Voices

The voices didn’t start up until I was on my way out the door.  

What in the world do you think you’re doing?
I’d like to chalk that up to a superior faith or a deeper confidence in myself or in the Holy Spirit.  But when I’m honest, I think it’s best attributed to a lack of planning and a naive confidence in my ability to pull things out my backside at the last possible moment to avert disaster.

Are you insane?  
It’s a fair question on my most lucid of days.  And now, on 4th of July eve, as I’m headed out of my office and up to the county jail, it hardly seems out of place.  
These guys are never going to accept you, never going to be able to relate to you.  You’re wasting your time.
The most dangerous voices are the ones that whisper slight variations of the truth, derivatives of reality that are altered not in their essence so much as in their implications.  I may very well not be accepted.  And the gulf of experiences to be bridged is not inconsiderable.  I’m going to speak with men I’ve never met before, who have been incarcerated for any number of possible reasons.  It could easily be that nothing can come of my time with them.  There are any number of reasons to turn around, or to head south on the 101 instead of north.  
The voices are left behind on the ride to the freeway, just a few minutes from my comfortable office to the county jail.  After signing in I wait in the lobby for the guard to take me to South Tank.  In a shockingly few number of minutes, I am led through two locked doors and the bars to the cell are opened and I’m ushered inside, the door closing behind.  
There are 20-30 men in here with me, ranging in age from early 20’s to 50’s.  I pass a small room to the left where there are two tables and 12 built in steel stools.  But people are already sitting in there reading the paper.  There are a few guys who clearly were awaiting a pastoral call, and they lead me into the main cell area where the walls are lined with bunk beds.  Near the bars that separate the cell from the hallway are two other tables, one of which is hastily cleared.  Four or five men quickly welcome me, shaking hands firmly.  One of them has his own Bible.  
We sit down.  They want to know a little bit about me.  And then with the mention of ‘Lutheran’ we’re off on a Q&A session about what Lutherans are and how they relate to Catholics and any number of other groups.  It would seem that most of the guys sitting with me are in on drug-related charges.  There are a few scattered questions about the Bible.  I ask them about their ‘typical’ routine with pastoral visits, and there doesn’t seem to be anything specific.  There’s a man in his mid-twenties who indicated he had graduated from teen challenge a few years earlier.  His head is neatly shaved and his arms sport tattoos, including a newer one that is a stylized symbol that, when read one direction, says ‘Life’, and when read from the other direction, spells ‘Death’.  He likes to sing karaoke, and he breaks out in a few verses of several different songs.  They were playing “I Can Only Imagine” when they picked me up out of the gutter and took me to Teen Challenge.  That song makes me cry every time.  After a few moments he wanders off.
We move to a time of prayer.  One of them has his sentencing hearing on Thursday morning.  He’s facing nine years in prison on a charge he doesn’t explain.  He’s worried.  He hasn’t been able to make contact with his son.  He appears to be in his 50’s, gaunt and frail with deep, dark eyes that look as though they could burst into tears at any moment.   Another wants prayer for his 80+ year old father, and for the strength to make a fresh start when he himself is released from jail – perhaps in another six months if the plea bargain is accepted.   One man who might be in his early 30’s or late 20’s wants prayer for himself as well as his girlfriend and three children.  It will be months before he’s released, if all goes well.  In the meantime he’s struggling to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.  He seems gentle, oddly out of place in the midst of this cell.  Another inmate mounts the upper bunk next to us and looks down over us, watching, curious.
We hold hands as we pray, mine on the bottom, followed by the one I’m praying for, and the other guys gathered round to place their hands on top.  I don’t have a watch, but as we’re wrapping up our time of prayer, there are guards circulating outside the cell.  The men are reluctant to have me go, sharing as we walk back through the cell.  One of them goes to flag down a guard to let them know I’m ready to leave.  There is more prayer.
On my way out, the man whose father I prayed for thanks me for coming.  It was a real blessing for you to come and spend time with us.  Today was a bad day in the Tank.  But you coming made it better.
There are perhaps a lot of ways to think through a voice like that.  Many ways to discount it or deflect it.  I have a hard time sitting with that sort of a compliment, because really, it’s not me, it’s the One who sent me.  So I’ll keep wrestling with how to handle that sort of naked gratitude.  In the meantime, I think I’ve figured out a way to respond to the voices that assaulted me on my way out of the office.
Go back to hell.

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