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.


  1. Bob,
    Congratulations, first on Facebook. I have a regular schedule for visiting sites but your Facebook item short circuited my schedule. I'll bet I'm not the only one.
    Second that is a tremendous story. It is the kind of activity that is easier to manage after retirement and as you describe something that most people would recoil from doing. It is just another thing that government can't do and a way to make a difference that matters.
    Most people would never do this on their own because of all the fears. You were brought in through your church but then took the bit for more.
    I hope you can provide more information about this because it is the kind of thing that gives meaning to life. How can people do this without the encouragement you received? Are there organizations to help people who want to try? or just have questions?

  2. Ralph,

    I deeply appreciate your supportive comments. Sometimes when I write something that is centered so much on me I worry about readers being turned off.

    Being involved in prison ministry has been an amazing experience. This world was completely alien to me. It turns out my images and stereotypes were very wrong, for at least some of the individuals behind bars.

    Do I believe every convict has the ability to do what my mentees have done? Absolutely not. There are some very bad people in prison, and some very bad things happen inside those walls. But, to assign every one of them to a certain fate is simply wrong. If prison is really meant to rehabilitate, then a different mindset is neede by the prison system and society.

    I'd be glad to provide more information in a follow up post.

    Thanks again, Ralph, for visiting the Facebook page and more importantly, leaving your heartfelt comment.

  3. WOW! I can't lie tears welled up in my eyes as I was reading this. However even still I found myself making excuses even before I had finished your piece, "I have no time, I already do this and that, but I'm a girl" to just name a few of the many thoughts that entered my head as I read. How do you become the person that does? It's so easy to be the person who try's or the person who will do... but to actually put yourself out there completely selflessly and blindly and just take that leap of faith... That truly is a lot harder than you let on! Life is so much safer when you stay inside your box of safety... I can only imagine how rewarding it might be to actually step outside of that box..

  4. I agree that if you volunteer your time to a cause, you will experience personal growth in ways you never thought possible.

  5. Very inspiring story Bob and very courageous from where I sit. I cannot imagine your nervousness driving into the prison for the first time. I have an interview tomorrow and am nervous as a cat! But your article helps put things into perspective big time. Keep up your inspired work and writing - it helps us all.

  6. Absolutely true, Steve. You never know until you try something different.

  7. Anonymous,

    I bet you can do it. You just have to give yourself permission to be uncomfortable, and to fail. Those are the two essential requirements.

    By the way, the prison ministry organization I work with in Phoenix has several dozen women who live in group homes and all have outside mentors (or are waiting for someone to volunteer). So, being "a girl" can't be one of your excuses!

    Actually, the women bring tears to my eyes when they publicly talk about their situations. Most have kids they haven't seen for years. The healing of old wounds and the reuniting of a mom and her children will cause me to blubber every time.

    Thank you fro sharing today. I am very happy what I wrote reached you on such an emotional level.

  8. LoveBeingRetired,

    Thanks, Dave. Actually entering the prison was even more of a test of my convictions: I boarded a bus driven by an inmate after leaving my car in the parking lot. As a visitor you are not allowed to bring in a cell phone, your wallet, or wear any brown or orange-colored clothing. You are permitted $20 in quarters in a clear plastic bag to buy food from the vending machines for yourself and the person you are there to see. There is a line on the floor about 3 feet from the vending machines that the inmate is not allowed to cross. Only the visitor may approach the machine.

    You must keep your hands in clear sight the entire time. There are many more details that I will save for a follow up post!

    An interview tomorrow? Good luck, whatever it is for.

  9. Wow! Powerful post. My did did prison ministry for a long time. I considered doing work at the Juvenal facility in town. Sounds like a project for April...
    I'd love to read more!

  10. Hi Bob,

    Thanks for another good post.

    I understand the positive implications of moving outside the comfort zones. In addition, there are a couple of related things that may be at work in your experiences, or others like yours, that I'd like to put out there ....

    First, great things like this can happen when one person takes the initiative to give another person the opportunity to get involved. Here, someone at your church asked you to write a letter. Look at where things went from there.

    Second, I suspect there is a joy, or a peaceful satisfaction, from sharing your gifts. Not the kind that says I'm happy because I did something neat, but more along the lines of I have been freely given some gifts and I'm grateful I am getting to share them.

    On a side note, I have some limited familiarity with prison visits. Although I am a civil lawyer, many years ago I was appointed by the federal court to represent a death row inmate, which required periodic visits to see my client at the penitentiary.

    Take care.

  11. Good evening, Janette,

    You have a family history to uphold! I hope you investigate involvement in the juvenile facility. It can be a tremendously uplifting experience.

    Thanks for the nice comments. I will put together a follow up post.

  12. Rick,

    You are right about how various factors interacted to bring about a good situation. The request by my pastor to begin letter writing started the whole process. Then, I felt I wanted a more personal involvement. After a fair amount of research I found the prison ministry organization in town and took the next step.

    The sharing of gifts is a very important part of what happened. I believe my responsibility is to use what I have been given to the best of my abilities. Your insight into how this all developed seems dead on. Thanks very much for your comment.

  13. Bob,
    Reading your reply to my comment reinforces a direction I found myself going on my blog. Revealing more about my personal activities and feeling. Your post today confirms the strength of transparency instead of preaching. You really got me thinking about my limited vision and self-focus today. Where it will take me I don't know.

  14. Ralph,

    I'm happy you found something to ponder in developing your own, excellent blog. As we both have learned, this type of public writing is really an on-going work in progress. There is a balance that must be found between being a personal diary and a place that simply passes on information.

    I have no firm handle on what will strike a chord with readers, or lay an egg. But, I keep typing anyway!

  15. I was so interested in this post! When I lived in Thailand, I had friends who visited people in prison there. Some Americans (and other foreigners) didn't take the drug laws seriously, and there were always people there who would live out their days under life sentence. So tragic. I never visited there myself, but Jesus tells us to visit those in prison.

    I think it took a lot of courage for you to step up in this role. I can imagine that it is very rewarding and immensely appreciated. You are my hero for the day!

  16. Thanks, Galen,

    I appreciate your sentiment but I don't think what I do is being a hero. I am just responding to a call I feel to minister to these guys.

    Now that I've been involved for a few years I get so angry at how society puts so many barriers up for a released inmate that he or she is almost guaranteed to fail. There is no real belief in the concept of someone completing a sentence and then being allowed to prove he is a changed person. Most think that "once guilty, always guilty."

    I guess what I'm trying to do is prove that attitude wrong, one person at a time.

    Thanks so much for your comment.

  17. That's a beautiful story, Bob. I really admire you for stepping out of your comfort zone. I think it will be a long time before I get there (if ever), but I've had at least a small experience with how much a little kindness and patience can accomplish. Last year, I went to the shelter and took a chance on a blind, unfriendly cat that had been in a cage for over a year. I was aware that she might never be a friendly, cuddly cat, but I took her home hopefully anyway. She's since turned out to be one of the sweetest tempered cats I know who has repaid my patience and affection in full. (She's the cat in my profile!)

    Give me another forty years, and maybe I'll work my way up to people. :-)

  18. Hi Jennifer,

    Brie, the cat, looks quite regal lying there in the photo. Rescuing animals from the life of a shelter is a very loving thing to do and quite a commitment.

    The payoff of the latest mentor relationship came yesterday. The fellow I've been working with since September graduated from the discipleship training class and his 6 month promise to live in the men's shelter. He is now moving on with his life, though we will remain friends forever.

    It is a tremendously rewarding experience to see the promise inside someone come to fruition.

  19. How could anyone not support what you are doing. Best of luck...as teacher I know that the rewards will out last the actual call to duty. I send much love (dare I say that) to you. You have taking the challenge and making it your quest.



  20. I certainly appreciate the kind words, b. The message I hope this post conveys is that anyone can take his or her own set of skills or abilities and use them to help another.

    Looking past your own reservations or stereotypes or misconceptions can open up a new world of possibilities for you.

  21. I have tremendous respect for those who are engaged in prison ministry. I don't think I could do this work, but I am committed social activist and it has enriched my life and especially enriched my retirement.

    There’s a growing body of work that supports the view that activism makes us happy! See "Does political activism make us happy?" at http://www.the-next-stage.com/2010/03/one-of-my-facebook-friends-sent-me-link.html

  22. Thanks for the comment, Karen. I also appreciate the link to the blog (cut & paste to use). I have it on my to-read list.

    I agree with the premise that volunteer work can make you happier. Giving back makes one feel good. The only caveat: volunteering can be overdone and become a generator of stress. Moderation is very important.

  23. Hello....My name is Anthony Briones...My Mentor is and will always be Mr. Bob Lowry.....Where to start....I didn't even give this man a chance. I tried everything to "SHOOOOO" him away! But to no avail. The following is a Manhood Plan that I developed through the mentorship of Bob Lowry....First and foremost ..."I LOVE THIS MAN"......the time and then more time, he has invested in my new life with CHRIST has and will always be very detrimental to my relationshil with JESUS CHRIST!!! Here is a man that invited a PRISONER into his Family Home at Thanksgiving and kept the focus on my Happiness.....Read who I am trying to be from my past, present and the future........I will break this up into three posts.......
    This is the kind of MAN that my dear Friend Bob was dealing with for the last six months....May the Grace and Peace of Our Lord Jesus Christ Be with Bob Lowry, now and for ever!!!

  24. My dear friend Anthony,

    Thank you for your comments and love. The 6 month mentorship with you was a tremendous experience for me. I am absolutely convinced I got as much out of the time together as you did.

    The folks at Along Side Ministry are proud of you and how you handled yourself, as am I. The nice thing about a mentor-mentee relationship is it doesn't end after 6 months. I expect to be friends with you forever.

    Note: Anthony developed an extensive "Manhood Plan" in order to graduate from the program. Because of it's length I am posting in on the right sidebar instead of here as a comment. I encourage you to read what he has written.

    If you have any comments you'd like me to pass along to Anthony I'd be glad to do so. Send me an e-mail and I'll be sure I share your thoughts with him.

    It should be quite obvious from Anthony's comment that he is a tremendous fellow.

  25. Bob,

    Thank you for your courage and this amazing post. I really like how you unveil yourself to us and challenge us all to be, human. This post has really got me thinking. Thank you again for this great post. You are appreciated.

  26. Thank you for the very kind words and support. I hope that others who read about my experiences test their own limits and learn that a life is meant to be really lived, not just survived.

  27. As I sit here and appreciate the last six months with Bob, a story comes to mind: Moses and Joshua (Mentor and Mentee) aptly illustrate a successful mentoring partnership. Moses demonstrated the wisdom of a mentor by deciding to delegate an important task (Exodus 17:9). He placed one of his soldiers, Joshua, in command of a battle with the Amalekites over a water dispute. In making this decision, Moses demonstrated trust in Joshua’s gifts and leadership potential. He opened the way for their ongoing teamwork. This is the first time this “mentor” asked someone else to lead an attack, one of many that his “mentee” Joshua would command.

    For the most part this emmulates Bob and I and our relationship. For a while there, I was trying to be the Moses......but Bob pushed me to enhance the leadership skills I already potrayed by forcing me to deal with the hard issues of SOCIETY after Prison. I then became the Joshua, and the listener. I was able to complement the gifts God had already placed in me to there fullest. I'm not sure if without the Mentorship of Bob Lowry, that I would have allowed them to come out of me.....Thank you Jesus for placing this man in the path of Anthony Briones. A path that not even I would have taken upon. Jesus, it is my hope and prayer that you would use this relationship of Praise to help both of us increase JOY in YOU, and bring GLORY to YOUR Name in NEW ways. God Bless All for Look for Jesus in these words, and in Bob Lowry.

  28. Nothing to add. Thank you, Anthony.