Thursday, July 5, 2012

Noticing the Unnoticed.

Noticing the Unnoticed 

During my second week in Lilesville, I was blessed to experience a visit to the local prison. Knowing that I was interested in exploring the prison ministry arena, my supervisor arranged for me to meet with the head chaplain and tour the Lanesboro Correctional Institution, which I learned is right off Highway 74, tucked back hidden in the woods away from sight.  I entered on Prison Camp Road, where I began to see the fences topped with barbed wire that enclosed the specific area of land designated for those judged to have done the unmentionable. I pulled up, a little nervous and took a deep prayerful breath.  I was welcomed to the security hut by the clank of the door being unlocked by someone who could see me on the outside, from the inside.   

After being cleared to enter, Chaplain Bird directed me into this massive cement building.  Directly in front of me was this intimidating elevated room with tinted windows, so that those on the inside could see out, but no one on the outside could see in. This, I was informed, was the central control center. Chaplain Bird explained they were currently on lock down so my visit would be altered, but I would be able to see more of the facility.  We went on a tour, ate dinner and observed the staff line up, and he sat and answered my unending list of questions.   
Throughout my visit, I saw the offices, empty halls, cells were prisoners were locked in, the kitchen where inmates cooked and cleaned, and so on.  I observed that the prisoners were not only being confined to the prison, but that they had lost things like simple privacy in the bathroom. They were watched 24/7.  I also observed that in this facility hidden away from the majority of society, I was being watched. Cameras, both visible and invisible, were everywhere.  We stopped at every door and those watching us from the command center unlocked and opened the door for us.  Also, I deemed the most human place in the whole building was the chapel, where there was an ounce of color in the chairs and the I am the Vine banners on the wall.  I found my dining experience significantly memorable.  
In hopes of embracing a full experience in the prison, I had requested to eat the dinner the inmates were eating. Entering the kitchen, all eyes were on me.  Granted Chaplain Bird had reminded me before entering that these men were in a men’s prison and were not accustomed to seeing women, so their reactions may appear crude, but they were not. It was more like they had forgotten that women existed outside those thick cement walls, ironic considering I had no understanding of their existence either.  We ate in a small conference room, and I will admit, from the looks of the meat concoction to what I am pretty positive was a beard hair in the green beans, it was a meal to remember, one we joked certainly needed a blessing upon.
            At the conclusion of my visit, I was commenting on how thankful I was for the opportunity to see inside a prison, since I figured not many could say the same, which I suspected was why it is easy for us on the outside to dehumanize those on the inside.  He responded that was very true and said, “In a prison, its easy to separate the murder from the officer. The inmates’ clothes and living space clearly defines and separates their identity. But when you are standing in a line at a grocery store, the person behind you may have committed a heinous crime and you have no idea, because from your eyes, they look just like everyone else.”
            I spent hours meditating over my experience and even wrote my first sermon around it. After only two weeks, I was beginning to understand that as members of a small town, everyone is aware of the happenings of the town and sees everything going on. But, recognizing how easy it is to be aware of each other’s business, I wondered who were the unseen people in Lilesville, other than those inmates hidden back in the woods. In my pondering, I wondered who the unseen are in our society.
In my sermon, I discussed what it would look like if we all took on a ministry of noticing. Basing my comments on a passage in 2nd Corinthians, I reflected on how Paul talks about the earthly tent we live in, and how if it is destroyed we have an eternal home in heaven. I talked about how in my visit, I saw firsthand how the cement prison, home to many, did not compare to a tent nor would it be easily destroyed. I discussed how I didn’t think this was the point of the text and that Paul was actually pointing out a distinction between the earthly and the eternal. I went on to talk about how these two natures also apply to our existence, we have an inner and outer natures, “seen” and “unseen.” I continued to ponder how we could use this distinction in terms of people, wondering who those are that are actually unseen in our society.  I went on to talk about how it was important to notice the unnoticed, and see the unseen so that grace may extend to more and more people, which may increase thanksgiving and bring more glory to God. As an incarnation people, we embody grace, and by merely seeing those accustomed to remaining unnoticed, we have the opportunity to be grace and love to others.
This whole experience, visiting the prison and my time of reflection, opened my mind to endless possibilities for future opportunities in ministry and to numerous other theological reflections.  My conversations with the chaplain about his experiences with inter-faith dialogue, seeing how his job is to provide a space for all faith backgrounds to practice while incarcerated, and about the relationship between churches and prisons illuminated some great opportunities to extend love to others.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well - your blog leaves me with much to ponder as we say here in the south. Just recently a little dirty family secret has become public knowledge and I have learned that I have a second cousin serving time there for murder. Now that's a word I've never used in any serious form or have ever contemplated that I would actually experience such as this. But tonight I find myself in the scriptures looking for guidance. This is where i am...
The greatest scriptural mandate for prison ministry is given in Matthew 25:31-46.“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.”
we see our Lord Jesus Christ identifying Himself as the one who was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, a prisoner - and calling us to ministries of caring, outreach, witness and justice. Thus, any so-called “prison ministry” will be an outreach of Christian love and compassion not only to prisoners and their families, but also to crime victims and their families, and to the community at large, encompassing the criminal justice and correctional system, and the people who work in it.
The answer is the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the redemptive and transforming power of God’s love.


1. Prison Ministry is commanded by our Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 25:31-46).

2. Many jails and prisons have no full-time or even part-time chaplains or any religious services at all. Even in prisons that have chaplains, they cannot possibly minister to more than a small percentage of inmates there.

3. Statistics tell us that for every person incarcerated, there are three to five other people affected: families, loved ones, children

I took the first step in reaching out to his parents. Was scared to death - but received well. The next will be a reacquantance letter---then I haven't a clue. Prayers and suggestions for help are most welcomed!!!!