The Human One will come in glory with all the angels, and will sit on a throne. The people of all nations will be brought before the Human One, who will separate them, as shepherds separate their sheep from their goats.
The Human One will place the sheep on the right and the goats on the left. Then the ruler will say to those on the right, “God has blessed you! Come and receive the realm that was prepared for you before the world was created. When I was hungry, you gave me something to eat, and when I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink. When I was a stranger, you welcomed me, and when I was naked, you gave me clothes to wear. When I was sick, you took care of me, and when I was in jail, you visited me.”
Then the ones who pleased the Holy One will ask, “When did we give you something to eat or drink? When did we welcome you as a stranger or give you clothes to wear or visit you while you were sick or in jail?”
The ruler will answer, “Whenever you did it for any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did it for me.”
I read this passage, and studied it, so often—Disciple Bible Study, seminary, small group studies—and for a long time I glided right over that last bit about who we were to help—the people in jail. When I did slow down and read every clause carefully, I found excuses to not engage with it. Even in seminary, I managed to ignore it, telling myself I did so much in the other areas, it made up for doing nothing at all; and besides, I had no idea how to do that. And yes, there was some fear of the unknown there, too.
As we all know well, God has a sense of irony. While serving as president of the board at an LGBTQ community center, I was invited to the local jail’s Pride observance and flag raising . The warden offered some of us a tour. This was my first exposure to the inside. I was overwhelmed, even though it was empty—the isolation, the starkness, the unrelenting hardness of everything—steel, concrete, cinder block, chain link—was shocking. But it opened my eyes to the realities of incarceration .A couple of years later, I became involved in supporting people on the inside here in the Chicago area—penpals, phone calls, a court presence for those who had no one else to be present for them, and, yes, visits.
I have never become used to those aspects of jails and prisons that so affected me that very first time. I still shudder at handcuffs, iron bars, stainless steel counters and benches, the belly chains, the silence of the corridors where so many are locked up in anguish. Indeed, they are, perhaps, harder to accept now that I have come to know people who are on the inside.
Here’s what I have learned: the things that Jesus is talking about—people who are hungry, thirsty, sick, naked, on the inside—they are all connected.
When things fall apart in one area, they are likely to fall apart in others as well. We have all heard the stories of people who must choose between their medications and groceries; or people who became addicted to painkillers and began selling them to raise money for more; people who have mental illness and are arrested and incarcerated rather than treated; and on and on.
All of these—poverty, health, housing, education, employment—intersect in the jails and prisons, and the effects are intensified after people are released. Housing can be impossible to locate, either because a person has a record of conviction or because of the nature of the charges. Without stable housing, it is very difficult to get a job, any job. Without a job, health care is not available or affordable. Education is difficult—cost is often a factor (income + inaccessibility of loans for those with a record). The training programs on the inside are often difficult to access or end without warning or are unrealistic—many jobs require licenses that people with a record of conviction are prohibited from obtaining. Speaking of licenses, even obtaining identification on release can be impossible, because of cost and the possible lack of an address.
Inside—well, the essence and intent of incarceration is isolation—not only from family and friends, but from any comfort, from any enjoyment, from non-punitive touch, from individual identity, from hope.
I cannot imagine a more efficient method for creating people who are angry, unemployable (by outside standards), in pain, and lonely. How does this serve either society or God?
The simple answer is that it does not.
By visiting people who are on the inside (which, by extension, includes all the other activities I mentioned), it’s possible to mitigate that pain and anger, to some extent. To let people on the inside know they are not alone, that they are not forgotten, that they still matter to someone—and even to God. I don’t proselytize. Just as with so much of ministry, the core is simple non-judgmental presence: sitting in the courtroom, being in the visiting room, taking a phone call, writing a letter, sending a birthday card—listening, hearing them.
Hear me clearly—I do not want to imply that the way to end incarceration is as simple as everyone on the outside writing a letter or two to someone on the inside. What brings someone to the inside of a jail or prison is very complicated, and cannot be solved so easily. All of those factors that intersect in a prison have to be addressed. None of the questions surrounding the (in)justice system can be solved simply and anyone who gives you knee-jerk “simple” solutions is missing the point. But we can offer some relief, an entry point to hope and grace.
And that is what visiting people on the inside is all about—an inkling that others do care, that no one has to be alone—and the idea that we who are on the outside bear responsibility for those on the inside. Not to “save” them, but to simply hold them up in love—God’s love, for all people, those on the outside, and those on the inside.
Rev. Martha Daniels serves Holy Covenant MCC in Brookfield, IL, USA. She has been involved with spiritual advocacy with those on the inside (a term she prefers over prison ministry) since 2017.
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