February 3, 2011
Pushing Back Against the Box
For the last three years I have done something I never imagined I would do. I became involved in an activity so alien to my background and comfort level that it can be described as pushing back against the box I was in at the time. When I began I had serious doubts about my ability to carry out the task with even a modicum of success. A year into the process my involvement took a major step forward in a way that dramatically increased the risk of failure and a risk of physical danger.
Three years ago I became involved with prison ministry. I began to act as a mentor, a spiritual guide and sounding board to men who were either still in prison, or were just about to be released.
Trust me, up until that point I had zero involvement with this segment of society. Like most of us, my attitude toward prisoners was they probably got what they deserved. They were paying the cost for bad choices or being unlucky enough to be born in a poor environment. They were invisible as people; they were a stereotype.
The first exposure came when my church asked me to write to a fellow who was in state prison. He had been in jail for most of his life. He had no family support and had no visitors for over two years. With two more years to go on his latest sentence I began to write to him. The first few letters were very difficult. I had absolutely no idea what to say or not say. What questions should I ask? What should I not ask? Would he even bother to write back?
He did respond and was overjoyed to have anyone to communicate with. Even when I made it clear his situation was impossible for me to truly relate to, he didn't care. He just needed someone to give him hope and a little bit of attention. We continued to exchange letters for over a year until he felt comfortable enough in the relationship to ask me to visit him inside the prison.
OK, this wasn't something I had bargained for. I've seen enough prison movies to know that bad things happen behind the barbed wire. I figured there would be a paperwork screw up and I'd not be allowed to leave. Writing to someone was one thing, but actually going into a prison to meet someone I only knew through letters? I began to generate every reason why I couldn't do this.
I went. I thought of how I'd feel if I had been locked up and had no one come to see me in nearly three years. I figured people visit inmates all the time so I'd be fine. But, when the bus taking me into the prison yard rolled past the two gates, the barbed wire, the guard towers, and the patrolling dogs, I got very nervous.
It worked out just fine. Actually, the fellow I went to see was so nervous before seeing me he hadn't eaten in two days. He was worried I wouldn't show up and he'd be ridiculed by his cellmates. He worried his only chance to talk with someone who wasn't dressed in orange would not happen. I think he talked virtually nonstop for the 90 minute visit. I went back once more to see him. He was released from prison in late January and as of today is doing fine.
The reaction of that guy to the simplest human contact of letter writing lead me to another commitment two years ago: being a mentor and friend to a convict for a period of six months starting on the day he is released from prison. This program involves substantially more time and effort than simply letter writing. As someone's mentor I am expected to talk with him on the phone at least 4 times a week and visit him at the halfway house a minimum of once a week for the first four months.
I am expected to help him develop a budget, stay away from old friends and habits, help him get a job, buy him clothes, drive him to medical appointments, and meet with his parole officer on a regular basis. I attend church services with him and I help him in his faith walk. I am the person he calls when he worries he's about to make a mistake.
This experience has been absolutely fabulous. Both fellows I have mentored have successfully completed the six month program. Both have become employed and positive members of society. Both have overcome society's attitude that once a convict, always a convict.
The barriers we erect to keep these guys from succeeding are enormous. To their credit, they have taken all the obstacles put in their way and simply overcome them.
Why this long story about prison ministry? Do I want to convince you to become involved? That would be a tremendous side benefit and I'd be happy to talk with you in depth about the whole experience. But, really, the point is to give you a very personal example of pushing back against the box, the box that limits what you think yourself capable of.
Volunteering your time and skills helps you face some of your fears. It can push you to grow. Are you uncomfortable around children or homeless people? How do you feel about domestic violence? Do you avoid people who are dying? Do you believe all convicts are not to be trusted and are destined to end up back behind bars?
Are you willing to confront those perceptions by becoming involved with the very people you fear or are uncomfortable being with? Are you prepared to learn something new about yourself and the world we live in?
All I ask is you think about your self-constructed box and how it might limit you. Thinking outside the box is a cliché, but it doesn't make the statement any less powerful. There is a whole world waiting for you outside your box. What better time to discover it than today.