This Sunday’s text is Acts 16:16-34, and the Working Preacher commentary can be found here. We’re meeting Paul and Silas in prison.

I recently traveled to Lumpkin, Georgia, to the ICE civil prison called the Stewart Detention Center. Most of my undocumented neighbors picked up by Immigration, Control and Enforcement end up in this “civil” prison, even though it’s 8 hours away.

Somehow calling it a detention center makes it sound less like the prison it is. And somehow calling it a prison invites you into the idea that the people there are criminals. But that’s not right. It is a prison, overcrowded, money-making, owned by a corporation. It’s a “civil” prison though, because most of the detainees there have not been convicted of a crime. Any right to a trial, to due process, has often been denied, because of their immigration status.

The detainees are housed, segregated by the accusations against them (accusations not proven in a court of law) in red jumpsuits, orange jumpsuits, khaki jumpsuits, blue jumpsuits. Red ones say you’re the “worst of the worst.” Blue says you’re a low risk.

They are fed food shipped in boxes that say, “Not fit for human consumption.”

They are denied medical attention, or given shoddy medical care. Several weeks ago a healthy 33 year old man died of pneumonia.

The are held in isolation. Solitary confinement.

And one of the most disturbing facts of this civil prison is that there is a problem with the water supply. When there is water, it’s black. And when there is not water, sometimes it’s days, there’s no water for drinking, for cooking, for showering. When the detainees point it out, the authorities say, “We’re working on it.” But it doesn’t ever change.

Prison is dehumanizing to the detained.

Prison is dehumanizing to those who detain. I looked around that prison at the individuals who were working there, and you could see in their eyes that they, too, were in pain. That there were fears, anger, dismissal, frustration, overwork, and deep pain in them, too.

As Johnny Cash sang, “If they freed me from this prison, if that railroad train was mine, I bet I’d move it on a little farther down the line. Far from Folsom Prison, that’s where I want to stay. And I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away.”

But Paul and Silas, although they had been freed, didn’t run. Instead, they made sure that the jailer was free. Paul and Silas ministered to the jailer and his family. It’s a beautiful vision of hating the system, but not those trapped by it.

Where will you go with this Sunday’s text?

  • If you’re going to talk about prison, be sure to “follow the money.” Paul and Silas were imprisoned because they messed with the cash flow of the diviner’s owner. Who benefits from our prison systems today?
  • There are other things that imprison us—relationships, expectations, addictions, and more—how can we (in a very Buddhist fashion) love both our jailers and our ourselves?
  • What do you think gave Paul and Silas the strength to make it through their time in prison? What helps us get through tough times like this?
  • It’s almost impossible to read this text in our congregations without someone asking, “What’s divination?” What do you think? Is there a modern-day example of something similar?

Rev. Lia Scholl is not-that-kind-of-Baptist preacher and pastor in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (U.S.) and is the author of I Heart Sex Workers (Chalice Press, 2013).

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4 thoughts on “Narrative Lectionary: Prison Blues Edition (Acts 16:16-34)

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