Friday, May 29, 2009

I Went to Jail…

…but it turns out I went for a different reason than I’d planned!

Bad choices spiraled a friend into a bad place -- physically, emotionally, spiritually, and legally. I wrote him a letter when I heard he was in jail, but I felt a nudge to go and visit. He was only allowed one visitor each week. His wife lives far away, and I didn’t know if anyone had seen him that week. I called the jail, but they couldn’t tell me if he’d had a visitor or not. I didn’t have two hours to spend on a wild goose chase, but I couldn’t not go. For some reason, that nudge just wouldn’t go away.

So I appeared at the appointed time, stuffing myself into a jam-packed waiting area. It was like standing in an elevator that didn’t move. Same unspoken rule: no talking! Everyone stared straight ahead, peering through a long glass wall at a stern, uniformed woman behind a tightly secured desk. Instead of surround sound, it was surround sad, mad and fear. We were not there because we wanted to be, but because we had to be.

After 20 minutes of waiting in this silent, unmoving limbo lunacy, I couldn’t take it any more. I asked the fellow next to me, “Is this like a bakery? Do you take a number?” He looked scared. “No. No number!” he said in his best English. The spirit of oppression in that room was suffocating. On a six-foot bench along the side wall sat a large man with his pregnant wife and their toddler who kept throwing down her bottle and running into the motley crowd. The mother’s sharp words to the child put us more on edge, as the father gave chase, and then it would all start again. Other than that commotion, we were mostly catatonic, except for two young boys at the front. They were brothers, five and four, and their manners were impeccable.

To break my own boredom and, hopefully, theirs, I asked their mother if we could play a game. She seemed to regard me as a cross between Captain Kangaroo and the Cookie Monster, but nodded okay. I started, “Hey you guys, do you know what a beehive is?” “No,” was their reply. “Have you ever tasted honey?” “Yes,” they offered shyly. “Who makes our honey?” Starting to trust me now, I prompted them, “Bees?” “Yes!” they exclaimed. And we were off for five minutes with a hand game they caught onto right away. I told them how smart they were and loved the back and forth of their playfulness. This could be a long night, so we may as well do something with the space we shared.

Suddenly, the door opened and the feared uniformed woman checked ID’s and let us in. Into what exactly, was not clear. Everyone lined up in front of her desk for another long wait. By now I was thinking it’s almost as difficult to go to jail as it is to be in jail, but I was on a mission to be my friend’s one visitor that week. It’s the least I can do, so no more whining, girl!

I found myself, out of 40 people in line, in front of a bench on which sat my two new little friends. They were next to their grandmother whose face had been the saddest one by far in the first waiting area. Next to them sat the same man who’d been on the foyer bench; this guy knew his place on the bench! I introduced myself to the boys who happily told me their names. They had been so enamored of the bee game we’d skipped formalities! Their grandmother said, “Say, Hello, Miss Phyllis!” The boys and I broke out into another game: “Row, Row, Row Your Boat!” all the way through, dropping off the last word until you only say “Row!” The noise in the room let us get away with it. I was grateful for the companionship. I hoped the uniformed woman wouldn’t take this moment of light-heartedness away from us as I waited to see my friend and, the boys, as they told me, waited to see their daddy.

By now I’d been in line so long, I’d only have about seven minutes with my friend on the other side of wherever he was. And he didn’t even know I was there to see him! So my evening was pretty much gone, but I was on a mission. No way was I going to skip out now. Besides, I had friends. It’s nice to have friends in high places, but I was really enjoying friends in low places this evening; thank you very much.

Half way through the song I heard my friend’s name called. “Who’s here to see him? The guard wants to see you.” I wasn’t sure why, but I guessed I was getting bumped ahead of the others. Stepping past everyone to the front of the line, including my friends’ mother, I heard the warden say my name. “Yes?” I responded. “No visitors,” was the blunt reply.

It hit me like a bucket of cold water. All I could come back with was, “Why?” The guard then informed me he already had a visitor this week. “Oh, sorry,” I said. “I called and the jailer couldn’t tell me.” “We have 300 inmates in here,” she told me. “It’s their job to let visitors know.” “Thank you,” was all I could manage. Deflated, I walked back to say goodbye to my boys and head home.

Had I failed? Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Besides, the boys were happy I was back. I explained I couldn’t see my person inside, like they could. They were special. We finished the song and gave each other high fives. As we quickly reviewed the beehive bit, I realized we had bonded and that it would be hard to leave. I suggested they show their daddy what they learned, because they were so smart and he would be so proud. I told them I would pray and ask Jesus to watch over them as they grew up, and the next time we met, maybe we could do the beehive and singing game again. They nodded with big trusting smiles. I pulled a dollar bill and four quarters out of my purse, pressed them into their little hands, and told them to buy something fun, whispering a prayer for what those hands would do some day. I bid them quiet farewells, with the boys waving and discussing which was better -- the silver coins or the bills.

In an instant, the experience was over, except for the man at the end of that bench calling out, “Hey, if I’d known you were giving out money, I’d have sung that song myself -- and in Spanish!” A lot of us laughed, really laughed, and it felt good. It was a moment of much needed relief where there was none to be had. It took his calling out to me to let me know my trip to jail was for a reason different than my first intention. I went with one plan, but God turned it into another.

Ultimately, that visit amounted to no more than a few minutes out of my schedule. Still, that time counted for so much to me and, perhaps, those two young boys, their mother, and even their grandmother whose body language and facial expressions changed before my eyes. Who knows? Maybe even the large man on the bench with the frustrated wife lightened up for a minute or two. We will never all be in that same place together again. But that moment was engineered by a loving heavenly Father, who simply asks us to report for duty.

I can’t gauge anyone else’s reaction that evening, but I know mine. Now when I pray for the man who informed me there were no numbers in the waiting area, and for the others with whom I shared that evening -- including the woman who told me I couldn’t see my friend (a woman whose sternness I understand because I once worked in a prison) -- I don’t ever expect to know how their stories turned out. I simply thank God for the opportunity to bring His love into a loveless moment. He’ll take it from there.

But it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t listened to that nudge and gone to jail.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Phyllis, for sharing your experience with us! I've never visited anyone in jail and found your experience to be enlightening and encouraging. It may not end up being what you thought you were being called on to do, but it can be what God could use you to do that day. In addition, it could be preparation for what you might be called on to do at another time. I loved that you acted upon your prompting and were so encouraging to the children. You even were able to give them the idea that they could play the game with their father. Playing a game with their dad could make for good memories for their tomorrows. Your prayers for them then and now are,are the help that we can all give to each other, as well as the monetary and encouraging help. Thanks again.God's blessings to you always. JeannetteBerger-NW.Il

jWinters said...

Fantastic post - thank you. As a pastor, I "get to" visit jail every now and then --- and the experience is usually similar to yours.

The sad thing that I've noticed in going to jail is that often the people who are visiting the incarcerated are just as much in need of the healing Word of God - they just aren't made a priority.

Thanks for pointing out that everyone in that situation needs love from Christ and His Christians.

in Christ,