For the last four years I have been involved in prison ministry as a volunteer with the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, primarily at the medium security facility in nearby Shirley. I was a bit nervous at first - going behind prison walls to comingle with convicted felons can be an unsettling prospect - but the ministry has become an integral and deeply fulfilling part of my life.
I go in with a small team to conduct a faith-based addiction recovery program called the Most Excellent Way. Participants in our fellowship are mostly men whose crimes involved drug or alcohol, and we gather each Sunday evening to study the Bible in keeping with the Christian philosophy that sincere belief in and faithful adherence to the teachings of Christ is the only way to truly be set free from our addictions.
There's plenty of debate as to whether faith-based initiatives actually reduce instances of recidivism among prisoners who participate in such programs; all I can tell you is that I have seen lives change in my short experience. That's good enough for me.
It's not unusual for tire-kickers to attend our Bible study. There's no shortage of individuals in prison who want to game the system in order to earn "good time" and build up a resume for early release. After all, attending a religious program is, for obvious reasons, a popular way to demonstrate repentance and reform. Parole boards are not easily swayed by such window dressing. Plenty of deals have been struck with God by men who find themselves in foxholes and prison cells, and many times those deals are quickly and conveniently forgotten when the pleading party finds himself removed from his uncomfortable circumstances.
But there are those occasions when the change is sincere. Last Sunday I said goodbye to one man who I believe exemplifies that kind of genuine change.
David first showed up at the Most Excellent Way more than a year ago. What I first noticed about David were the tattoos that he wore on his neck and hands. When I asked him about them, he apologized because they were, apparently, vulgar. David was quiet, but when he did speak it wasn't uncommon to hear rough language punctuate his contribution to the discussion. As with the tattoos, he'd catch himself and apologize for his choice of words.
Before long it became apparent that David was intent on cleaning up his act. The swearing stopped and the questions became more insightful. He rarely missed a Sunday, no matter how bad the weather or how big the game (Sunday nights, after all, include Super Bowl Sunday). He went from only asking questions to helping other inmates find answers to theirs, and then to encouraging other men to join in the weekly fellowship.
Often, when a night's studies would come to a close, David would ask that we remember his family - a wife and two young boys - in prayer. Because he came to his faith in prison the David they knew was not the David he had become, and his concern was that he would be able to demonstrate that he had, indeed, changed his ways.
So today, on the cusp of the Christmas holiday, I think of the wonderful gift of forgiveness that was offered and accepted by David, and how he will go home to be with his family for the first time in a few years to share a special season. I think about how the new David is himself a gift to his family; that rather than simply being reunited with a man who would continue to live a selfish life -- the consequences of which would visit more pain upon a wife and sons -- his family will instead be gifted with a husband and father whose desire is to be an example of a life well lived.
David's road will not be easy, and he knows it. Merely wanting to do better won't make it so, and there may be more days than not when he finds himself on his own in this world. He'll need to rely on God on this new journey as he works to earn the trust of his family and of society, and especially during those daunting times when that trust seems a long way off. I do believe that David has equipped himself to meet that challenge, however.
By sharing their lives with me Sunday nights, David and the other men I've come to know and love give me great encouragement in my own life, and are the reason I look forward to going to prison each week. If they can find joy behind bars, certainly we can find it on the outside in our daily lives.
And that, I think, is a tremendous gift for which we can be grateful even in this grim holiday season. Merry Christmas, David.
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