I step out of the blinding, scorching summer heat and enter the second set of steel doors into the prison chapel. Takes a minute for my eyes to adjust enough to take in the room. There’s a guy by the altar. His back was to me and he didn’t look up, but then again the machine was loud enough he probably didn’t even hear the doors close. I guess “Carl” felt safe there for a few moments, bent over, holding the long plastic pipe and running the broad head across the carpet up in front of the chapel altar. You don’t often see a fella with his back to the door, even when he’s working.
With nod to the officer at the desk, I breathed in the relief of the cool chapel air-conditioning. Some of the other state prisons had riots the past week. Tempers tend to flare and blaze with the sun. Our facility already operated at 200% capacity, keeping double the men they were designed to house at that Illinois penitentary. Inmates brought their group rivalries and their personal vendettas along with them, fresh off the streets of Chicago. Impatience and irritability, they thrive with that kind of heat. All the concrete walls and yards radiate, magnify it. Whether because of the weather or not, tension was high even though things had been quiet. But it was cooler indoors. In the chapel, one could find more than one kind of relief. Not everyone comes here for comfort from God.
“Carl” was a regular at every Bible study and worship service we offered. He made a point to be on my visit list for each week’s one-to-one meets in private conversation, personal study or prayer. He’d signed up to work as the inmate porter there in the prison chapel, so he was around even when we didn’t have an activity or group gathered there. I got to know him better than most of the guys. Young man, mid-twenties with a fit build, Carl stood only 5’6″ when not bent over a vacuum machine or mop. He talked fast, sharp mind and quick wit, always with more Bible questions, faith questions, God questions–and good ones, sincere. Some come to the chapel just for killing time in a cooler place that’s not their own cell or building. Carl wasn’t like that; his appetite for study and understanding seemed insatiable, like mine.
He never had a pastor care for his soul. Carl never knew a communion of saints, a fellowship of forgiven sinners in a church. He had no religious upbringing except for a grandma who took him from time to time–a little Sunday School here or a few times going to vacation Bible school. Little seeds, maybe, scattered and sown sparingly in his short, unruly life. He did believe in God, that there was a God, that God exists. He prayed sometimes, when trouble came. But Carl never knew much about Christianity besides the ten commandments, the strict rules–the kind that expects you to just be a good boy, a better person. He knew only a religion which, when it turns out you’re not that better person, just tells you to try harder and harder. None of those little life lessons had helped keep Carl out of prison.
He’d hooked up with a gang already in junior high. They were guys who knew where the party was, the girls, the weed and cheap beer. There were strict rules there, too, which involved having your brother’s backs, rules of respect for the ranks and earning your reputation. The signs inked in Carl’s skin stood for something that mattered to him more than life, more than any god or church at one time. At the center of one tat was a cross, though the real cross was just now starting to mean redemption for him, real forgiveness for Carl’s own real sins. Turns out, Carl’s sins were the kind that make you wind up in a prison, fresh off the streets of Chicago, vacuuming a floor in front of the Lord’s altar. They led him to that one place where you could feel free, normal, welcome and even safe for a minute or two.
Carl turned to turn off the machine and smiled to see me there. He didn’t bother to wind up the hose or the cord, but lay them gently before the altar, his inmate offering to the Lord and came to greet me. His hands were smaller than mine, but stronger too as he reached and shook mine. Touch is no small thing in prison; the officer sat up in his seat while we exchanged pleasantries.
“Hey, you got a little time before class?” Carl asked. I checked with the head chaplain and we got the OK to talk a little while. Carl gathered up the cords and put the vacuum away. We met in the usual small corner room. To this day, such uniform white cinder block walls and bright florescent lights take me back to that place. The steel door clicked like a privacy switch as Carl took his seat. There I listened.
He told me he had a plan to get out, not of prison, but the gang. “I can’t live that way, live two lives.” I was young in mid-twenties myself, a college and seminary trained dairy farm kid from Nebraska. Educated or not, there was much I didn’t grasp of what he said, what it meant at the time. I sat in the same workshops with the guards to learn about gangs and the way they operate in prison. I knew the chapel was a hotspot–one of three besides the cafeteria or yard–where weapons got hidden and group violence between rival gangs could erupt. The chapel got locked down and swept after the recent riots in other state prisons. Dozens of shivs, plastic silverware, pens sharpened to pierce jugular veins were found in the sweep.
Yesterday was the first day we opened back up. The air conditioning hadn’t caught up from this second consecutive week’s heat wave here in the closed corner office. What seemed cool walking in from outside was now warm to the point we both had to wipe our brows now and then while we talked. He’d set his mind firmly on his goal to get out and be done with his crew. He didn’t talk details; I didn’t ask. In his mind, this is what repentance looked like–what it required of him. I assured him Christ wasn’t withholding forgiveness and grace, waiting for him somehow to earn or deserve it. But it was a matter of loyalty to Jesus over them, in his mind. I urged him to guard his temper. I kept his privacy, but he’d told the head chaplain, too, and we later talked some.
We closed with a devotion on James, his favorite book:
“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” (James 1:19-21)
The next week, Carl was just gone, nowhere to be seen. By that week’s end, finally I found his name on my list of guys requesting a visit in solitary confinement. All the head chaplain told me was he’d been in a fight, a big one that landed him in the hole.
Now I liked Carl quite a lot; the guards did, too, generally. But I knew he had violence in him. I suppose we all do, until the wrong mix of emotion, booze or drugs and bad circumstance lets it escape wildly into the world around us, sometimes in brutal full force. Carl was no stranger to fights.
Somewhere there was a young woman “Carl” himself told me about. He had wrapped his small hands around a steel vacuum pipe and beat her senseless, unconscious, one night. They’d been fighting. He was drugging and drunk. He got angry, blind with rage. He blacked out. But he remembered enough to carry such a horror at himself, guilt and shame because of what he had done, had become. She lived. He got sent to prison. We prayed for her often, not that they be reunited. He didn’t hope for that ever in this life. Rather we prayed that she find help, recovery, healing, and a good man, the sort of safe life they once longed for together.
Forgiveness finally started to mean something real to him, like it was something he needed if he was to live with himself and what he had done every day for the rest of his life. It was forgiveness and life lived by grace, or abide in his sin, anesthetized with drugs and drink until his own death. And then what? He feared how many others he might injure or kill along his violent path, if he didn’t change his ways. Perhaps the day would come where he felt nothing, no remorse or shame, only consumed with arrogant pride that in harming others he finally killed his conscience rather than feel it’s real guilt?
Forgiveness meant new life to Carl. Unlike many inmates there, Carl never reckoned forgiveness meant he shouldn’t be punished and locked up for his crime. He was one of the few men I met in prison chaplaincy who didn’t cling to some pretense of innocence or claim of a bad rap. This was Carl’s first felony stretch. He prayed often to never merit another, that it would be his only and last. He didn’t hope to be a rich man, just to love, serve and be loved.
I planned for a devotion I hoped would bring Carl some kind of comfort and help in Christ, despite now finding himself involved in yet another fit of violence. I settled on Hebrews 12:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” (Hebrews 12:1-4)
Carl’s voice was weakened and meek through the steel door slot where we knelt to talk. His cell was dark, but his spirits were calm, better by far than expected. I listened some as he confessed he had fought hard despite his every intention and effort not to strike back. He knew it was wrong, but somehow seemed relieved as he told of it all.
I read Hebrews 12 for him, noting the Lord’s every right reason, good cause to fight back, but how in mercy Jesus endures such great violence at the hands of self-righteous sinful men like us, praying “Father, forgive them.” Them, he says. “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” Carl talked again about his horrifying blackout rage that resulted in this prison term. I absolved him, assured him God had not run out of forgiveness for him, nor would He. We prayed. A blessing I spoke, preparing to leave.
When I stood, “Carl” finally stood, too. He turned on the light in his cell. The whites of his bright eye was blood red to the iris. The other was blackened, so swollen it couldn’t open. He was missing teeth from his genuine smile now, with his bottom lip split down a full inch and stitched up. “Wait,” he said, and rolled up his sleeve. His arm had new ink over the cross, ink that read “Jesus Christ” and “I am not ashamed.”
“I told you I was going to leave ’em.” Carl explained. He was in solitary for protective custody, he then told me and I confirmed with the guards. He had defaced his gang marks and placed the name of Jesus Christ over that sign in his skin. To leave, he was beaten out of the gang. “I tried to just sit there and take it. But they kept coming and coming. After a dozen or so, I fought back.” Each member, one by one, had to take their shots, beat him out. He’d been in the infirmary four days. His femur was cracked, several ribs broken.
There was peace in his tone, his words, in his eye and his smile. Real relief. “I know I’m forgiven in Christ,” Carl said. “I know I’m free from that life to be His.”
That day, I proclaimed the good news of our forgiveness through that Jesus who resisted to the point of shedding his blood, though most of us have not, do not. Christ did that for Carl and for we who have not measured up and can’t undo or make up for our sins. That day, I met a red-eyed, stitched lipped, cracked ribbed, blood-bought brother in Christ. Just then, in that solitary cell, “Carl” looked a lot like Jesus to me.