Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate, and to humble.
The church music staff was a bit short-handed Sunday morning…it was Labor Day weekend. I was the organist on duty. I love the “king of instruments” and do my best to use its capabilities to enhance the worship experience for those in attendance. But I wasn’t prepared for this compliment, warmly handed to me by a guest following the service: “You filled the room with the grace of God!”
Nine little words, and they made my Sunday!
That simple act of kindness served to remind me of the role our HFP team members play every day. We’re interacting with prisoners at a record pace. And when we’re so rushed responding to email messages and phone calls, it’s easy to be curt with our answers and short with our responses. Yet, it’s important for us to remember that, for incarcerated men and women, kind and gentle words are foreign. Their world is filled with oral unpleasantries, coming from all directions---their bunkies, the general population, and yes, the staff. Their waking hours are filled with orders, threats, bitches and complaints.
This means that if we’re going to show an inmate that we care, we must keep the snarky comments to ourselves, we must resist the urge to correct, and we must remember that it’s not important for us to have the last word. Instead, we do our best to try to encourage inmates. It’s meaningful to thank them when they send kind words of gratitude to us. Even when they raise their voices in frustration, we try not to respond in kind.
How does this apply to your lives, those of you who are reading this and who are not communicating with prisoners? Well, I think this kindness is important not only in how we speak with prisoners, but also how we speak about them. It’s very easy to label them “the worst-of-the-worst, losers, animals, vicious criminals, predators, derelicts, etc.” Father Greg Boyle says: “It is certainly true that you can’t judge a book by its cover, nor can you judge a book by its first chapter—even if that chapter is twenty years long.”
And so, we covet your prayers, as we do our best to extend compassion to those behind bars today, maybe with just a kind word. And we ask that you soften your thoughts and words about the incarcerated. As Fr. Boyle stresses: there’s no us and them, only us.
Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.