Prison Bars & Rental Cars
He was totally right. Adam, that is. He’s a fellow church member who told me I’d love my time in prison. He should know. He’s spent plenty of time there himself.
Adam served for several years with an organization that offered classes in Ohio prisons. When I told him I had been invited to teach a class at a maximum security prison in Texas, his eyes lit up. “You’re going to receive way more than you give,” he warned me. His infectious enthusiasm about teaching men in this context framed my expectations. And it was even better than he led me to imagine.
So, last week I had the honor of teaching a class of sophomores in an accredited college program in a prison near Houston. I had over thirty students. Several of them were Christians. All of them were amazing. It’s a program that over twenty Texas prisons participate in. Men who are accepted into the program are then transferred into the prison where the college is located, where I was teaching. When they graduate, they are then transferred to another prison where they serve their fellow inmates as “field ministers.” It’s a remarkable program.
“I wouldn’t give up all that Jesus has done in my life for some guy cutting in line,” he said to me. This particular student became a friend during the week whom I’ve prayed for by name several times a day since I left — every time he comes to mind. I had asked him how he keeps from getting angry when other men steal from him or cut in line in the mess hall. He quickly shared that his Christian growth means far more to him than getting even or proving himself right. And he’s not a small guy who couldn’t retaliate. He’s just got bigger priorities.
A lot of the men I met will likely never leave prison. And yet, those who knew the Lord had a settled and undeniable joy that you couldn’t help but quietly celebrate. Standing in the college library with a few hundred men singing at the top of their lungs in our morning meetings is something I’ll not soon forget. Hearing them echo lyrics of how Jesus has set them free does something to you. It did something to me. I won’t be the same. I can’t unsee or unhear that. It was the soul-stirring sound of souls who have found something satisfying at the deepest level.
I’m still processing it all, to be honest. The couple who lead the program followed up with me after I got home and offered some encouragement for reflecting on the things I had seen, heard, and experienced. While I know prison is a dark place, and I know I’m probably prone to romanticize my limited exposure there, I just can’t shake the authentic happiness and humility of men who are at peace with their position, who simply desire to grow, to learn, and to serve.
The Broad Hall
There was a long and wide walkway through the central building I passed through every morning. Crossing it at several points were adjoining hallways three-stories-tall with cells seemingly going on forever side-by-side, stacked one on top of another. It was almost dizzying looking through all the bars, through cells which seemed never ending, with men scattered all about. It was hard to tell where one cell ended and another began.
It was a bit overwhelming, especially when mixed with the anxiety I experienced first stepping past the last checkpoint on the free side of the prison, into this wide and long hall where hundreds of prisoners were shuffling from one end to the other, stopping at the same gates I would stop at, waiting for one of the guards to open the entrance to another long stretch leading to another gate, each section teeming with men in transit.
It only took about five minutes before I forgot where I was. Once I started teaching these guys I quickly felt at home. I had an exceptional crew, that was a big part of it. Those guys were all really impressive. Now, each day when I enjoy something I know they don’t get to enjoy, their faces come to my mind. I’ll recall their names, their voices even, and I’ll wonder how they’re doing today. I’m sure I’ll get back to normal some day, but the truth is, I really don’t want to. My teaching in prison was transformative . . . for me. It impacted me. Those men made an impact on me. And I’m thankful.
Undeserved and Always Sufficient
I know they’ve done some horrible things. And I don’t say this to brush that aside, but the truth is, we’re all guilty in our own ways. And we all have prisons of our making, of one kind or another. The reality is, none of us deserve grace any more than anyone else, and none of us need it any less. Spending time with these amazing students made me want to share in the joy they’ve found in knowing and trusting Jesus from a place where he alone is the source of hope and security and life. In a word, he is — everything.
My last walk down that hallway was the most memorable. The student who helped me throughout the week once again escorted me to the final checkpoint, as far as he could go. But before we got there, as we waited for our last gate to be opened, another man standing nearby made it clear he wasn’t doing well. This student grabbed my shoulder, pulled me over, and the three of us huddled together as he led in prayer. When he said “amen,” this other man clung to him like a child to a mother, sobbing. But through his tears, he smiled and thanked him for his care and for his prayer.
And with that I walked through my last gate. I showed my I.D. and just stepped back onto the free side, and headed towards my rental car to drive to the airport. So quickly I left one world for another. But the truth is, it’s all the same world, marked by the same kind of stuff. It’s really only another world, one beyond prison bars and rental cars, that pierces the darkness of all our hearts, and offers us a path to freedom.
Every Road Has a Destination
Jesus once described a broad way — traversed by many souls — leading to destruction. It’s a narrow way, Jesus explained, that leads to life. But thank God there’s a way. It’s a path that can start anywhere really. It can start in your home, your high school, or even in a prison cell. But once you step onto it, it beckons you to progress, to move, to take the next step, and then the next one, until you are like my student who flatly told me he had come too far to turn back.
It’s a journey that can begin from anywhere, but, no matter where it is entered, it always leads to the same place, to the same person. He’s the way, the truth, and the life. I had to go to prison to be reminded of the joy of knowing Jesus. That’s really what I learned from those men there. And I’ll carry that lesson and their memories with me along this path. As my friend shared, we’ve come too far to turn back now. And as the disciple Peter once asked, where else would we go? Only Jesus has the words of life.