Last week I was in Florida so I missed my class. This week I had a good friend of mine from college go with me. This email is mostly from his thoughts and experience. I just want to share one quick story.When I got back from florida there was a story in the front page of our local newspaper about a teen I knew pretty well is charged with murder. I was shocked and worried for him, I want to communicate with him either through a visit or a letter. I am unsure of what exactly to say. I decided to ask one of the guys in my class about what was going through his mind and what he needed in that time of his life. His response saddened me, he said Ben you know what I remember most from that time I was locked up in the county jail before being sentenced? I shook my head because I was clueless. He said the thing I remember most is that my youth pastor never contacted me, never visited me, he pretty much disowned me. He went on to say that as I sat there thinking about my guilt, God, life etc I kept thinking about church/youth group and it was sad that the person I associated most with had abandoned me. It left me as something to think about.
Here are Lance's thought's on the night: if you would want to respond directly to him his email is firstname.lastname@example.org
As we walked up to the Indiana State Prison, I found myself tensing up inside, hoping it wouldn't show on the outside. During my drive up earlier in the day, I asked God, "What am I doing here?" This was my first visit to a prison, let alone a maximum security prison. It was obvious Ben had gone through the routine before, as he seemed quite relaxed.
After going through several gates of security and flashing ID badges at a few checkpoints, we wove our way through the halls to a door leading outside, then across a short courtyard to a century old chapel that could probably hold around 400 people. As we entered, another class was taking place with about 50 inmates scattered around the room, so we took seats in the back. As we sat, Ben motioned to an inmate by name sitting several seats over. The huge smile that appeared made it clear that Andre was very glad to see Ben. A few moments later an inmate that looked like he just arrived in a time machine from 1970 walked up and started a lively one-sided discussion about a contradiction he had noticed in the chapters of the book. His argument was persuasive, and Ben just nodded and smiled. Dave went on to chat about how well he was doing in school, listing the grades for each class, beaming with excitement about his progress and the potential merit it could earn him to reduce his sentence.
The class in progress was wrapping up, and we got up to moved to the aisle. As we stood, several other inmates approached us, and Ben greeted them each by name, introduced me, and participated in light banter with each about various topics.
I struck up a conversation with Andre. He was a large man, probably would've been a linebacker or defensive end in high school, yet carried a very calm and quiet presence about himself. He looked to be 30ish, and began to tell me about his four children, all under the age of 10. Before I knew it, he had whipped out a stack of photos, and was proudly displaying them to me, rattling off their names and ages. He then showed me pictures of his wife, and was full of compliments for the way she was raising them while he was in "the joint." I felt so at ease talking with this man who most likely committed a horrific crime, and I almost forgot I was in a place that housed death row offenders. Andre went on to tell how he was came to know Jesus in 2004 (he quoted the date), and how his life before knowing Christ was full of one terrible choice after another. He said growing up in east Chicago was really tough, but God is faithful. We talked about the importance of praying for our kids, staying faithful to Christ, and the power of encouraging others. Then he quietly said something about having to be here for 60 years, as if it were going to be over soon. At that moment the weight of it all hit me....
I struggled with the fact that this man was human, and that he would be staring at the barbed wire surrounding the complex until my own toddler sons were grandparents someday. I struggled with the thought of Andre's children only knowing their father through plexiglass visits and timed phone calls. I wrestled with the idea that if I knew the man's actual crime, I might find myself thinking "And you only got 60 years as a penalty?"
Class began as Ben handed out the essay tests, and the inmates took 15 minutes to fill in their answers. As each came to turn in their papers, Ben introduced us. Each man looked me in the eye and shook hands.
Ben shared on the first two chapters of the night, covering the ideas of Accepting Your Assignment for Service and realizing that we're all Shaped for Serving God. He did a great job hitting the highlights of the chapters, engaging the students, and wrangling the tangential comments back on course. As he asked for feedback from the group, he called out each raised hand by name - this was very striking to me.
Then it was my turn to share from the final two chapters for the night. By this time, all my fears were gone as I felt as if I was speaking to a bunch of guys I could hang out with to watch a game this weekend or play a pickup game of hoops. I highlighted the author's chapters on Understanding Your Shape and then Using What God Gave You. Again, the group was very willing to participate in discussion and offer insight based on their unique experiences. It was an easy discussion to lead.
As time ran out on our class, the guys started to dismiss and several approached Ben and I to offer thanks for making the effort to be there. They seemed very genuine in their gratitude, and had I not been in a maximum security prison, I would've never realized I was rubbing shoulders with a population of men that the church - for the most part - has left to rot inside these thick concrete walls.
Ben and I left I.S.P. telling each other about the conversations we had with the men that night, and how apparent it was that once Christ enters a man's heart, no matter what evil that heart had done, that same heart can become new.
This was my first visit to a maximum security prison. It won't, by the grace of God, be my last.