Tag Archives: prison

Works of mercy

The Little Black Book, a collection of daily reflections for Lent, recently focused on almsgiving.

“Almsgiving results from feelings of pity and compassion for someone in need. It’s often associated with giving money to the poor but almsgiving includes all of the seven corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, burying the dead.”

Visiting the imprisoned jumped off the page.


Next week will be the tenth anniversary of my friend Jim’s death. After his death, a woman at church told me how grateful she was that Jim had visited her son in prison. I remembered that visit because I had gone with Jim. She asked why, and I explained that Jim had never visited anyone in prison before, so he asked me to go with him because he knew I had. She asked if I was a probation officer or social worker and I said “no.” Then why I had visited someone in prison? “It is in the Bible,” I said. She looked confused, so I quoted from Matthew 25. She still looked confused, so I tried a different approach.

I asked if she had visited her son in prison, and she said she had. I then asked if she would visit someone else in prison, now that she could see from her son’s experience what it was like to be locked up. She became defensive and explained that her son was not like other people in prison. “He just…” she started, but I stopped her. “Your son broke the law and got caught, right?” “Yes, but…” she started, and again I stopped her and pointed out he is just like the other people in prison who broke the law and got caught.

Why, I wondered, can it be so difficult to see ourselves and those we love honestly?

To be fair, I understand that this woman wanted to put this episode in her son’s life behind her, but I wondered how she could do that without accepting the truth of her son’s situation.

A few years later, I met a woman who told me her son was at “boot camp.” I asked which branch of the service, and she said it was a different kind of boot camp. “Some people say he is in prison, but he is not in prison” she said.

I recently read an article by a man on death row, reflecting on how he and others on death row were consoled by a priest who has cared for them and helped them grow spiritually. I am doing an Internship in Ignatian Spirituality and pondering how I might use what I am learning. The article prompted the thought that maybe I could offer a listening ear to someone who is in prison.

Reflecting on the article, people I have visited in prison and these two mothers made me wonder if I am being invited to this work of mercy.

Wordcloud for “When did you see me?”

I can be

I can be with people others say they can’t,

those facing disease,

those who are dying

and those left behind,

lost in their loss.

I can be with people who are in prison

and those imprisoned by fear and shame.

I can be with those who live at the margins of society

because of disability or addiction or poverty,

those many others try to avoid

or may not even notice.

And I can be with people who do not speak my language

or understand my customs,

those who have left behind all that is familiar to start a new life,

struggling to gain a foothold.

I can also be with those

who have great financial wealth,

and see beyond their trappings to notice a

spiritual poverty so profound

they risk being smothered by their possessions.

I am not always comfortable

with the vulnerability I see

and saddened by the suffering, and yet

I can be

with them.

Why is it I have spent my life being with people

who are seeking to be seen and heard and accepted and loved?

Maybe God whispered in my ear when I was still a child,

“I love them all.”

Gospel challenge

This week, our Parish Lenten program focused on listening to and acting on God’s Word. “Think of a time when you yourself were a ‘doer of the word.’ How were you affirmed or challenged by ‘doing’ what you had heard in the Scriptures?” the program booklet asked.

I was the last to share in the group of nine and related how I had felt challenged when I befriended a women who had been sentenced to life in prison for murder.

“When did this happen?” asked one woman.

“It was in the mid-eighties,” I told her.

“There were crazy people even then,” she commented.

“Mental illness has been around a long time,” I replied.

“Now you can befriend the Uber driver,” said another woman, referring to a recent shooting in western Michigan.

Scripture challenges me in several ways, including trying to see people as God does, responding to the invitation I hear in Scripture and standing up for my views.

I don’t condone acts of violence, but I do try to see the person who commits those acts as someone’s child who is loved by God just as much as I am.

At my friend Jim’s funeral, a woman approached me and shared how Jim had visited her son in prison. She had been so grateful and felt it had made a difference to her son. He was in college at the time, and had been caught selling prescription pain pills he had gotten for a sports injury. After he had served his sentence, Jim had even hired him to help out around the parish. In the years since, she said, her son had gone back to school and was now doing fine.

I knew of her son’s situation and that Jim had visited him, because Jim had asked me to accompany him. Visiting people in prison was not something Jim had done before, but I had. He said he would feel more comfortable having me there, so I went.

Hearing this part of the story seemed to surprise the woman.

“Are you a probation officer?” she asked.

“No,” I replied, somewhat mystified by the question.

“A social worker?” she asked next.

“No,” I replied again.

“Then why have you visited people in prison?”

“Because it is in the Bible,” I explained, and then quoted Matthew 25:36, “…I was in prison and you visited me.”

She seemed unfamiliar with this verse.

I suggested that now that she knew how much Jim’s visit had helped her son, she might consider visiting other people’s sons in prison. She protested that her son was not like other people in prison. “He just…” she started to rationalize, but I stopped her. “Your son did something wrong, got caught and went to jail. He is exactly like the other people in prison,” I said. She then excused herself and walked away.

I am both affirmed and challenged by doing what Scripture invites me to do.


White Privilege

A friend recently shared an article about “white privilege.”

Growing up in a working class family in Detroit, I didn’t feel particularly privileged. My dad liked to point out that we always had meat on the table—a sign that we were doing ok. But privileged? Not so much.

And then after high school, I moved to southern Virginia, where being white was definitely a privileged position. I could live wherever I wanted and go to any restaurant or beach (at the time, beaches were still segregated, and although restaurants and housing were not legally segregated, they were in reality).

I experienced prejudice because I was a “Yankee,” but people only knew that when I spoke.

While working for the FBI in Virginia, an agent transferred in who was also a “Yank.” He and I often shared experiences of being northerners living in the south. On the day of his transfer out, I sat beside his desk saying goodbye. As I would with anyone else, I went to hug him. He reflexively stopped me; I was confused.

“Do you see that door up there?” he asked, pointing to the exit some sixty feet away. I nodded. “If I let you hug me, I will never make it to that door alive,” he said. He was an African American. I wasn’t thinking about the difference in our skin color, but he could not forget it.

Years later, I was living in Pennsylvania and regularly visited someone at the state women’s prison. I usually went on weekdays and would be the only person checking in at the gatehouse.

The security check involved going through a metal detector and sometimes having a wand passed over my body, like the security check at an airport.

I went through this same routine on every visit, until one time when I arrived at the gatehouse and another woman was already being checked in. I watched as this woman was taken by a female guard through a door off to the right, and the door was closed. After the door closed, I stepped up to the counter and went through my usual process.

I cleared security and was waiting for the door to the prison to open when the guard escorted the woman back into the room. I wondered what happened behind the closed door, but I could not go back, so I did not get to ask.

This same scenario played out periodically over the years and I finally asked the guard what went on behind the closed door. “Strip search,” she said.

Each of the women I saw escorted to the side room was African American. In more than ten years of visiting that prison, I was never strip searched.

These and other experiences have helped me come to a deeper understanding of how the color of my skin matters. I know that being white usually means I can move through the world without even thinking about the color of my skin, and that, in itself, is a privilege.