Some of you know that I’ve been volunteering in the maximum security prison (men’s) since September. I’m there as part of Toastmasters, teaching a class on communication skills. We volunteers have had the joyous experience of seeing our nine students blossom. The first week, back in September, they could barely stand up and say something as simple as “Hi, my name is Vinny and I like jelly donuts and I write as a hobby.” Now these guys have learned how to think on their feet by handling “table topic” questions, how to listen intensely, how to coach one another, and how to give a well crafted, well written, logical speech on an important topic confidently. It is amazing. Next week is the last class for this group of nine students and the Warden will come to their graduation. We are all jazzed. Four of the men want to give some of their best speeches in front of the Warden. That means four people will also give evaluations (demonstrating listening, critical t hinking, and coaching skills), and all nine will handle Table Topics to demonstrate thinking on their feet. One of the students last week gave a practice speech he would be doing in another class (Youthful Offenders class). He got good advice and feedback, and then incorporated what advice he could before giving the speech at the YO class. Two counselors were at the YO class. The counselors were ASTOUNDED at Byron’s well-written, well-crafted, logical, thoughtful, convincing, and confidently delivered speech. Word has spread about our class and the prison wants us to come back and do it again for a new group. There are thirty one people on the waiting list for the next class!
I have also recently been blessed with the opportunity to work with a Sister of Mercy as a Spiritual Director. Recently I was telling her about the prison work and how much fun we’re having with it. She asked me, “So, how do you see God in the prison?” Hmmmmmm…. I couldn’t answer it but started pondering it.
Now that I’ve told you that, you can appreciate my revelation I hope.
I have private data about these guys. I have their full names, their prison ID numbers, their dates of birth, and their bunk addresses. With that kind of information I can go look up their criminal histories any time I want.
However, I haven’t looked it up for four reasons:
1 – It may scare me
2 – It may make me profoundly sad
3 – It could mislead me by incompleteness (ie “5 counts of homicide” may mean psycho serial killer or …. far more likely … a drunken driving crash that lead to the deaths of five people). All I would know is “5 counts of homicide” but not know the back story.
and… most importantly…
4 – Knowing the guys’ background data would NOT help me do my job better. Knowing that someone was a drug dealer or a drunk driver or a bank robber or a rapist won’t help me teach him communication skills any more effectively.
So recently I was pondering this. It’s as if these nine guys have a clean slate with me. I have no prejudice against any of them because of the things they’ve done in their past. It’s as if their past doesn’t matter. It’s done. It’s gone. I’m working with them HERE and NOW.
And then, as I pondered this, God spoke to my heart. God said, “This is what the Sacrament of Reconciliation is all about. Once reconciled, the past is done. Gone. Irrelevant. I work with you in the HERE and NOW. You have a clean slate with me.”
I’ve taught this to kids for years as a Religious Ed teacher. I’ve known it in my head since I was a small child. But it never penetrated my heart until just last week. Last week I could suddenly feel what it’s like to look at a person and truly know that the past does not matter to today.
I’m far too good at carrying grudges. Way too good at it. Subtly but surely, the past offenses of people close to me color my relationships with them today. For people in my everyday life I don’t have that skill (?) (gift? grace?) of completely ignoring the past and only dealing with the HERE and NOW.
But last week God showed me what that feels like. What it feels like to look at someone and say “Your past is unimportant to me. The here and now is what is important to me.”
Are you following me? Can you understand what a revelation this is?
I’m just one of many people who can honestly say ‘I found God in prison’.
And I didn’t even have to get handcuffed to do it!!!!
God bless all of you.