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What Can the Incarcerated Teach Us About Redemption

One of my most memorable experiences of jail ministry came during a recent visit to a group of detainees inside a jail.  During the visit we read and discussed the Parable of the Fig Tree found in Matthew 24:32-35. To facilitate the discussion, I presented the group with two pictures: one of a fig tree in full bloom and the other was of a fig tree that was barren. I began the discussion by asking the members of the group to point out which of the two images they identified with. 

Almost immediately, one gentleman excitedly raised his hand, pointed to the image of the barren fig tree and said, “that was me before I was arrested.”  He then proceeded to point at the image of the fig tree in full bloom and declared, “this is me after spending a year in here.”  

When I asked him to explain, he described how he had been arrested after years of dealing drugs and living a luxurious lifestyle with cars, clothes, and electronics.  Before his arrest he had become so focused on accumulating wealth that he didn’t have time for God, prayer, and Church.  His arrest removed these distractions.  He proceeded to describe how jail had “freed” him to read his Bible each day, pray without ceasing, and participate in faith sharing groups inside the jail. He came to discover through these practices all the peace and joy that he had missed out on all those years he was “chasing money” instead of “chasing God.”  By chasing God, he had discovered he no longer needed money to feel secure and worth something.  God had helped him to discover he was secure and loved just as he was.  Consequently, his life focus had been transformed from earning wealth to getting released so he can work with at-risk youth to help them also discover the joys of “chasing God” rather than “chasing money.”  

The man’s testimony caused me to reflect on Augustine’s many references to the inner tension that humans often experience between the love of things of the Earth and our restless desire for the things of heaven. As Saint Augustine says,

“In this life there are two loves in conflict: the love for this world and the love of God. Whichever wins out draws the lover like gravity in its direction. It is not through feet or wings but by desire that we come to God. And it is not by some physical bond or iron chain that we are bound to earth. We are bound simply by our desire for the things of earth.”

Saint Augustine (Sermon 344, 1)

The man’s testimony caused me to ask myself, what was I chasing?

Consequently, in the days following this visit, I began to ask my conscience several questions I hadn’t asked in a while.  What am I chasing in life?  Am I fully tuned into chasing God?  Am I aware that I too am secure and loved just as I am?  Or am I also distracted and seeking love and security in something other than God?  Perhaps personal goals and ambitions and the hunt for possessions gets the best of all of us sometimes.  After all, if the laws of the land were based on God’s law, we would all be in jail for something, for we have all have fallen short (Rom. 3:23).

While I was reminded that night of my own restless chase for things that often distract my attention away from my true destination, God, I was also reminded of the need to create space for continual reflection of the presence of God in the midst of my various chases. In the words of Augustine,

“Let us leave a little room for reflection in our lives, room too for silence. Let us look within ourselves and see whether there is some delightful hidden place inside where we can be free of noise and argument. Let us hear the Word of God in stillness and perhaps we will then come to understand it.”

Sermon 52, 22

Why do I continue to serve those impacted by incarceration?

I have heard Fr. Greg Boyle, S.J. , “We don’t go to the margins to transform anybody.  We go to the margins that we might be transformed.”  This certainly rung true for me that night, and I find it rings true each time I am involved in some way with jail or prison ministry.  Whether it is a visit inside a jail or prison, writing letters to those who are incarcerated, or working with someone recently released and looking for an honest second chance, I encounter people who are fully tuned into God because they have had all the things that distract them from God taken away.  They have a freedom few of us “on the outside” have, and with that freedom comes a tremendous gift that they can offer to the world and to the Church:  a witness of God’s powerful and unconditional love.

So, what can incarcerated people teach us about redemption?  Everything.  They teach me the art of “dying to self” that Jesus declares necessary to follow Him and gain true life (Matthew 16:25).  They teach me how to better run the race marked out for me (Hebrews 12:1-3) by removing the many things that often distract me from “chasing God” with my whole heart and mind.  They remind me that when I seek first the kingdom of God, I receive countless blessings (Matthew 6:33), the most important of which is to know that I am secure and loved “just as I am.”

In short, the people I encounter inside prisons and jails help me learn how to live many of the key pillars of Augustinian way of life: humility, interiority, and ways to embrace my own restlessness.

What a gift it is to be called to be part of this important ministry!

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