Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Forgotten Man

I have a friend and congregant in jail. Why he is there is really immaterial, but let's just say it is not due to any official injustice. He and I had become very close when life was going well for him and then, when things fell apart, I did not know where he was. I would hear reports from those who had seen him, and the reports were not good. So I must confess I was a bit relieved to hear he was in a place where, while certainly not desirable, he would be clothed, fed, housed, get his insulin and be away from the demons he could not seem to escape.

Prisons are not pleasant places to visit. I have been to three, each of them quite different. We do not expect prisons to be pleasant. Yet, I wish they were better than they are, for a multitude of reasons. Not only this, but prisons are not easy places to visit. If you go to see a shut-in or a sick member in the hospital, by and large, you pick your time, or you arrange a time, and you go. A prison is the luck of the draw. You drive there. Some prisons allow you to arrange a time, but there is no guarantee you can actually the person at that time. If someone else is using the visiting room, you may be out of luck (and about 2 hours of your time, without having made a visit).

It was Charles Colson who opened my eyes to the horrible reality of imprisonment. We are "law and order" people. We want those who commit offenses to serve their time. Christians, other than Prison Fellowship, have not given much thought to what ought, and ought not, occur behind bars. We allow prisoners to be dehumanized --and wonder why animals are released. Prison Fellowship has had good success with rehabilitation --except where the courts have shut them down for being too "Christian," not realizing that the gospel is at the heart of why they are successful.

To me, it should not be hard for society to provide a decent prison environment --one that made a productive use of time, that was safe, where a man could earn his keep, and improve his mind. It should not be like a murderous cattle pen, where the strong can prey on the weak, and the murder and rape are ever-present fears. Decency demands this. These are men and women made in God's image --marred by sin and candidates for redemption. They ought to be treated with basic dignity and afforded basic protections and basic joys.

I have yet to see my friend. The jail was busy, you see. I could not go when I needed to go. I must wait till tomorrow. At 3 pm. To see a man with nothing but time on his hands. Even then, this is not an appointment but a hope. I will drive an hour round-trip on this hope, as I have before, and hope I am not disappointed in my effort to see him. If this is frustrating for me, what must it be for my friend? What is more, he can only be visited by his pastor and immediate family, and then only for twenty minutes, once a month. The man's family wants nothing to do with him. The church is his family, but he is beyond most of our reach.

My friend tells me that the man who has been behind bars for years is a broken man. He is not defiant like the young offenders. He has lost hope. He is ripe to hear the gospel --but it is hard to get the gospel to him. The system and its byzantine rules (and they are staggering) makes it very hard. My friend tells me the man who comes to the prison to do services has no gospel at all --all condemnation and no grace. All of this makes me very sad.

Prisoners, like the unborn, are out of sight and out of mind for most people. They are men and women. They have done wrong and been caught. They are paying a debt of sorts. Some of them are dangerous and never need to be let out. Some of them are self-destructive and need to be kept away from the substances that enslave them. Most of them are like looking in the mirror.

I hope someday, perhaps, to have a part in prison ministry. Until then, let's not forget the forgotten men and women behind bars in this country. Let's figure out the ways to get Christ to them.


  1. "Most of them are like looking in the mirror." I have recently been thinking about prisons too. I read "Couldn't Keep it To Myself", a collection of short stories written by the women of York Correctional Institute and edited and pieced together by Wally Lamb, one of my favorite modern authors who teaches a writing workshop at the prison. I hope someday to do something of that sort. I cannot imagine a better inlet to a prison than by having something to teach and share. The collection, by the way, is gut-wrenching. It is not an easy or clean read, but it makes you stop and think hard about who you are in relationship to the prisoner, and that if a Believer, you have been set free, not from physical bars, but from eternal ones. It is one of those books that reminds me how level the ground at the foot of the cross truly is, though there is nothing of Christ in it, it points me to Him...

  2. One of many reasons why "prison" is an unbiblical concept.