You’d think I’d be used to this place by now, this desolate place. The atmosphere is palpable with despair, hopelessness. The pungent smell of sweat and fear assaults my nostrils. The moment you enter these walls, it is death by degrees; every day a step closer. Sometimes laughter dispels the gloom, but not today.
My father always told me I was worthless, no good. “You’re like your old man, Danny. You and Richie, just chips off the old block,” he’d say, alcohol slurring his words, his breath sending waves of putrid odor into our faces.
What a drunken, miserable excuse for a father! He had me and Richie doing beer runs when we were nine and ten years old. One of us would keep the convenience store clerk occupied while the other grabbed the beer and ran. Our reward was a beer apiece. If we failed to bring beer home, Dad would beat us.
It wasn’t just beer. He’d hide things under our shirts and in our pockets in stores and send us out the door. “You’re just innocent looking boys. Who’s going to question you, huh?” He’d snort with laughter, and cuff us on the back.
Mom died when I was twelve and Richie was thirteen. “A broken heart,” Grandma said. “Your daddy done broke her heart over and over.” Then she sobbed, clutching her Bible to her chest. “Don’t repeat the sins of your father, boys. Your mama, she wanted more for you than a life like your dad.”
Richie and I spent our teenage years in and out of juvenile detention. I was twenty when I was arrested for robbery. It was in jail that Chaplain Gary visited me. I laughed in his face when he told me God had a plan and purpose for my life. “Yeah, sure! His plan for my life is to repeat the sins of my father. Save your breath, man. I ain’t buying this God stuff.”
Chaplain Gary was a persistent man -- got on my nerves plenty. Sometimes his words still echo in my mind, his compassion as he touched my shoulder and said, “Son, that’s a lie. You don’t have to repeat anything. Your life, your destiny is in your hands.”
I sigh, and stare at my hands. Over the years I’ve come to know the guards. Some come and go. Others stay for the long haul. Most people have the concept that prison guards are harsh, even cruel. That’s not so here. There are those who are cold, distant, aloof. Others are genuinely kind and care about the men within these walls. Some are sad, their eyes filled with a weariness that rest won’t help.
This is death row. Men leave here in a body bag. Oh, a few get a commuted sentence, a reprieve, liberated. Plenty find God here, while others snub their noses at God. These men, some are still those frightened, wounded boys who started on a path of crime, driven by forces they couldn’t conquer.
My heart aches today. Guard Parker approaches me. He smiles, but it’s a sad, weary smile, and his eyes are full of sorrow. A man who has seen too much, I think to myself. “It’s time,” he says, and my heart lurches. I nod, and he nods back. I briefly close my eyes, bracing myself.
The cell door clanks as it opens, and I hesitate before stepping through. Young, frightened eyes meet mine. A trembling hand grabs mine. “I’m so scared, Chaplain Dan. Tell me again how I’ll be in heaven today.” A sob escapes his lips, a shudder courses through his body.
This could’ve been me. That’s what makes it so hard. Lance was just a scared eighteen-year-old kid when a robbery went horribly wrong. A clerk shot at him and his friend, and a terrified Lance started firing his gun. A woman and her five-year-old daughter were killed.
It’s now twelve years later. All appeals have failed. At least Lance has made his peace with God like I did those many years ago. If it hadn’t been for Chaplain Gary’s persistence, his compassionate kindness that wore down my defenses, my life would have turned out differently. I became a prison chaplain to carry that message of hope to others. I didn’t repeat my father’s life. Thank God, I broke free.
I pray a last prayer with Lance, read some passages from the Bible. “I’ll see you again someday, Lance.” He nods, tears streaming down his face.
**Dedicated to the faithful men and women who do jail and prison ministry, some I've had the honor to know personally.
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