Ex-Prisoners and Being With

“You have to be able to imagine lives that are not yours.” Wendell Berry

Recently I was afforded the privilege to hear two women who had spent fifteen and sixteen years behind bars. They are a part of my church community and were invited to tell their stories. I was immediately captivated as I opened my ears and heart to people that I don’t knowingly cross paths with in my everyday life. One woman is white and the other is black. They formed a deep friendship during their years in a place that for most of us holds a forgotten population.

The white former prisoner was convicted on the charge of murder. The black woman was imprisoned because she was riding in a car with her boyfriend who possessed drugs. My radar went up immediately. Did this woman of color actually have to spend almost as long behind bars for riding in that car as the other one who took a life? Yes, she did.

Thankfully, the white woman was honest and real about that situation. She acknowledged that it was an injustice and a result of her white privilege. I know this is how it so often plays out, but to hear these stories side by side drove home the fact that people of color most often pay a higher price for lesser crimes. Within our justice system, racism so often rears its ugly head.

As they each shared their stories, my heart responded. Though it makes sense, I had not fully realized how difficult it is to re-enter society after being away for so long. Technology changes, family dynamics, and the fact that time marches on outside of the prison create challenges as someone faces freedom. The fact that pretty much no one wants to hire or rent an apartment to a felon makes re-entry a formidable task.

Neither lady was defensive or argued that they didn’t deserve to go to prison. It seemed that they had made peace with this long ago. In fact, the black woman said that shortly before she was arrested, she had prayed that God would show her a way out of her unhealthy romantic relationship. She actually expressed gratitude for this way out.

When asked what could others do to support people who are in prison or on their way out, they had a simple yet often hard to execute suggestion – “just being with.” They elaborated that they didn’t want handouts or to manipulate others, but they do need someone to walk alongside as they make their way and figure out how to navigate society. From buying a car without a credit history to registering to vote to getting a driver's license, the routine tasks of life are overwhelming when one hasn't been a part of the normal everydays for so many years. 

“Being with” is a critical component of any relationship. Whether it is with our child, a neighbor, or a friend. We can’t fix or save or change realities for so many that we connect with each day. But no matter what happens, we always have a choice to “be with.” Thank you to two beautiful ladies for reminding me of this truth.  I hope to live more of my moments in this posture of “being with.”

Book update: Adopting Grace: A Parenting Journey from Fear to Freedom will be available in September. I am taking several weeks to jump off of the merry-go-round of book marketing to spend time and “be with” my family. I hope to rest, laugh, and prepare for the intensity of a fall book launch. I wish for you and yours a restorative summer. I will return to this space in July.