The Best Possible Outcome
I have adopted something of a standing policy on “praying for release” during prayer time at the jail. Usually, the prayer requests are heartfelt pleas for family and friends, for hope, peace, and courage while doing time, etc. But sometimes, one of the guys will say, “Well, I’d like you to pray that I can get the hell outta here!” To this, I am beginning to offer a standard response: “I will pray for the best possible outcome at your bail hearing, trial, etc.” I say this knowing full well that “the best possible outcome” from a more detached perspective—and certainly from a perspective that considers the victims of their offences—might well be that they remain incarcerated. But it’s a prayer that I can pray with integrity. And they usually seem happy enough with it.
It happened again last Monday. Jason* was a tall, young Blackfoot kid (so many of them seem like kids to me). He had jet black hair. Around his neck hang a beaded necklace with a cross that he had made himself. He had been a thoughtful contributor to the discussion. He had a deep voice and read his portion of the Scripture lesson beautifully. This is relatively rare, I have discovered. A lot of the guys in jail struggle to read, but Jason read flawlessly—slowly, deliberately, hitting all the right inflection points. I could have listened to him read all afternoon.
Jason said he had been reading a bit of philosophy. We had just finished the story of Saul’s conversion in the book of Acts. We were discussing what to make of “I saw the light” moments like Saul on the road to Damascus. How do we know if these kinds of things are legitimate? Many of the guys were suspicious. People claim to have all kinds of wild experiences, after all. There’s very little these guys haven’t heard. “Maybe he was on some good mushrooms,” one guy opined. I laughed. He stared at me. “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. Psychedelics can be a portal to spiritual awakening.” I smiled weakly before saying I wouldn’t be trying mushrooms any time soon. And that I doubted this was the cause of Paul’s experience. Although it did make me chuckle inside. Imagine, Paul on mushrooms.
Into this chaotic conversation came Jason’s deep and measured voice. “Perhaps one of the ways we could evaluate the legitimacy of Saul’s religious experience would be to see if it led to a transformation in his life.” I was speechless for a few seconds. I was mostly just thankful for the detour from mushrooms, but also very heartened by the depth of Jason’s engagement in the story. “Yes,” I said. “That’s exactly where I wanted to go with this! As it happens, this experience led to a 180 in Saul’s life. He went from a heresy-hunting Pharisee to the first missionary of the church. This experience completely transformed his life.”
This led to a good conversation about how God can use even the most unlikely characters to accomplish his purposes in the world. About how dangerous people convinced of their own righteousness and the righteousness of their cause can be. About how even when we’re blundering down foolish paths of our own choosing, God has all kinds of ways of getting through to us. The hour flew by (which isn’t always the case, I can assure you!). Jason had saved the day.
I usually start asking for prayer requests ten minutes before our time is up. Sometimes the guards come early, and I want to make sure the last thing these guys hear each week is someone praying for them. There were the usual requests. My daughter is in trouble… my mom has cancer… I’m worried about my wife… There was even the quite moving insistence that we pray for my son (I had shared about how he had been called up from the CAF reserves to help out with the forest fires in northern Alberta). And then Jason said, with a mischievous grin, “Pray that I get OUT!! I’m sick of being in here, man!” I was surprised by this blunt interjection. It did not fit with the content or tone of his contributions thus far.
I said, “Well, Jason, you know I’m not going to pray for that. But I will pray for the best possible outcome.” He smiled. “Yeah, I know.” He paused, before going on. “You know, I want to get out, of course I do. But mostly, I think all of us just want a bit of mercy, a bit of kindness, the possibility of redemption, you know? Maybe you could pray for that.” I swallowed hard. “Yeah, I can pray for that. I can definitely pray for that.”
In her book A Philosopher Looks at the Religious Life, Zena Hitz talks about a two-year stretch where she served in a women’s prison. She had grown bored, restless, and conflicted in her career as an academic. She was hungering to “live a life that could not be bought or sold.” She ended up at the jail. Here’s how she describes the journey that led her there:
It was, in part, a burning desire to see the hidden parts of my culture and of myself. I wanted to see what lay in the dark and chaotic urban spaces hidden behind highways, as well as what lay in my own heart, behind the veil of my own middle-class self-satisfaction. That was a desire for reality, for truth, and to be changed in myself in accordance with the truth. Underneath that desire was a desire for a communion in human recognition, to recognize my humanity in the incarcerated women—and a hope that they might see theirs in mine.
I resonated deeply with that paragraph when I first read it a few months ago, and I’ve been pondering it ever since. Especially the part in bold. Over and over, I have discovered that the guys in jail are not some special bizarre category of humanity—some collection of “people who do bad things” as distinct from the rest of us who don’t. Me and the guys in blue coveralls are separated only in degree not in kind. The darkness that often sits close to the surface with them is sometimes just buried a bit deeper in me. And I’m better at hiding it.
And that “communion in human recognition” thing… When I hear a guy like Jason say, “I think all of us just want a bit of mercy, a bit of kindness, the possibility of redemption, you know?” Well, yes, I do know. I think we all do.
* Not his real name.
Thanks for this reflection, Ryan. The line “separated only in degree not in kind” resonates with me especially today.
Thanks kindly, Karl. Appreciate this.