I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete. 2 John 1:12
Waiting for our friend to come home from prison and start a new life with us is not unlike waiting for a new family member to come home from the hospital.
Neaners, José Israel Garcia, former leader of a Mexican gang, will step out of the automated gates of a Washington State "correctional complex" in nine months (at the time of this writing). But we've been preparing our lives and home to receive him for nearly five years now.
"I'm comin' home, babyboy," he says to me through the overpriced collect call from the sterile prison yard. "I can't believe it."
He's said this for the last two years. I've tried to remind him we have plenty of time, not to get too anxious. Everything will be ready for him, I assure, when the time comes.
"You don't understand," Neaners tells me, and his voice gets serious. "Time's different for us in here. For you, maybe a year is a long time. For us, who've been confined for years and years, that's right around the corner."
We like to think time is a measurable, objective thing. We track it with the hands of clocks and control it with the small cells of calendars.
But waiting shows us how separate we really are from each other, the ones who prepare to receive from the one who aches to be received.
I saw this play out several years ago, when I took Neaners' daughter to visit her daddy in prison for the first time. They'd never met before. Adelita, age five, stepped into a solitary confinement visiting booth with me and saw her father's tattooed face through the bullet-proof glass.
She took to him right away. She knelt on the chair I pulled up beside me and held the heavy black receiver out in front of her mouth like a microphone, leaning her forehead nearly to the glass as she sang her daddy songs when she ran out of things to say.
These were some of the sweetest hours, the most joyful, in our many years of waiting—which are, frankly, getting harder.
That first afternoon, I would take the receiver from her eventually. I’d talk with Neaners for maybe fifteen minutes. And Adelita sat and hummed, played with the ties in her pigtails.
Then: “Oh, I want to tell you something!” she’d suddenly interrupt.
“What’s that, Mamas?” Neaners turned from me and smiled at his daughter, who now crawled back up and took the receiver. She knelt up on the small counter space and put her other hand to the glass:
“I love you, Daddy!"
This was her first afternoon near him. And she adored him. She was more playful, alive, trusting, loving, in this solitary confinement booth than I’d ever seen her at her aunt’s house where I’d pick her up and visit her, TV drone and dogs barking in the background. She was at home in her father’s presence.
Neaners dropped his face into his elbow, laughing and overwhelmed by how his daughter so fully received him. His shoulders shook.
“When are you coming home, Daddy?” Adelita asked.
Neaners’ smile didn’t drop, but we had shifted key.
“Um . . . three years, baby”
“Goooood! In three days, you can come to my kindergarten open house!”
I saw Neaners’ eyes pool. She did not fully grasp the time between them, the waiting that was wider than the glass. The open house, even, wasn’t for two more weeks.
So Neaners took the opportunity to do what fathers do, and started to teach his daughter to count, together. “Uno . . . dos . . . tres . . .” His long, tattooed fingers landed one at a time on his side of the glass, waiting each time for her tiny fingers to press against his, counting with him, in rhythm. “You’ll be in first grade . . . then second grade . . . then third grade . . . and then I’ll be home.”
Thinking about Advent, waiting for God, I see Neaners and his daughter counting time together, fingers aligned on opposite sides of what divides their worlds. For me, it is an image of joy within difficulty, presence amidst absence, a taste of the Here while sitting in a bleak space of Not Yet.
It might be like a parent finding the fingers of the infant against the stretched skin of the mother’s belly. The pressing back and forth.
Waiting will feel different on both sides. We might not really understand the time between us and the one who comes. But we can sing through the thin divide, maybe learn a shared language, a rhythm.
Let us pray:
God, help us to wait together this day with all our neighbors. Bring us the joy of sweet community as we anticipate the joy of your birth Jesus. Amen.
Chris Hoke is a lay pastor among inmates and gang members at Tierra Nueva, an ecumenical ministry in Northwest Washington State's Skagit Valley. He is working on a book about this work in largely hidden places, WANTED, due out on HarperOne in 2015. This Advent, Chris is hoping that the work of "re-entry" (welcoming prisoners back into society) would be a growing theme for the Church in the Advent seasons to come.
Are you sensing a theme? I love non-fiction. So, up today is another memoir that I recently stumbled upon when browsing a bookstore: Neil White's tale of his prison experience alongside a leper colony in Carville, Louisiana. I've always been fascinated memoirs, letters or other writings made by folks in prison as it usually describes a time in people's lives when they get to the heart of what it means to live, breathe and be a human being. It's cut to the chase kind of literature.
And in this case, Neil White was sentenced to 18 months for bank fraud. White lived for many years pretending if the rules of finance didn't apply to him all in hopes of making it to the top of his field. White craved praise, attention and success.
When I first began reading In the Sanctuary of Outcasts , I thought I might be soon disappointed in my book purchase. In nearly the entire first section of the book, White writes with an arrogant, self-obsessed, "I'm really not a criminal like the rest of them" attitude. He even tells his two small children as he was dropped off at the prison, "Daddy is going to camp" instead of the truth.
I was temped on several occasions to simply stop reading because the main character put such a distaste in my mouth. Who cared that the writing was so good? (It was!). I really didn't want to spend my free time learning more about him.
But all of this began to change as White got to know some of the persons struggling with Hansen's disease (or known as leprosy) who lived in this same compound of this low security prison, in particular Ella. Ella, a patient not a prisoner, spent her whole life at Carville, even after the federal mandate no longer required her to stay in isolation. And from Ella and other patients and inmates, White learns to tell the truth. White learns what community is like. He learns to say: "I did some not so very good things. I hurt myself. I hurt my family." And to his surprise, he finds acceptance. It's quite the journey! Consider this quotation:
“As I walked –“meddling’, as Ella would say- I found no simple answers. But I did find something else. The very act of being honest with myself, taking an object look at my life, was freeing….I still did not know exactly how to change, but I had discovered some simple truths: A good life with my children did not require wealth. It was vital to be honest, without worrying about my own image. And helping others was more noble than winning awards.” (212-213)
I would recommend this pick for anyone interested in a transformation story, any preacher or teacher of the Bible-- as it is a great tool to understand the modern connection of leprosy, or anyone wanting to explore the justice (or injustice of) the prison system. I'm sure the next time I preach on a text with leprosy mentioned within, I'll pick up In the Sanctuary of Outcasts and find a great illustration.
Up tomorrow: Unorthodox: the Scandous Rejection of My Hasdic Roots by Debroah Fieldman