On a frosty evening I once again find myself in a stale, overheated basement room filled with plastic chairs. On a whiteboard someone has sketched three crosses. A guard removes handcuffs at the door as 15 or so inmates file in wearing orange jumpsuits, tennis shoes (with the laces removed) and tattoos .
This is the weekly Bible study at the local jail. It would be hard to assemble a more rag-tag group, brought together from every strata of society by a common denominator – being on the wrong side of the law. We start with introductions: names plus the optional “what I’m struggling with” or “what I’m thankful for tonight.”
Frank is first. He’s in for petty white-color crime and claims he’s innocent. Ron has his leg in a cast and tonight he’s thankful to be alive: “The guy pointed a gun at my chest and the bullet hit my leg…I can’t explain it.” JT was high on heroin when his motorcycle hit the median at 85 mph. Down the line Rashid listens and nods understandingly. Indicted for assaulting his girlfriend, he looks every bit the 19-year-old. In the next breath we learn that he’s also thankful because she’s five months pregnant with their daughter. Did I miss something?
The next two guys are both just “thankful to be here tonight,” but not Dave. Dave is 64 and hails from a local backwater known for its trout streams and moonshine. His beard and weathered skin belie a life out-of-doors; no wonder he feels caged in here, even if it is, as he admits, his fault. “I just hope I learn my lesson,” Dave says. “I don’t ever want to set foot in this hell-hole again.” The statement is met with applause followed by a 10-minute digression about recent unrest between the guards and population.
When finally we get back on track there are only two men who haven’t spoken. Philip is fresh back from two tours in Afghanistan. Tom was picked up the night before on a DUI. He describes doing 120 mph on the interstate while holding a crack pipe out the window. It’s a brag, perhaps more from habit than anything. There’s a weariness about Tom – the long greasy hair, deep facial lines, almost maniacal eyes, and yes, the shakes that constantly rack his body. He is going through withdrawal like I’ve never seen before, and it’s painful just to watch. “I’ve been addicted to cocaine for 39 years,” Tom volunteers. “There ain’t no way I’m ever getting off the stuff, even if I wanted to. No, there ain’t no hope for me, man!” A boyish grin spreads over his face and a few chuckles go down the line, but not everyone is laughing.
I’d like to say I remember the meeting from here on out, but for some reason I keep thinking about Tom. It follows a familiar path: “I figure God’s tryin’ to tell me something, that’s why I’m in here.” “I know I gotta make changes, but every time I get back on the street I end up in the same bad crowd.” “Do you figure it was God’s will for me to do those things that got me in here?” “Naw, man! God didn’t do that; you did that!”, and so on. We talk about signposts, how God may only give us a finite number of chances. We talk AA and the 12 steps. We talk about how the devil attacks each of us at his weakest point. I realize, again, that born into any one of their circumstances I could be in the same place. Eventually, though, one of the men opens up his Bible to Isaiah 9 and reads:
The people that walked in darkness have a seen a great light. On those that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, on them has a light shined…For God will break the chains that bind his people and the whip that scourges them, just as he did when he destroyed the vast host of Midianites by Gideon’s little band. In that glorious day of peace there will no longer be the issuing of battle gear; no more blood-stained uniforms of war; all such will be burned. For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder. And his name will be called ‘Wonderful Councelor’, ‘Mighty God’, ‘Everlasting Father’, ‘Prince of Peace’. And of the rulership of his peace there will be no end.
For a while, it’s quiet. Then Philip speaks. He says he liked the part about burning the bloody uniforms. He says they had to do that for their squad leader in Afghanistan after all his limbs were blown off by an IED. His voice trails off, but somehow the mood has already changed. Somewhere in what Isaiah says a note of hope is sounded, a crack of light opened up.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” This is not people helping people, this is God speaking directly to us, telling us that no matter how great the darkness, there is still hope. Though the darkness has never understood it, the light still shines. We have seen it – me, Frank, Ron, JT, Rashid, Dave, Philip, Tom, and the other fellows in that stuffy jailhouse basement – and someday so will everyone.