Love thy neighbor, when he or she is behind bars?
Anyone can love a rose, but it takes a lot to love a leaf! Tom Flynn
I’ve been thinking a lot about love these days.
Perhaps it’s because Pastor Nate is in the middle of a sermon series on First Corinthians 13, that famous Bible passage about love. It’s easy for us to mouth popular cliches, “God is Love,” or “Love thy Neighbor,” but, as Nate is pointing out, the subject requires much closer examination. And deeper thought.
I’m a bit of a freak, I suppose, because I have a genuine love for persons who are incarcerated. I mean it. I love prisoners! And I think it started long before I got into this prisoner advocacy business.
I remember in 1969, my partner and I were excited to bring FM radio to Grand Haven. As the owners of the local radio station, we staged a big local ceremony when WGHN-FM went on the air. One of my first goals, as a broadcast journalist, was to do some in-depth programming on topics of interest. In those days, the use of heroin was becoming a major drug problem.
It so happens that a new prison had just opened in Ionia, named after its first warden: The Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility. Hoping to get permission to interview prisoners serving time on heroin charges, I contacted Warden Handlon. He welcomed me with open arms, gave me a personal tour of that new, innovative facility. He also arranged for a round-table discussion recorded with a group of inmates. I was astonished, not only at their candor and willingness to bare their souls, but how genuinely nice these people were! I had been a police reporter for years. I had always assumed that prisoners were the bad guys!
It wasn’t the way I thought my life was headed, but decades later I found myself behind bars quite often, doing my best to help these people who were doing time. It took 3/4s of my life to get there, but I finally reached my genuine calling.
As I walk across a prison yard, I meet a cross-section of society. Some guys will not look up, avoiding eye contact at all cost. Some have anger or fire in their eyes. Old people sometimes offer a tentative smile and glance as they totter along. Others in the yard are genuinely outgoing and friendly. I love it! I love them! All of them!
I treasure these words from Fr. Greg Boyle, who works with gang members:
You stand with the surly and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.
Someone once asked me if I was afraid when the prison gate slams shut behind me. I’m not…never have been. One of my incarcerated friends once said, “Doug, if anyone ever made a move to harm you, you wouldn’t have to worry. There are a whole lot of us who would have your back!”
Some of the nicest people I know are behind bars. Some of my best friends are behind bars.
My life is richer thanks to these relationships.
A sweet friendship refreshes the soul. Proverbs 27:9