April 14, 2014 by Alex Johannigman
Many of us are familiar with the corporal works of mercy, a list of 7 charitable acts based partially on Matthew 25:31-46 which Christianity teaches to be some of the best ways to love our neighbors. They are
To feed the hungry
To give drink to the thirsty
To clothe the naked
To harbor the harborless
To visit the sick
To ransom the captive (visit the imprisoned)
To bury the dead
I’ve always had a pretty easy time doing the first four by volunteering at nearby homeless shelters in a number of capacities. I’ve also gone to visit sick relatives and friends in the hospital before, and been to a few funerals of people close to me where we buried the dead. But in the first 24 years of my life, I never once visited anyone in prison. I didn’t personally know anyone in jail, and didn’t really know how someone even arranges to visit a prisoner. I also thought that scheduling a visit with a complete stranger who also had a criminal record would be a pretty uncomfortable experience. To me it had all of the scariness of walking around a dark alley at night combined with the awkwardness of a speed dating session.
But serving the homeless over the past 8 months has blessed me with a lot of new experiences, including making friends with people who have gotten arrested. A couple months ago, a man I met at one of our lunches in the park got taken back to jail after violating his parole, and I was presented with a great opportunity to finally ransom the captive and start visiting him alongside one of my fellow missionaries on a regular basis.
My first trip to the county jail was kind of intimidating. It was an entirely different world than what I was used to. No one was smiling at all, whether it was the prisoners that I saw or the officers working there. I felt like I was being a huge bother to the staff any time that I was trying to get answers about when hearings would be or what forms we had to fill out or where we had to turn them in. The other prisoners seemed at least as upset as the staff were whenever we saw them, and I didn’t even feel comfortable smiling at them.
However, my friend Larry (not his real name) was happy to see us every time we visited him, and during our visits he shared his thoughts, his prayers, and some letters that he wrote for us. We talked about what movies were coming out soon that he wanted to be able to see once he was free. We prayed, talked about God, and discussed the best things that we can do to help him after he is released are. Larry talked about the dreams he had for his time after being released from prison. Dreams about getting to go visit his family in Illinois, and getting to see the Vatican for the first time in his 50+ year lifetime.
At first visiting the imprisoned can be kind of discouraging and frustrating. There is a ton of bureaucratic red tape that one must cut through to even get a chance to talk to a prisoner. Paperwork has to be filled out and turned in by certain times. Phone calls have to be made. I’ve even spent 3 hours sitting in the lobby of the county jail just to see Larry for a 10 minute hearing. But it’s worth the struggle.
I discovered that there are all kinds of people in jail. Some have committed violent or sex related crimes. Some are in prison for drug offenses or theft. Some are sorry for their actions, some aren’t, and many are suffering from some kind of addiction or mental illness that prevents them from changing their habits and behaviors. But most importantly, they are all human beings with a past as well as future, with identities apart from their incriminating acts, with passions and dreams, and with others in their lives who they have cared about and who have cared about them.
Visiting the imprisoned allowed me to give hope where there was little, to give faith to someone who is struggling with belief, and to love someone completely unconditionally. I encourage you to look into ways to serve the prisoners in your community too. It can involve writing letters from a distance or visiting them in person. There are probably a number of prison ministries in your area that could benefit from your time, talent, and treasure. Many of them even provide training to those who want to get more involved in prison ministry but don’t know what to do or say.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews encourages us: “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Hebrews 13:3). Like many of the other Works of Mercy, the call to visit the imprisoned and to remember them in our prayers is also a call to suspend judgment and to embrace compassion and justice, and to empathize for them in solidarity rather than to view them as caricatures of their crimes.
Last Thursday, I went to what ended up being the last of Larry’s hearings at the jail. At the hearing, his parole officer got him approved to leave prison on parole, meaning he would be released from jail later that day. Normally we aren’t allowed to talk with prisoners during hearings, but towards the end the Larry was asked if he had any further comments or questions to make. “Yes I do. I’d like to thank the two witnesses. They have been a true light in my life, and they don’t know how much they’ve meant to me during this time.” His words meant the world to me too.
There are many more imprisoned men and women who need lights. Don’t be afraid to be that light in their lives.