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.