“Chap, you got a minute?” Dozens of inmates passed through the corridor around us but Slate just looked at his watch. Sixty seconds passed. “That’s it,” he said. “You gave me a minute. I’m eternally grateful for your time.” He smiled as he joined the flow of inmates on their way to work. I watched them walk away and thought about Slate, this man who’d barely known a second of peace in his life, starting with being choke-chained in an attic for being a recalcitrant six-year-old.
As a chaplain in a maximum-security prison, I imagined asking for a minute to greet incoming prisoners. I wanted to stand at the receiving dock with the words: Welcome. The cruelty and abuse that has been done to you or that you have done to yourself or others…it stops here. Here we practice a new way of being human together. Here we stop blaming. Here we practice taking responsibility for your life, and we practice respect for yourself and others. Your story is not over. Change is possible. God is here. Peace to you. Come on in.
Yet the prison system was a monumental hindrance toward the restoration of lives. The gravitational pull from social and personal patterns of behavior was fierce.
I grew up afraid of wasps and scorpions, but in my own home, I never experienced anything but safety. I was never afraid that my parents would slam me against a wall, beat me with a bat, or chain me to a fence. I didn’t fear the darkness of a bedroom with marauding molesters. I never imagined that I might die by a gun or a knife. I didn’t worry about being belittled or abused from parents who were drugged or drunk. I didn’t know anyone who dropped out of school or ended up in prison. My neighborhoods weren’t raided by law enforcement. I wasn’t targeted for suspicion or arrest because of my skin color. I didn’t experience the daily traumas of addiction or mental illness.
Working in prison, I came to see that when the main thoroughfares of society were blocked to the inmates, they found detours and pathways of survival, sometimes making the only choice that seemed available to them. But I also held hope that their self-defeating and abusive choices could be exchanged for good and redeeming ones.
Nevertheless, the best of intentions can be swept out to sea in the undertows of despairing times. I lost hope for a while. I retraced my steps to find it. Did I lose it in the hospital room when I visited an officer whose jaw had been dislocated by an inmate? Or was it the day I fled from my visits to solitary confinement because the smell of feces smeared on a cell wall made me nauseous? Was it the conversation with the inmate in four-point restraints because the staff had grown tired of his verbal tirades? Was it that incident when the medical team valiantly treated the inmate whose neck had been slashed open by an inmate I’d previously considered non-violent? Or maybe it was the time I led a workshop for a regional staff meeting on the topic, How to Treat an Inmate like a Human Being and no one came.
Some staff said, “I don’t want to know their crime. It might change the way I treat them.” But I wanted to know their crime because it might change the way I understood them. Their crime was part of them and an honest avenue toward healing. As a chaplain I had a unique relationship that allowed me to enter into their lives. I wanted to hear the stories they rarely told, the ones that were not rote and reeled off to every case manager, court-appointed attorney, or administrator. I wanted to know when they knew they mattered to someone, and someone mattered to them. I asked for stories of their heroes, their hopes, their joys. Together we sifted through the ruins to find what remained for beginning again.
“We’ve got the mark of Cain, and we’ll never be rid of it,” was the lament of some inmates, sure that it symbolized shame, failure and banishment. But rather than a curse for killing his brother Abel, Cain was given a sign of protection from God against the vengeance of others. It was a mark for life, not death. It was the mercy mark.
Mercy. It was my one-word prayer, the plea I found myself saying daily, repeatedly, in a kind of pray-without-ceasing kind of way. Sometimes I said the word audibly. Mostly it was my inner cry.
Mercy is not going soft on crime. It doesn’t flinch from our cruelties and deceptions. It doesn’t avoid looking at the constellation of people still suffering the aftermath of crimes, from grieving parents, to bewildered children, to surviving victims, to a wounded community. The miracle of mercy is that it can be clear-eyed to our hatreds and horrors, but still interrupt our ceaseless rounds of retaliation and vengeance.
Mercy is not mercy if it is given to those who deserve it. Mercy is an opening into the possibility for transformation. It can carry the full weight of our failings. It is a holy gift that can enable us to begin again. It seeks the healing of the wounds for victims, perpetrators and community alike.
Luke walked through a doorway of mercy, and discovered a blessing of hope and purpose for himself. He found his part in the work of mercy and became a “bless-er.” I often reminded the inmates that they had the power to curse or to bless. Luke decided God wanted him to bless others as a way to make amends for the harm he had caused in his life. He made it his vocation. He carried one-line blessings in his pocket, suitable for various occasions. He had blessings for inmates or staff who were grieving a death in their family. He had blessings for peace of mind amid the daily conflicts. He wrote blessings for food, visits, policies, transfers, classes, work and weather. “Chap, you need a blessing? I got one for you.” Skimming the words from his pocketed papers, he found one for the moment. “May your acts of kindness and mercy be rewarded by seeing God smile in the face of someone whose need was met.”
Luke is a vivid reminder of what can happen when prison becomes a place of accountability and restoration. If we lose track of our common stories of failure and hope, we lose track of our common humanity. We are known best by how we treat the least, the least within us and within others. We carry within us the power to bless and to redeem, a power that makes God smile. Society can change if we revise our narrative about crime and punishment to the transformation of lives. We were the people who designed and created these places of punishment. We can re-imagine them into becoming places of promise and possibility. The whole world will be blessed.
Nancy Hastings Sehested is a Co-pastor of the Circle of Mercy Congregation, an ecumenical church in Asheville, NC. She recently retired as a prison chaplain having worked in medium and maximum security prisons for men for over thirteen years. She is currently at work on a book about her prison experience.