By Robin Mullins Senger
My first time in jail…
Recently I had the pleasure of sharing my story with women inmates at a jail. I didn’t know what to expect, since I have never been in a jail and am not aware of any of my acquaintances having served time.
Having no clue what to expect, I feared our differences. I assumed we would have nothing in common and we would not relate to each other. I assumed that the fact that they were in jail made them completely different from me. I feared hostility because I was different from them.
My attitude at times really annoys me. I know intellectually that my attitude sucks and is far from Christ-like love and acceptance. But when faced with the unknown and unfamiliar, my flesh just rises up anyway and makes assumptions that are rarely in favor of what I don’t know and understand. The reality is that our similarities surprised me.
While I went there to inspire them (to change), I’m the one who left inspired and changed.
I love it when this happens. I guess God has to do this to wake me out of my comfortable coffin-like sleep. Because that’s what it feels like to me – the sleep of disconnect, isolation and ridiculous oblivion.
Of course while I’m asleep I think I am alive and have it all together. It’s only after I wake up that I realize I was actually stuck. In a coffin.
The women I encountered at the jail were, well… people. Normal people. They laughed, they listened attentively, they were respectful, they cried, they cheered for each other, they clearly were gracious of my shortcomings, they cared, they learned, they planned silly pranks, they were… AWESOME.
I thought – wow! These women aren’t so different from me!
And later I thought – maybe it’s me not so different from them.
They are behind bars. Physical bars. But when I judge, hold an offense, make negative assumptions, avoid, withhold a smile – I am behind bars.
It reminds me of the time I was stranded in Chile. My husband and I went to the missions and churches seeking help in desperate circumstances – but we were turned away. My own people, the ones I was comfortable with, the ones I looked up to and felt I was most like, turned three small children and us away.
I thank God he allowed us to spend the night on the beach with the homeless people. I was terrified of them – how different they were from me, so therefore they must be bad and dangerous. Yet, they were the most generous, kind, loving people who gave to us abundantly out of their meager possessions, protected us, and never judged us for being there.
Did I see God at the missions and churches in Chile? NO. Did I see God on the beach with the homeless? YES. Did I see God in jail? YES.
So often I think that what I want is what is good for me. I want to be around people who are like me. Yet when I am forced to be around those who are different – I feel like I have been raised from the dead, that the prison doors within me have been opened – and I can breathe and soak in God’s presence.
I have never forgotten the homeless in Chile. It is one of my greatest desires to go back there some day and repay in some way the goodness that they bestowed on my family that night. I feel a connection with them that doesn’t weaken as time passes. I felt that same connection with the women at the jail.
They are beautiful women who have experienced hardship and brokenness – yet (or because of?) I see God in them and working in the midst of them. I saw God there – again, in a way I do not experience Him in the church. It has planted a seed in me that wants to go back and wants to be in the middle of the goodness and beauty that God has going there.
Borrowing God’s glasses.
We all see life and others through our own unique paradigm shaped by our lives that no one else has lived. God does not see this way. He created us and desires for us to learn from each other and with each other. To celebrate our differences and respect and honor each other. To deny others the freedom to be different is to deny ourselves growth, life and freedom from living behind bars.
One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Luke 4:18-19. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, And recovery of sight to the blind, To set free those who are oppressed, To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”
That is the heart of God right there. That is why, when I am among the homeless and imprisoned, I feel closest to Him. I realize that He loves me too and will do what He needs to do to set me free from my own captivity and blindness.
“Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to a divine purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: That we are here for the sake of others…for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day, I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of people, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received and am still receiving.” Albert Einstein, Living Philosophy