A sad excuse for a human being was knocking on the door of a homeless shelter, probably hoping to find a place to sleep that night. Asked Father Greg Boyle of a fellow Jesuit priest who answered the door, “Who was it?” Answered the priest: Jesus in his least recognizable form.
It was a profound reminder to me: That’s exactly who I see behind bars!
Now don’t give me that “soft on crime,” “bleeding heart,” “no concern for the victims” stuff. I’m an old man and I’ve been in this for years. I know darn well who’s in prison and why.
But give me a little space to explain.
Yesterday, two stories crossed my desk. Some unpleasant prison staff members a couple weeks ago took every wheelchair from one medical unit in the women’s prison, leaving crippled people weeping and begging, some crawling on the floor. Another officer shouted, “Get that woman off the floor!” In a day or two the wheelchairs were back again, but why did that happen?
On the same day, I received a message from an inmate who has every reason to be bitter. His application for commutation was denied. Honestly, I can think of no one more deserving of freedom. But instead of reflecting that anger, he told how he befriended a cynical old gang-banger who has been torturing and terrorizing inmates for years. He discovered that the man’s birthday is approaching, collected some little items from friends, actually gift-wrapped them, and is planning a little birthday observance. He’s hoping a little kindness will show the bad actor that there’s a better way.
Which sounds more like Jesus to you?
We hear stories of kindness, compassion and just plain goodness regularly from behind bars.
-A woman watching out for a dear old lady with dementia
-A man begging for us to help two geriatric patients who he thinks are dying
-Prisoners constantly asking us to help peers with special needs
-Musicians who do their best to enhance in-prison worship experiences
-Inmates who organize fund-raising efforts for charities on the outside
-Hobby craft participants knitting and crocheting goods for the homeless, poor and needy
-Horticulture experts growing vegetables and flowers for others.
Jesus said, I was in prison and you visited me.
I note that he didn’t say, “You visited some very unpleasant or evil person in prison.” In my humble and "untheological" mind, I interpret that to mean that, when I enter those prison doors, hear the clanging of the gates behind me, and look out over the sea of faces (many of them of a different color), I see the faces of Jesus.
Perhaps the Jesuit priest would describe them as Jesus in his least recognizable form.
At year’s end, I thank God for this experience.