Friday, July 19, 2013

If Not For The Grace of God

Yesterday I received a call I didn't expect. For months we have been on a "waiting" list of sorts for some painting to be done. The reason for the wait? The painting crew are inmates at Collins Correctional Facility, and this summer they were booked with projects. Plus, with the string of nice weather we had been having, I was told that they would be waiting for a rainy day, as this job was an inside job. I guess that's a bit of a joke considering convicts are the ones doing the painting.

But I digress.

As I was sitting back in my chair, my wife calls me and says "I just spoke with *name withheld* and the convicts are at the church." I guess they had received the news that I won't be the pastor there much longer and the church wanted to have the new paint on the walls by the time the new pastor arrived. So, despite the hot, muggy, and sticky weather they decided to bump us up and come on out.

I didn't want to leave *name withheld* alone with the convicts and just one guard, so I went down to the church to meet with them as well, and to tell you the truth they weren't quite what I expected.

When something such as the word "convict" gets attached to someone, a certain mental image comes along with it, and you might have it in the back of your mind that these people are the worst of the worst. They did wrong, were caught, sentenced, and they're fulfilling their sentence. And often, the way they're perceived, it is as if that's all anyone ever needs to know about them.

But, over the course of the last couple days, I have taken the opportunity to converse with them a little bit, share with them some about the church and about Christ in my life. And it has been interesting how they have conversed with me and the other person. They tell us things such as whenever they're out on a public project, working in a town park or some such thing, the people from the community largely avoid them, wanting as little or nothing to do with them as they can. These people understand that there is a perception about them that is difficult, if not impossible to shake, and so they have really come to expect it. But what is interesting to me is they don't dwell on that. They know they have done wrong, and are now paying for that, but they are very respectful when they are out in public, very kind and courteous, and willing to work to shed that negative image.

Today, one of the men conveyed a story to us about a sergeant who worked at the facility for a number of years and was real hard on the prisoners. But then a flood struck the town this man lived in, and his basement became filled with mud. A work detail from the prison where he worked was assigned to his house, and instead of repaying this sergeant in kind as he had done to them, they simply went about cleaning out his basement. The man's young son wanted to join in with them, so he had brought with him a small plastic pail and shovel, and instead of turning the kid away they welcomed o his help. The kid was happy to help, and the prisoners ended up showing themselves to be decent people to the point that, some years after this flood, the sergeant continues to treat them a whole lot better.

But then they said something interesting, and it has stuck with me all day. One of the prisoners, after we had brought some donuts and coffee for them, said "I wish this job didn't have to end, we haven't been treated so well in so long." And seeing how their guard interacts with them, I could tell they weren't really referring to abuse going on in prison. It was more like "We haven't gone anywhere where people see us nothing more as convicts and keep us away at greater than arm's length."

It really got me thinking that, when we're born into this world we're born with the guilt of sin. Standing before a righteous and holy God, we would be found guilty, regardless of our "goodness", or perception of it anyway. It is through Christ alone that we can be freed from the bondage of sin and death.

We may not be incarcerated, but we are guilty. That is until Christ comes into our lives and makes us new.

These people have a record that may never fully be erased. They may not be hardened criminals, perhaps they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But they know the depth of their transgression, and in order to work their way back into society's good graces they are willing to endure the public perception and stigma of what it means to be convict.

Yet, if not for the grace of God we may very well be in their shoes. Sometimes I wonder if we are of the type who feels so entitled, and we don't take seriously the words of Jesus, who said "what you have done to the least of these, you have done to me." When I see a convict right in front of me, it's like I see Jesus standing right next to him, asking "What are you going to do?" 

Plus, the experience I have had over the last couple days has taught me something else. Convicts have a stigma on them that, if others would just see them and not their crime, they might see just a man, not so different than any other man, looking to gain some dignity and respect. Christians, for better or worse, also have a certain public perception. What amazes me though is these people accept that is the perception but they don't let it deter them from their task at hand. Meanwhile Christians scream for their rights. Maybe if we would focus more on the task we were left with, and not on ourselves, the world would see us in a different light, just as I now see these people who reside in a correctional facility.

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