I sat in the cold, stone room for what seemed like ages anticipating their arrival. Curiosity and nerves were competing for first place in my typical over-emotional state. Being a ‘feeler’ can be exhausting. It’s difficult to explain what a typical daily emotional roller coaster a ‘feeler’ must ride. I can go from crying tears of injustice to laughing hysterically at situational ironies in a matter of minutes. There has been no greater invention in recent years than the emoji, which helps solidify every single text I send. Without it, my text recipients are left to wonder my true feelings.
The room was cold. It was silent. Eerily silent. I was curious. Or nervous. And then a sound of a low steady hum slowly emerged from the silence.
The prisoners were coming.
My mom and I, and an inter-denominational makeshift congregation, were in the bowels of Raleigh Central (maximum security) Prison awaiting the arrival of the convicted felons and those men who had chosen to minister to them. This was the closing ceremony of a 3-day spiritual renewal experience for the prisoners. Michael was a volunteering minister. I came to support Michael.
I fully expected to be consumed by discernment, the prickly hairs on my neck to stand on end as I met the roughest of the rough. The vilest of offenders. The rapists. The murderers. The thugs and thieves. I fully expected that I would be accosted and undressed by their vicious eyes. I expected to be disgusted and nauseated at the thoughts of what had put them behind those bars and barbed wire. I fully expected that.
The soft hum was gaining volume.
It was a song. A familiar one.
Finally, it grew to decipherable lyrics…
Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.
I can feel His mighty power and God’s grace.
I can hear the brush of angel’s wings,
I see glory on each face.
Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.
Their deep, modulated voices created so pleasing a sound that it shattered my expectations and I was filled with conviction. As the voices became louder, it was evident that their echoes filled the prison walls from end to end. Tears flooded my eyes and I wept at my pride. They continued to sing upon entering the room, and though I tried, I could not distinguish between the captive and the free. Instantaneously the barriers created by past mistakes and current condition were vanished, and I can’t articulate in mere words the serenity that was in that place. We were one. One Body. A royal priesthood. Surely, the Lord was in that place.
One by one, the men gave their testimonies.
One by one they shared how they had experienced God that weekend. One by one they shed tears of repentance. And tears of grace, received.
A young man stood to share. His calculated gate was evident as he took his place at the mic. His hair, in dreads to his shoulders, covered his brow. He hung his head. After what seemed like an eternity, he lifted his head to speak. I’ll never forget that face. Seven years later, I can still see it as vividly as a photograph in my mind. His cheeks were round, his eyes – soft and round and brown, not cold. Warm. Innocent. It was the face of a child. Your child. My child. I was immediately drawn to him. My maternal instincts flared so abruptly, I nearly approached him to sweep his hair from his eyes. I showed incredible restraint and stayed seated.
“My whole life’s been hard,” he began, as his voice cracked. He had to pause and wipe a tear from his bright, right, brown eye.
I had to compose myself as well, in order to collect the puddle that had become of my body on the cinderblock floor.
I saw his life. I saw my life. I saw my mother gently tucking me into a warm bed and kissing my forehead. I saw him alone and cold and unattended. I saw my dad walk beside my bicycle as I learned to peddle on my own, giving instruction all along the way. I saw him walking the streets, alone, figuring out life as he passed through it. I saw my mother dropping me off at the front door of the school. I saw him being schooled on the street.
I saw exactly how he came to be where he was.
That day I was given a new set of eyes through which to see the people God created. The lost, hurt, broken, prideful, rejected, outcast, forgotten ones.
‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.’ 2 Corinthians 5:17
The need for my own repentance overcame me, and I had to seek forgiveness for my hardened, judgmental heart. I thought I had gone there to let my little light shine. And when the blazing fire of Christ entered the room through song, I realized it was I who had been captive. That I needed to be set free. Free from the bondage of judgment and pride and self-righteousness. Free to love fiercely, mercifully, and unconditionally just as He has loved me.
That day changed me. That day I gained the audacity to believe that Jesus could make all things new, even a wretched, captive, sinner like me.