Skip to content

I’m Not Doing So Good…

Victor* is the last of a handful of inmates to trudge into the Monday morning support group that I’m a part of at the local jail. He’s a small Latino guy, middle aged, a wispy beard and a short ponytail. He looks apprehensive about being there, but then that’s not uncommon. He sits down on a chair and stares at his feet waiting for the group to begin. 

We begin a bit differently than usual this time. We’re instructed to go around the circle, introduce ourselves, and say how we’re doing. Victor is supposed to start. He looks up, looks around at us, looks back down at his feet. In halting English, he begins, “Well, I’m not doing so good… I just got here and I don’t know…” And then he looks down again while the tears begin to trickle down his face.

A few people smile, shuffle their feet, offer words of support. We move on to the next person. But I just stare at Victor. My heart breaks for this little man in blue coveralls sitting there crying in a room full of strangers.

There can be a lot of moralizing and paternalism in jail. The chaplains, the volunteers, the guards, whoever—everyone has at least some conception that they’re there to do something. We’re there to help straighten these guys out or guide them toward making better choices or reduce their chances of reoffending or teach them life skills or help them find Jesus or whatever. This is all well and good, as far as it goes.

But Victor has me wondering if going into spaces like this is also about simply bearing witness to the pain of another human being.

I don’t know why Victor’s in jail. He might be an addict. He might have made a series of destructive choices. He might have been dealt a bad hand in life—a hand that I might have played far worse if I had been in his shoes. I really have no idea what he’s done or why. I don’t know what he has to do from this point on to turn things around. But today, in this moment, he is a human being in pain. He is sad and remorseful and frightened and probably feels very alone. It seems to me that this is the sort of thing that demands to be witnessed.

Later on, we’re reading from the lesson of the day. The chaplain asks for volunteers to read. Victor asks if he can read. He’s not very good at reading out loud, but he’d like to practice his English. He slowly reads a paragraph. He looks up, expecting someone else to take over. But the other guys say, “Nah, man, you’re doing awesome. Keep going!” They’re all quite a bit younger and bigger and tougher looking than Victor, but it’s remarkable to see how quickly they leap to affirm him. It makes me smile. This, too, strikes me as the sort of thing that demands to be witnessed.

Later still, we’re wrapping things up and Victor asks us if we can pray for his mom. She’s losing her memory. Last time he saw her, he had to show her a picture of them together so that she would remember who he was. We pray for Victor and his mom. He says that it’s been good to be here today. He believes that God has forgiven him and he hopes that others will forgive him, too. As we leave, he shakes my hand says that it was good to have somewhere to talk and to listen. He likes it that there’s a place that he doesn’t have to be afraid to cry.


* Victor is obviously not his real name. 

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Beth #

    Sad story to start with but then also life-giving. Thx, Ryan.

    March 26, 2018
  2. Tanya #

    Wow. That was a powerful story. I want to just sit and hug Victor. Thanks for going on your day off Ryan and thanks for loving Victor.

    March 26, 2018
    • I felt the same way about Victor, Tanya.

      I came across a quote this morning about the specificity of Christian love. It’s from Christian Wiman:

      If nature abhors a vacuum, Christ abhors a vagueness. If God is love, Christ is love for this one person, this one place, this one time-bound and time-ravaged self.

      March 27, 2018
      • Tanya #

        Thank Ryan. Are you allowed to give them/him a hug and listen more if needed? I am just curious what the rules are. I know we have a group going from our church as well. I hope one of them runs into Victor. Maybe if He keeps seeing he is loved and valued by Jesus… well who knows?

        March 27, 2018
      • I’m still learning the ropes, but there are some pretty non-negotiable constraints (time being one of them), particularly in a group session. Maybe things would be different in one-on-one visits.

        One of the difficult things about the group I am a part of is that there isn’t a lot of continuity week to week. The inmates are free to come (or not). Many only come once. A few come more than once. I don’t think anyone came every week. Given that we only have an hour and a half and that there’s a “curriculum” to get through, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for relationship building. Also, given the nature of the Lethbridge Correctional Centre, there’s a lot of turnover. A lot of guys aren’t in for very long, so you always have people coming and going. There are limitations, obviously, but hoping that seeds can be planted even in the midst of all the constraints. I’m very much hoping that I will see Victor again.

        March 27, 2018
  3. Paul Johnston #

    “Christ abhors a vagueness”…specifics matter. Perhaps finding out when Victor is being released and preparing help for him in advance, would be pleasing to the Lord. I know you have a small congregation but if 40 people gave $10 a month for three months, very likely a first and last months payment for a room would be secured. In a similar manner monies for some food and clothing could also be gathered. Helping secure a home, food and clothing/possessions for newly released prisoners is often crucial to their success. Providing a church community and fellowship is just as important.

    If Victor has a secure place to return to upon his release, perhaps there is another prisoner who is in need.

    I would be honoured to contribute to such a cause and will send money should you choose to undertake such an effort.

    March 27, 2018
    • I’m hoping that I will have further opportunities to get to know Victor and perhaps get a better sense of what his most pressing needs are. I simply have no way of knowing at this point. I have already invited several inmates to look me up when they get out to see if we can get them connected with community and fellowship. In my (very limited) experience, it’s rare that these sorts of offers are acted upon, but I am hopeful.

      Thanks for your generous heart and willingness to contribute. I will let you know if we can ever use it.

      March 27, 2018
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Thanks, Ryan. Don’t hesitate to ask me to help if there is a need. 🙂

    Even if our help only saves one person, I can’t think of many occupations more worthy.

    March 27, 2018
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Just read your response to, Tanya. Perhaps establishing a fund whereby you could make an offer of assistance to a prisoner upon their release is a way to go here. Tangible offers of help along with spiritual encouragement often create hardier, “seeds”.

    Consider the idea, pray about it and if you think it has merit I would be happy to be your first donor.

    If you have a better idea, I’m just as committed to that purpose also. 🙂

    March 27, 2018

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: