The Carol Vance Unit looks small and unassuming against the backdrop of multi-million dollar homes. The correctional facility houses just a few hundred prisoners, most of whom are enrolled in Prison Fellowship®'s Academy, an intensive pre-release program that focuses on Christian discipleship and non-criminal thinking.
I had asked for the trip a few weeks earlier, to collect stories about the men that make up the Church on the inside—to illustrate to outside audiences that Jesus' Body includes people assigned Department of Corrections (DOC) numbers.
After passing through security, I entered the main building. Old, concrete walls encased a long corridor flanked by bunk rooms, classrooms, and a commissary.
Escorting me was Darryl, the director of the program, a man who had once served time in this very prison and had graduated years before from the Academy. He introduced me to several men in white standing along the corridor. Shaking their hands, I considered how I’m never afraid in prison, but I always feel a little exposed, a 34-year-old female dressed in something other than a corrections officer uniform.
Darryl then led me to the prison chapel—a separate building that felt more like an office center—and introduced me to Jerrel, a squat African American man in his mid-50s who served as one of the leaders of the prisoner-led church.
WHY ME? WHY NOT ME?
“What changed?” I asked him.
He began reading the Bible, Jerrel said. As he did, he stopped asking, “Why me?” and instead began asking “Why not me?” That Adam messed things up in the Garden, and we've been dealing with the fallout ever since. God didn't have to explain Himself to him, but that Jerrel knew he was put on the earth for a purpose, and that as long as he was living, there was still hope.
After Jerrel prayed with me, Charles wanted to tell me his story.
After serving several years, Charles found out his mother died, before he could say “goodbye.” He felt like waving his fist skyward, but then he saw in a dream that his mother was all right and at Home. Later, his aunt told him that his mother woke from her stupor and received the peace of Jesus on her deathbed.
Today, he is OK, he tells me. He misses his mom, but he trusts he will meet her again someday.
Two stories of questions; both variations of the universal “Why?” One answered in hope. Another in a dream.
WHAT WAS INTENDED FOR EVIL, GOD MEANT FOR GOOD
Darryl and I left the prison to drive half an hour to downtown Houston where Prison Fellowship has established a reentry house to help guys like Jerrel and Charles get back on their feet after prison. I wanted to talk with some guys who had already made the transition back into society.
One of those men was Raymond. It was eight years to the day that Raymond had walked through those same gates.
Growing up on the streets of San Diego, Raymond joined the Bloods to escape the cruel abuse he received at the hands of his mother and siblings. After moving to Texas with his father as an early teen, Raymond again became the object of mistreatment, from a stepmother. This time, he fought back and found solace again in the streets. A robbery turned into a capital murder, and Raymond landed in the criminal justice system too young.
The scars of his abuse are still visible on his forehead, and I ask if he ever asked “Why?”
“I see my abuse as a blessing,” he declares, without any hint of hyper-spirituality.
Like Joseph, “What they intended for evil, God meant for good,” he says. “Everything I endured I can use to help others.”
But in these hands and in the words prayed to a shared Father, I felt warmth, restoration, love. Deep, deep, inexplicable, unanswerable, relentless Love. It was a balm to my conflicted heart to know that these men had endured some of the worst, had stared the hardest “Why?” in the face, and had emerged beautiful.
As I peered into each of their gentle faces, I realized they shared a familiar One. One that had both smiled with tenderness at a child and contorted in anguish as the flesh in His own hands tore. It was a face that I have yet to see with earth eyes, but have imagined countless times.
The Owner of this face has told me before and reminded me yet again that the “Why's” of this world do not have dominion over Him. That the hands that bore the scars can turn over any table it likes. That the face that shed the tears can see my doubt and command it to flee. But, still, He lets me see His tears and feel His scars.