Mary’s in jail for one of those guilty-by-association charges from a baby daddy incident. I get to visit Mary for 20 minutes two times a week. It’s a horribly impersonal set-up. She’s in a different building and we’re staring at each other on a TV screen and talking on a pay phone-like receiver. A couple of weeks ago, she began to cry as soon as I sat down. She’s a non-emotive woman who grew up too fast, but in this moment, her heart was too heavy to hold back tears. She’s worried about her kids—she has no idea which relative they’re staying with. She’s hungry. She’s pregnant with her fourth baby. She needs to go to the doctor. She already has three beautiful girls under the age of three. She’s moved five times in the last six months, had an apartment fire and several motel stays. She worked in the sex industry and had three jobs she couldn’t keep for a week. She’s had CPS battles, paternal tests, hospital stays, pregnancy complications, and weeks of no electricity or water. She saved up her tax refund to buy a car that died as she drove it down the road from the used car lot. She’s been robbed and cheated. She’s lost all her possessions. She’s been threatened with death, had her children kidnapped by one of her baby daddies, and last month an angry relative punched out her living room window and then took her car.
And two weeks ago, she turned 23.
She’s sick. She’s tired. She’s hungry. She’s anxious. And she’s in jail.
I can’t take her hand. I can’t hug her. I’m watching her cry on a stupid TV. I’ve never felt so helpless. I wanted to be where she was. I wanted to hold her so she could fall completely apart.
There was a woman waiting for a ride when I walked out of the visit. “It’s hard,” I said. “Yeah,” she replied. “When they go in, they take us with them.”
When they go in, they take us with them.
The woman’s words are stuck in me like shrapnel of truth. In the visitation area, I see countless women talking to their husbands. I see dads carrying kids to see their mamas. When we love people, when they are family to us, we can’t help but go where they go.
Sometimes we’re okay with going where others go—to the places of success and new births and graduations and promotions. We’ll even go to the places of sickness and sadness—but it’s harder to go with people to places of difficulty because of their own poor choices.
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. Matthew 25:35,36
It’s easy to separate myself from the pain of others. It’s easy to blame people for being poor because of their unwise choices. I look for ways to justify my distance from the marginalized or I’m too self-absorbed to notice them.
I’ve never realized before that according to Matthew 25 visiting the sick and welcoming the stranger are the same as visiting the prisoner. No distinction is made between those who are receiving “what they deserve” and those who suffer for no apparent reason. Any action where we move toward the hurting and afflicted is a move toward Jesus.
Sometimes, I get mad at those in my life who I feel perpetuate their difficulties with bad decisions. I get mad when those I try to help don’t think like me or follow my advice. Partly I’m frustrated out of my love for them, but mostly, I’m frustrated out of my own arrogance. (later this week, I will blog about the imperfections of the penal system and how often people aren’t just in jail for bad decisions—they are also in jail because of things done to them.)
Jesus equates himself with the one who is sick AND the one who is in jail. The stranger and the naked. The hungry and the thirsty. Jesus is the one who deserves suffering and the one who doesn’t deserve it.
Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?
I’ve learned we can’t fully go with others into painful places if we just feel sorry for them—we go with others because we love them. We’re compelled to go. Each day, countless people wait in an obscenely long line near the jail because part of their own hearts sits behind bars. They don’t go to the jail to visit prisoners, they go to see family. Truly clothing, feeding, and caring for people comes out of seeing them as our own. Loving others has to start with solidarity—not seeing ourselves as other, but seeing ourselves as family.
Being family is risky and it rarely has to do with seeing eye to eye. But it does mean that we love. And it means we go where others are—the place we don’t want to go—the place where Jesus is. It’s only when we move from detached pity to deep love that we’ll see Jesus as he is.