still haunting you.
I can’t do justice to the stories of these inmates, but I want to tell you about something I saw as we prayed.
I saw men with fear in their eyes. They wanted to make it. They wanted to get their lives in order. They knew the odds were stacked against them and that failure is almost inevitable.
At least two men said it bluntly, “I’m afraid of being released. I’ve got nowhere to go, and I’m afraid I’ll just get into trouble again.”
They were specific with their prayer requests. They knew what would trip them up.
As we sat down to pray in our battered folding chairs in a dirty all purpose room lined with old televisions and rusted folding tables, I felt the weight of their past, the shame of their present, and the despair of their future.
These men came to God praying that God would save them from themselves, helping them become better people who stopped inflicting pain on others. For all that I know about God’s salvation, I’ve also never faced something quite so daunting as what these men carried with them.
Make no mistake, there are some horrible people in prison, people who delight in the power of causing others suffering. Some are mentally ill. Others have been wounded first and learned that way of life. There is no excuse for violent crimes.
I just want you to see their eyes for a moment. I want you to see the pain and the fear. Their eyes don’t change the past for anyone, but they tell us a deeper, more complicated story. They show us that there are some trapped people who can’t find an escape hatch. If they could, they’d use it in a heartbeat.
I like prison ministry because it cuts through all of the grandstanding Christians are tempted to do. A guy in blue prison scrubs can comb his hair nice and wear a cool pair of sneakers or sport an impressive tattoo, but even a prisoner on top of the inmate pecking order is still in prison. You can’t act like you’ve got your act together for long—especially if you’re going to open yourself to the Holy Spirit.
While volunteering in that prison I never felt like I could write about it. I didn’t want these men to become a writing project. As I look back on them, I think of their struggles and uncertainty. I pray for them. The reality is that many of them will end up back in prison. Change can take time.
I don’t know how Stan’s story ended. I moved away and then the prison closed. But let me tell you what I hope…
During one of our last conversations, Stan shared his plan. He’d been in touch with a pastor, and the pastor and his church were going to help him find a job. Once he saved up enough money, he wanted to start his own business. His plans were far more detailed than anything I’ve ever done in my life. I’m sure he was one of the few inmates with a legal career path mapped out for his release.
I pray that Stan connected with that pastor.
I pray that this church helped Stan find a job.
I pray that Stan will launch his business someday.
These are wildly optimistic prayers that fly in the face of common sense. They make about as much sense as ordering your entire life around a man convicted and killed for treason 2, 000 years ago.
This post by Ed Cyzewski first appeared at D. L. Mayfield’s blog as a guest post
Ed Cyzewski blogs at www.inamirrordimly.com where he shares imperfect and sometimes
sarcastic thoughts about following Jesus. He is the co-author of Hazardous: Committing to the Cost of Following Jesus and the author of Coffeehouse Theology. Find him on twitter: @edcyzewski and on Facebook. Subscribe to his e-newsletter for previews of his upcoming books Unfollowers: The Dropouts, Detractors, and Doubters of Jesus and The Good News of Revelation.