Aug 13, 2017

by Sarah Estes, PCA board member

When I started working in the department of corrections I didn’t want to know what the men had done to deserve the punishment of prison.  It was part fear and part the feeling that no matter how hard I tried I could not continue to counsel a person who had made certain choices, to hurt certain people in certain ways.  I was trapped between the calling to help without judgment and the realization that I had human emotions which clouded my dedication to a belief in absolution.  It is not my place to judge, but I do because I am human. 

Avoidance of criminal history worked for a time, but eventually I almost always found out the troubling stories of the men with whom I worked.  Pieces of the story would fall into place during our times together, and that was okay.  It was part of their healing and their reconciliation to God.  When I would put the pieces together I usually felt more sorrow than anger at the situations, and I prayed for them and for their victims.  There are so many victims, so many sorrows. 

When I started working in my current position, it became necessary for me to look up the criminal history of the women and men since my program involved children.  I had to make sure that the program participants had no prior child endangerment charges.  This did not pose a threat to my purpose until I read about a particularly heinous case that involved some of the people in my group. 

To put it into perspective, I’ve stopped watching crime dramas on television because I have an over-active imagination and have a difficult time sleeping at night because my mind does not shut off.  Most people can tell themselves that “it’s just TV” and “that stuff doesn’t happen in ‘real life’.” The truth is, most of the time crime drama is absolutely fictional; it tickles our emotions with gore beyond what is really imaginable.  On the other hand, things happen in real life which are malicious and pre-meditated and horrifying.  Suffice it to say, I have met people who will never see the light of day from outside an institution… and I am fine with that.

I struggled with this for a while until I was slapped in the face with a reminder from one of these inmate’s own children.  He was wearing a shirt that had Christ on the front with the words “Crucified” in intricate letters across the top.  On the back it said,

No nails held Him to the cross. His love for you did! He could have called on the angels to rescue Him, but He stayed there. Because of His sacrifice you are forgiven. "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." Luke 23. 34

He wore this shirt into a prison, not by accident I’m sure, to remind the people inside that they belong to God.  This child, who has endured so much heart-ache already in his life, was not blaming the source of his sorrow, but reminding him that he is forgiven by and reconciled to a Higher Power.  I read the shirt several times without the young man knowing.  I took a breath and mulled it over and let it out.  “I want you to know, I really love the message on your shirt,” I told the boy. “It’s very appropriate for this population.”  The child looked at me and smiled knowingly, his eyes much older than his years. 

Forgiven.  In his letter to the Colossians, Paul wrote, “For He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (NRSV, Colossians 1:13-14).  Prison is dark and those within that darkness desperately seek the light of Christ.  Sadly, many never find it.  Sometimes though, all it takes is a hope-filled young person wearing a t-shirt to remind us that no matter whom we are or what we’ve done, we are forgiven. 

Category: Light

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