Yesterday we celebrated the feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist. Since John was imprisoned by Herod, our parish prayer intention was for those in prison. By God’s Providence, yesterday afternoon I visited a parishioner at the Forsyth County Jail. I had never met this person and was asked to visit by a relative. I have made professional visits to the Forsyth County Jail several times. The jail is a massive structure that feels empty even though I know it is quite occupied. Visiting someone in jail is just as you see it on television. There is a glass window that is divided by small privacy panels, a stool, and a phone.
Professional visits (clergy, social workers, attorneys, etc.) are allowed at times different from regular visits, so usually I am the only one present in the visitation room, again adding to the feeling of emptiness. Yesterday, however, I entered the room just as the professional visitation hour began and the regular visitation hour was ending, so there was some overlap. I sat on my stool and waited for my visit while family members were finishing their visits on either side of me. I wasn’t paying attention to their conversations as I was trying to focus in prayer on my own visit, but I easily recognized tones of voices. Laughter, affection, anxiety, and long good-byes were on either side. I wondered what I would say to someone if I were on the other side of the glass. What would I find funny? How hard would it be to project affection through glass?
As I watched the inmates leave and walk down the steps to enter the general population area, I noticed they held the door open for each other. That struck me. These were men who have broken the law, some of them have taken away property, dignity, and even life itself. Why would they extend the very small courtesy of holding open the door? I thought about the times I have driven through the worst neighborhoods, places that are riddled with violent crime, drugs, prostitution, and abject poverty. I’ve seen homes with no windows, doors hanging off the hinges, and yet potted plants on the porch. Potted plants. They are watered and taken care of. In the midst of all this, why would they bother? The answer came quickly – even in the worst places there is the hope of redemption. There is this promise of good. Beauty is the script of God’s signature and it is seen everywhere and in everyone.
During my visit, I reminded the person on the other side of the glass about this. They understood the consequences of their actions and the future is uncertain. There are no atheists in foxholes and probably not in jail – at least in the beginning. I don’t think that is cheap grace, I think it is forced reckoning. The question has been called. Things have gotten real. What do I do now?
I was asked how to pray, what to read, how to hope, and how to be forgiven. The question was asked by a person with an assigned number but it was a person who has also been marked as Christ’s own forever. Let us remember that as we pray for those who are in prison. Let us pray for those in prison who do not belong there and let us pray for those in prison who need to be there. Praying for them does not take away what they might have taken away, but it does remind us that even in places where there is common history of inhumanity, they still hold doors open for one another. They, too, are made in the image and likeness of God. Praying them reminds us that they are asking the questions that we too should be asking: how to pray, what to read, how to hope, and how to be forgiven. Praying for them is to hold the door open as they make their way.
We concluded our visit by praying the General Confession, the promise to read John’s Gospel, and future visit for more prayer and Bible Study, as best as can be done through glass and the phone. As I left the jail, retrieved my ID and keys, and walked outside to people waiting to visit or to sort out their own legal mess, someone held the door open for me as I walked outside.