I recently visited someone in federal prison. It wasn't the first time. I've visited the same person several times in prison over the past several years. I don't like it, and I didn't want
I didn't want to spend my Friday night driving for over an hour in the middle of rush hour traffic and then an hour home. I didn't want to put up with dehumanizing security measures -- locked doors, metal detectors, standing in a line-up and removing my shoes to get sniffed by dogs, condescending guards with too much swagger. I didn't want to sit in a bleak crowded room at a table bolted to the floor on an uncomfortable chair also bolted to the floor. I didn't want to plug quarters into vending machines for crappy snacks and bad coffee that neither of us need. Of course we're not allowed to bring in anything else.
Some people think that visiting someone in prison makes me a good person, that I've done something good. I suppose, no I know, my visits mean a lot to him, however I don't think that makes me especially good.
Visiting is difficult for me. I don't do small talk well at the best of times. And small talk is hard inside. Imagine it. You sit down across from someone whose whole life is scheduled and constructed by institution and ask, "so, what have you been up to lately?" Absurd.
This is not someone who has seen the latest Star Wars movie, been following the new Heroes reboot on TV or even likely seen the game. Any game. He didn't do anything for Christmas. We're not family so we're not catching up about Aunt Edna. And it's hard to have a good spiritual conversation when you've got guards staring over you and you know that every word is being heard by someone through the mic built into the table. More importantly he knows someone is listening to every word. It doesn't really make someone open up.
In Matthew 25:36-40 Jesus says that when you visit the imprisoned, even as you have done to the least of these you have done to him. Yes. But you don't feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the imprisoned to get on Jesus' good side. Powerful as that is, if you're only doing it for that reason it kind of loses something. For me, the most important reason to go there is because I am the imprisoned.
"Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured." Hebrews 13:3
One of the great spiritual lessons I'm trying to learn is what Oneness actually means. Or in different language, what does it truly mean to be the body of Christ? More and more we are becoming re-aware that there is no separation. Creation is all of a thing. If there is some part of Creation that is suffering and imprisoned, then some part of me is suffering and imprisoned, indeed we are all suffering and imprisoned. If you've ever experienced either back spasms or a headache that set your stomach on edge, you have an idea about this. If one part of us is suffering the whole is suffering.
The hardest part about a prison visit is visiting the imprisoned parts of myself, the parts I'd rather not have to see. In the same way, we'd rather not see the people we put into prison. Those parts of me are also what imprisons others.
We like to imagine that we only incarcerate those who are the bad parts of society, that it's good, it makes us safe. My experience is that most people in prison are not as bad as we like to think and most of us aren't as good as we pretend. We are all struggling and broken in some way. At least I know I am. I would venture that most of what under-girds the actions that land people in prison is less about badness and more about pain. And what happens when we try to ignore or suppress our own pain? It just gets worse. Wounds fester. Locking up people who are in pain is neither helpful nor humane. We heal when we acknowledge what hurts us, not by locking it away.
If all of Creation is connected, I am only able to heal the world in as much as I can heal myself. Going to prison forces me to look at my own wounded places and heal those. What wounds in me wound other people?
I spent the the drive out to the prison praying. I looked into my own brokenness to find where my wounds, my pain, my brokenness, contributed to the brokenness of the person I was visiting.
I looked, for example, at my irritation at the long drive, acknowledging the pettiness that could make me feel justified in complaining about something relatively trivial when I am visiting someone whose life circumstance resulted in imprisonment. I did the same for my impatience with guards, recognizing that my energy of impatience impacts their work. I looked at my sense of judgment and prayed into that. For the duration of the drive, over an hour, I acknowledged and prayed for those parts of me that point to greater woundedness. Modelled after the ho'oponopono prayer, I breathed into those places, saying "I am sorry. I love you. Please forgive me (and feeling the forgiveness). And thank you." I breathed healing prayer into my wounds.
And you know, this visit was better. The guards were friendly and relaxed. The one potentially condescending remark I shrugged off. While I had to walk through a metal detector, there was no lining up to get sniffed by drug dogs or having to take my shoes off. The person I was visiting seemed much more relaxed. There were few visitors so it wasn't so noisy or crowded feeling. We bantered and laughed. He taught me how to play Texas Hold-em with cards that the guards put out when he said into the the table mic that he wished there were cards. We also talked a bit about his concerns about getting out and his experience his whole life of being labelled and how that has impacted him. We visited for close to an hour and a half.
I will continue to pray for me. For those parts of me that cause him to be labelled and judged for past action. And not denying that he has made bad choices, I will pray into the parts of me that also make bad choices. I will connect to the Infinite Divine and breath into those parts apology, love, forgiveness and gratitude. And I will continue to hold gratitude for the healing that he has brought me by inviting me into his pain.
At the end of the visit, I was able to get into a car and drive away but the person I had visited was escorted back to a cell. It was a tangible sign of our collective brokenness and the many parts of me that need healing. And so my on-going prayer. I am sorry. I love you. Please forgive me. Thank you.
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