Sometimes it takes going to prison to get closer to the reasons behind life’s biggest “Why?”
I have always asked the “Why,” the one I wish I didn’t care so much about. The one you’re supposed to leave to mystery. The one that will drive you mad if you go at it too long. God, why do You allow—even perhaps ordain—evil things to happen?
I have heard stories of little girls abused at the hands of those who should be their protectors. I have met women who lost their children to the machetes of crazed neighbors. I know children who were chucked to the streets because of a system run by rulers who couldn’t find room for them.
Sometimes the “Why?” takes different forms, but often it comes back to this deeper question: God, are you good, really good?
Mostly He speaks to my soul that I must trust that He is. But sometimes He peels back the curtain and gives a merciful drop of respite in the land of faith. Less in an answer of explanation, but in an answer of His passion—pain and tears and scars.
Stories from the Inside
The Carol Vance Unit looked more like Spanish mission than a prison complex. Small and unassuming against the backdrop of multi-million dollar homes, the correctional facility houses just a few hundred prisoners, most of whom are enrolled in Prison Fellowship’s Academy, an intensive pre-release program that focuses on Christian discipleship and non-criminal thinking. I had asked for the trip a few weeks earlier, to collect stories about the men that make up the Church on the inside; to illustrate to outside audiences that Jesus’ Body includes people assigned DOC numbers.
After passing through security (a process that includes relinquishing my drivers’ license and walking through a series of locked gates), I entered the main building; old, concrete walls encasing a long corridor flanked by bunk rooms, classrooms, and a commissary. Escorting me is Darryl, the director of the program, a man who had once served time in this very prison and had graduated years before from program. He introduced me to several men in white standing along the corridor. Shaking their hands, I considered how I’m never really afraid in prison (especially not one where most of those there want to change their lives for the better), but I always feel a little exposed, a 34-year-old female dressed in something other than a corrections officer uniform.
We walk through another corridor past a hallway of double-decker cells, out into the Texas sunshine and across a spring green lawn to the prison chapel—a separate building that felt more like an office center or a modern church building. I was ushered into a small conference room and introduced to Jerrel, a squat African American man in his mid-fifties who served as one of the leaders of the prisoner-led church.
Jerrel hadn’t entered crime until his early forties, due to a series of choices spurred on by a failed business. He lisped through a Louisiana brogue that he was raised by an alcoholic father in a large family where all of the boys died as children, of the same disease. He grew up with a cold shoulder to a God he believed had given him a bad father and had robbed him of all his brothers. It wasn’t until he got to prison that he decided to think differently about faith.
“What changed?” I asked him.
He said that as He began reading the Bible the question turned for him from “why me?” to “why not me?” That man messed things up in the Garden and we’ve been dealing with the fallout ever since. God didn’t have to explain himself to him, but now he knew that he was put on the earth for a purpose and that as long as you’re living, there’s still hope.
After Jerrel prayed with me, Charles wanted to tell me his story.
He recounted how a passionate young man had been raised by a teenage addict. Plagued by demons for two decades, he ran drugs from one state to another until it finally caught up with him. After finding out that he wouldn’t be allowed to see his daughter anymore, he hit a low. Given the choice between a high and God, he chose God and not long afterward, reaped a sentence that was shorter than the 35 years he deserved.
After serving several years, his mother died. Before he could say “goodbye.” He felt like waving his fist skyward, but then he saw in a dream that his mother was alright and at Home. Later, his aunt told him that his mother woke from her craze and received the peace of Jesus on her deathbed.
Today, he is okay, he tells me. He misses his mom, but he trusts he will meet her again someday.
Two stories of questions; both variations of the universal “Why.” One answered in hope. Another in a dream.
Blessing in Abuse
Darryl (the director) and I leave the prison, and drive half an hour to downtown Houston where Prison Fellowship has established a reentry house to help guys like Jerrel and Charles get back on their feet after they are released. I want to talk with some guys who have already made the transition.
Earlier in the day, Raymond had driven a man out of prison for his first day back in freedom. It was eight years to the day that Raymond had walked through those same gates. He tells me his story.
Growing up on the streets of San Diego, Raymond joined the Bloods to escape the cruel abuse he received at the hands of his mother, brother, and sister. After moving to Texas with his father as an early teen, he became the object of mistreatment by a stepmother. This time, he fought back and again found solace in the streets. A robbery turned capital murder, and Raymond landed in the criminal justice system too young.
In prison, Raymond cried out to God and found a love that was foreign to his bruised body and soul. Today, after serving 17 years, he is a husband, father, and guide to those who are also learning to navigate life on the other side of the wire.
The scars of his abuse are still visible on his forehead and I ask him if he ever asked “Why?”
“I see my abuse as a blessing,” he declares, without any hint of hyper-spirituality.
Like Joseph, “What they intended for evil, God meant for good,” he says. “Everything I endured I can use to help others.”
By the end of the day, five different sets of hands had clasped mine in prayer. Hands that had done things you wouldn’t want to know. Hands that had clenched fists in anger in response to injustice I would never want to walk through. Hands that had born the torture of life in this broken world.
But in these hands and in the words prayed to a shared Father, I felt warmth, restoration, love. Deep, deep, inexplicable, unanswerable, relentless Love. It was a balm to my conflicted heart to know that these men had endured some of the worst, had stared the hardest “Why?” in the face, and had emerged, well, beautiful.
As I peered into each of their gentle faces, I realized they shared a familiar One. One that had both smiled both with tenderness at a child and contorted in anguish as the flesh in His own hands tore. It was a face that I have yet to see with earth eyes, but have imagined countless times.
The Owner of this face has told me before and reminded me yet again that the “why’s” of this world do not have dominion over Him. That the hands that bore the scars can turn over any table it likes. That the face that shed the tears can see my doubt and command it to flee. But, still, He lets me see His tears, feel His scars. This time, He let me see it in the stories of hope from these once and current prisoners. Not so that the questions will necessarily be answered, but that I could be reminded that the hands that bore the eternal scars carry the anguishing stories of these men, and my own personal pain. And maybe one day when all the tears are washed away, the questions will fade away in the presence of the One with whom we have been fully known.
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.