The following comes from the May 2011 Newsletter, a copy of which can be found here
Because many inmates’ family members cannot afford the cost of collect calls (or they use a cellular phone incapable of receiving them), one of the things I do as a chaplain is facilitate calls home for inmates in emergency situations. One morning, upon arriving at my office, the Chaplain’s Department clerk informed me that I had someone waiting for me. This man had learned the previous night that his sister had been brutally murdered. He wanted to call home. Somewhat fatigued from the previous night’s work, I took a deep breath and said a quick prayer to gather my strength to prepare for a difficult counseling session. I brought the man into a room where we could have some privacy and placed the call to his father. As he conversed with his father in a trembling voice about the details of the situation and the status of his other family members, tears began welling in his eyes. Then he did something that stunned me. “Dad,” he said, “I don’t know if you’ll have any say in the matter, but I would hate to see him go down for this.” (He was speaking about his sister’s murderer. What he did not want to see is that man get a life sentence). I then heard him say, “well Dad, it does make a difference, because if I’m seeking mercy, I need to be willing to give mercy.” Looking at him in astonishment after he hung up the phone, I uttered a question: “how…how did you do that?” After taking a moment to understand what I meant, he explained to me that he is in prison for murder and that he is serving a life sentence. Then he said, “If we continue seeking vengeance for the wrongs done to us, the cycle of vengeance will never stop. I believe Jesus Christ came down and died on the cross to stop that cycle of vengeance. And, I believe it when he says that we are forgiven as we forgive others.”
People have a hard time understanding me when I tell them that some of the best Christians I know are in prison. The notion seems incompatible with the stereotypical caricature of inmates found in society’s popular imagination. How is it possible that convicted criminals could also be faithful Christians?
In Luke 7, Jesus tells a parable to explain his acceptance of a sinful woman’s acts of devotion while dining at the table of a Pharisee. “’A certain creditor has two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon [the Pharisee] answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt’” (v. 41-43). Jesus further elaborates that the sins of this woman, “which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (v. 47).
An inmate once told me that “the prodigal son knows a grace that the older brother will never understand.” After witnessing the radical expression of compassion and mercy displayed by this man speaking to his father the day after his sister’s murder, I saw the truth of that statement.
As we enter into this Easter season, celebrating the new life made possible for us in Christ, I invite you to examine the depth of your faith by meditating on Christ’s willingness to forgive our sins, and then by honestly asking yourself: “how willing am I to forgive others?”