I saw it yesterday in a small church in Virginia. About a dozen people gathered for morning worship on a Sunday they will not soon forget. Everything seemed normal, until the minister started preaching about life in prison. He talked about how many people in the Bible went to prison, and how others, like David and Moses, would have caught murder charges in today’s society.
The message was based on the familiar Bible verse “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” No one there had thought about the fact that it was written from prison- an inmate’s declaration that his religious faith sustained him even in chains.
They heard the preacher talk about his own journey through jail and battle with alcoholism. They heard him, and thought of their own husbands, long bus rides away, phone calls that have to make do until the bid is over, the pain of separation. They came to the altar- and they cried.
They were crying for their husbands and their children. They were crying because it hurt to have them gone. They did not sign up for this. They did not fill out an application to be the wife, mother or daughter of an inmate. Their tears flowed from a mixture of emotion– the pain of separation, the reality of disappointment and betrayal, the frustration of life interrupted.
They held hands, cried and prayed…and promised to hold each other up in the journey. A dozen worshippers, and nine of them made their way to that altar to pray and cry…for their families…and for you and me.
We can never undo our past. We can never reverse the mistakes in our rear view mirror. But we can live now in such a way that honors the tears, respects the emotions and recognizes the sacrifices of those who missed us, those who waited for us, those who cried for us. We can live to witness against a system that makes it hard for them to stay in touch, flies their loved ones to remote states too expensive to visit, makes regular phone contact a financial luxury, and harasses visitors into thinking that they are serving time as well.
They cried over you yesterday, because they know what you and your family went through, and that so many don’t care, having labeled the incarcerated as somehow less than human. But through their tears, they also recognized hope…because they know that no human being is defined by their worst mistake. They know that there is some good in that husband, that son, that father. They know that while society will keep on labeling a person as an “ex-offender” after the bid, they will have the opportunity to reject that label, and see a human being with another chance. And tears of sorrow…will become tears of joy.