Thursday, February 28, 2013

Visited me…

Some of you know this already. If not, you’ll be intrigued. On February 15, as I was working on a sermon and drinking coffee, a colleague who leads a large, dynamic church called and said, “Shane, I’d like to send you to prison.”

I didn’t do anything wrong. Truly. He wasn’t angry with me or warning me. Rather, he’d called to explain a program he helped develop and to offer me a spot. Simply put, he’s leading a group of youngish ministers into Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana. We’ll live there from Monday until Friday, March 4-8, immersing ourselves in the prison’s life. Well…at least to an extent. We won’t sleep in cells, but in prison guest houses. We can’t have cell phones or computers inside, but also can’t walk around alone, outside the group. We know when we’ll leave, must wear business casual rather than issued garb. Our food will be the prisoners’ food; our schedule set by the prison staff.

Unfortunately, since this experience came up so last minute, I won’t be in worship Sunday the 3rd. But as I discussed the possibility with our Board leadership and Servant Leaders, they said, “Shane, this sounds like a powerful opportunity. Once in a lifetime…we hope! Go learn something, bring it back, and don’t do anything to make them keep you there.”

So I’m going. As I anticipate the trip, my heart and soul rumbles with many voices. I’m excited; I never imagined I’d have the chance to experience such a rich, unique learning environment. I’m nervous; for as learning environments go, prisons have slightly lower reputations than the typical library. I’m insecure; I imagine I’ll meet folk who’ve dealt with harder life events than I’ve ever had to. I’m grateful; for a supportive church, creative colleagues, the privileges and comforts of my every day.

I could go on. But I keep returning to one scripture that sums up why I wanted to go. You know it well. Jesus tells the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, imagining what that “great getting’ up morning” will be like as all humanity meets God face-to-face. To those whom God is pleased with, Jesus names the reason as- “When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was thirsty, you gave me drink. When I was naked, you gave me clothes. When in prison, you visited me…whatsoever you’ve done unto these, my children- even the ‘least’- you’ve done so unto me.” I usually focus on the food and water and clothing part. Visiting the prisoner? Not really.

Of course, in Jesus’ day, internment was different than it is now. He maybe was imagining simple farmers locked up in debtor’s prison; poor people forced, but unable, to pay larger rents and taxes than their small fields could sustain. These days, more people are incarcerated for drug related crimes than debt, or theft or violence. Not exactly the same, although for many, I’m told, drug use and sales are one of too few opportunities for money making in impoverished urban neighborhoods. And sentencing terms for these poor men and women are typically much harsher than for crimes common to wealthier folk (like embezzlement or powder cocaine usage, as contrasted with property theft and crack). In other words, Jesus’ urging his followers to have compassion on downtrodden peasants confined by an unjust system, it’s not a carbon copy way to our current situation. But neither is it irrelevant. Indeed, it probably matters more these days than we’d prefer admitting.

So I’ve decided to take Jesus’ advice, visit the prison and learn what I can. Not to mention take the advice of a PCCC member who likes saying, “If something feels uncomfortable, it’s probably the right thing to do!” I expect to feel naïve most of the week, confront biases in my soul that I wish weren’t there. But I’ll try to share that with you, either through emails during the week or when I get home. Perhaps then we’ll hear together Christ’s ever-present call- “Whatsoever you’ve done…”- and so recommit to seeking more actively more folk to visit, to serve, to love.

Grace and Peace,


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