The Prisoner

Posted: Apr 07, 2008 12:00 AM

Last weekend, three guys came over to my house to pick up some furniture and clothes to take to a local rescue mission. It’s one of those faith-based organizations helping homeless men and prisoners alike as they try to make the transition back into society. I called them because there is no faith-based program strong enough to make me think I can lift heavy furniture by myself. I think life after forty is great but sometimes my back disagrees.

After putting a heavy chair in the truck, one of the men turned to me and asked whether there was anything else that needed to be loaded up. “Yes” I replied, as I told him to get an ottoman from the sun room. The man walked up the steps to my front door and then suddenly stopped. Then he turned and asked whether I wanted to go in with him so I could watch him while he was in my house. I told him “No, just go ahead” and he quietly went inside.

It wasn’t so much what he said as the way he said it that got me thinking and eventually writing. How tough it must be to come in off the streets or to come home from a long stay in prison. No matter how hard you try, others will always be expecting you to slip up. Before long, you just assume that everyone is thinking the same thing.

I recall many years ago when my mother began writing to a prisoner who was doing time for armed robbery. She had been influenced greatly by the writings of Chuck Colson and decided to get involved in prison ministry. We eventually learned that the man she was writing had committed his crime to support a heroin addiction.

I have to admit that I was pretty excited when he was let out on parole and mother announced that he was coming to our house for dinner. I had never met an armed robber before. I hadn’t ever met a heroin addict either. I think I was even more excited than the time my mother invited two Auschwitz survivors to dinner.

My mother did more for the ex-prisoner than just cook him dinner. She filled up his car with gas and gave him some money to buy groceries. She considered it her Christian duty to give the man a fighting chance. As you can guess, the story has a sad twist to it -otherwise this would make for a very short column.

Before long, the calls began to come very late at night from the struggling ex-prisoner. It became apparent that life as a free man had allowed our friend to make some of the old mistakes that got him into prison in the first place. Before long, his girlfriend was involved in a very serious motorcycle accident. I was convinced they were caught up in a very dangerous lifestyle that could make Chris just another recidivism statistic.

Eventually, Chris married his girlfriend and he didn’t even invite my mother to the wedding. It was clear to me that he had fallen back into the same old crowd – drinking and using drugs but hopefully not robbing anyone to support a habit. He just could not allow my mother to see his friends and to see how he was living.

While all of this drama was unfolding I moved away to college to pursue a degree in psychology. Over the course of the next few years I would devolve from agnosticism to hardened atheism. I became a disciple of B.F. Skinner. Secular humanism became my only religion.

Some time after I began worshipping in the church of Skinner, I chastised my mother over the acts of kindness she had shown to Chris, his girlfriend, and their young daughter. I explained that giving him money for gas and groceries after he had shown some signs of returning to his old lifestyle was wrong. I told her she was reinforcing antisocial behavior. I think I actually told her she was behaving immorally by doing so.

I don’t know what ever happened to Chris. I don’t know whether he ever committed another robbery. I don’t know whether he got back on heroin. I don’t know whether his marriage lasted or whether he’s even alive.

But last year I did learn something quite interesting. The church my mother attended back then – University Baptist Church (UBC) in Clear Lake City, Texas – started a college fund for Chris’ daughter. She joined the military and served her country after finishing high school. Then she took the money the church offered her and she got a college education.

UBC did a great thing by giving that young girl a chance to make it out of the very bad circumstances into which she was born. But they did more than give her an education. They’re giving everyone reading this column an education, too.

It is so easy for conservatives to say that we need more prisons to deal with the problem of crime and recidivism. It is not nearly as easy for us to let a prisoner into our lives or even into our homes. But we owe it to the next generation to do the hard things Jesus taught us to do. Things they don’t teach our children in school.