The slow roll of prison cell doors culminates in an abrupt, bone-rattling slam just like in the movies – only worse; these bones are hers, and the sound echoes to her core. My friend Alice is taking part in a prison ministry. She’s not just out of her comfort zone, she’s light years from it. She can’t go back now. She’ll tour eight prisons in five days. She’s surrounded by razor wire fencing, armed guards and men with face, neck and arm tattoos; rapists, murderers and pedophiles—the worst of the worst. An introvert by nature, she’d rather be anywhere else.
The men were brought into chapel just as you would expect: like cattle, pointed and prodded to take their seats. For the next two hours, they’ll hear God’s Word, and Alice will learn about herself. “Going in I knew I was better than these people,” she said. “We were not equal. I was good. They were not.” And then something happened: bars designed to keep people in could not keep truth out. The ‘worthless’ began to feel worthy. Big, tough, hardened men worshipped God unlike any Alice had ever seen back home in her Tennessee church. Hope began to color an otherwise grey existence. The men filed out of chapel and Alice was overcome with shame. “I didn’t talk to any of them. I could have, but I didn’t. I only judged what I thought they were.”
The next visits would be different. Alice experienced similar scenes, broken men redeemed, restored, and reconciled. Only this time she bolted to the back the room after it was over so she could shake every hand, smile and talk to each man. She asked about their families, she told them they matter. “I never felt more alive, more safe,” Alice said. “These men were no more broken than me. They just screwed up their lives and hurt people. Still, they’re desperate for love – desperate for hope.”
Alice sits alone. All she had seen swirls around her head challenging all she had previously believed. The men’s faces have left indelible marks. She closes her eyes and sees each one—how they reached out for God, how they wept in front of one another without shame…the way they managed to escape for a couple of hours.
Their crimes, horrendous.
Their punishment, justified.
Their redemption, entirely within reach.
There is a greater story at work here–one that says we’re all guilty of something and the discarded can be reclaimed; including you and me.