Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Pure, Innocent Love in the Darkest Places

I have served as a volunteer chaplain at a jail in Boston for 6 years. During that time I have seen, beyond a doubt, that the qualities of God are alive and well, living and being lived in these places which would otherwise be very dark. Lots of people, when they go to jail, find themselves face to face with the mistakes they have made and the problems they have, and want very badly to get past them.

A couple of months ago I was talking with a man, we'll call him William, who had had a very sad life so far. He described being raped at the age of 13, drug abuse, friends lost to murder, and the list truly goes on and on. He was relating to me how now that he is in jail, where he can't get any drugs, all the feelings he had been pushing away by using drugs, are coming out. He speaks sincerely, calmly, soberly.

His basic question to me was, "With all these terrible things that have happened to me, how can I be free from these intense feelings of sadness, loss, and grief?" It is easy to see, when you hear him talk, what an honest, kind man this is. So, I began to speak to him about knowing himself as God's creation, not the creation of a human history. We spoke about knowing ourselves as spiritual creations who are defined, not by what we've done humanly, but by God's love for us. I also mentioned that it is useful, when we feel miserable, to turn outward instead of inward – to seek to love and serve someone else, instead of getting stuck on ourselves.

He seemed to a little confused about what I meant, and said, "Oh, do you mean like this?" He went on to tell me this story, without pride. There is another man in this unit – call him Joe. Joe is older and had really let himself go. He was not taking care of himself – long scraggly hair, not showering, finger and toenails long and curling. He was a mess and obviously unhappy. William, feeling sorry for him, asked Joe if he could help him, clean him up. Joe said no, he didn't want to be touched. Rather than take no for an answer, William tried bargaining. In jail each detainee has their "canteen" which is extra food and supplies that one has to buy using their own, usually very limited, money. William asked Joe if he would let him clean him up, cut his finger and toenails, etc., at the cost of a certain number of food items in his canteen. At this Joe said sure.

When William told me this story, I looked over to the couch and saw Joe there, hair and nails cut, shaved, clean face, and a smile on it too. William said, "Is that what you mean by serving others?" honestly wanting to know if that's what I meant.

Tears nearly rolled from my eyes as I said "Yes, William, that's is just what I'm talking about." I quickly told him also that he was teaching me. That is riches of the heart. To desire so much to do an act of kindness to another that one buys the privilege of cleaning up a messy, smelly, surly brother.

In the following weeks as we do our Bible study it is easy to feel the calm respect that exists between Joe and William. Joe's physical cleanliness (which has been maintained!) is a testament to William's tenderness of heart – the compassion of Christ. Also, where he had been surly, Joe now joins us, timidly asking questions about passages in the Bible.

Jesus counseled us to wash one another's feet. Sometimes we think that is for "saints" to do. Seeing this story play out (and many others like it) has shown me that it isn't. Tender acts of forgiveness, generosity, and mercy are happening anywhere someone is willing. I can't imagine someone with a darker human history than William's. Yet, he has demonstrated, beyond doubting, that darkness and human history cannot overcome the desire to love, and to feel the blessing of loving another.


  1. Beautiful experience, thank you for sharing this Alex!

  2. Alex, I've been having a lovely time exploring your site. I love your new mural project, and have found much of what you share about the value of art very meaningful. so thank you. Sometimes I want to share a portion of your writings. How can I do that. Is cut and paste OK with credit? Or do I have to give detailed directions so a friend can read the specific post on your website? Finally, might you consider the more mundane dark print on a white or light background? I found myself more comfy on your music website without the reversed print of white or blue on black. Just one thought.

  3. P.S. A friend at church and I are interested in prison ministry and I had hoped to copy this post to send to him.