By: Tom Westerholm
Editor’s note: I spent spring break in Texas doing prison ministry with other students from my school. Thus, this story.
“You can’t wear white,” we were told. “White is the color of the inmates’ jumpsuits. If a riot breaks out, the guards won’t be able to distinguish you from the prisoners when tear gas is thrown. Don’t wear white.”
We didn’t wear white.
We must have made a strange sight. Six uncomfortable Iowa boys, born and raised in Christian homes, wearing our collared shirts and clutching our Bibles, standing outside a famous Texas prison. Overweight guards waddled past, and I felt as though I could hear their thoughts in my head as they glanced at us.
“You better watch yo’self in there, marshmella.”
Each member of our group had been asked to share our testimonies, and we had been encouraged to talk about our Christian homes.
“The prisoners love innocence,” they told us. “Your stories of following God your whole life will be an inspiration to them.”
Frankly, I thought that was a load of crap. I imagined being a prisoner, hardened by the justice system. If I saw a college student like myself coming to share the Gospel, I would despise that privileged, middle-class, sniveling little brat. What could I possibly say? What part of my upbringing could speak to the hardest members of society?
I don’t think I was the only member of our group feeling this way. Everybody was shifting nervously back and forth, huddled closer together against the uncharacteristically chilly March air as we waited outside the prison gates. Then they opened and an older gentleman walked out. He introduced himself as the assistant warden, and looked at us apologetically.
“We are going to have to cancel tonight,” he said.
He explained, not unkindly, that there had been an emergency transport of prisoners, and that there weren’t enough guards to cover the chapel service. State law required him to cancel.
An odd combination of relief and disappointment washed over me. Though five minutes before I had been desperately wishing someone would come out and deliver exactly that message, I found I had grown attached to the idea of entering a prison for my first time. We prayed on the spot, and our leader herded us into a van and drove us back toward the parking lot entrance.
Then we were called back.
“Your God has a sense of humor,” the Warden said, smiling. “The transport got cancelled. The service is back on.”
The nerves returned full force, but I swallowed hard and we entered the prison. We walked through multiple security entrances and made our way through a prison-yard until we came to a gymnasium. The prisoners were hastily setting up the service that they had already torn down, having been told that it wasn’t happening. But as we entered, many of them came over to us, thanking us for being there, wishing God’s blessings upon us, and wringing our hands.
Those handshakes: bone-crushing, coming in rapid succession. Strong hands gripped ours, shook ours, annihilated ours.
The owners of the hands were an eclectic racial group. Black, white, Latino, Asian, indistinguishable…all were represented.
There were two black men, both bespectacled, who greeted us with enthusiasm, hugged us and said “God bless you, brother.”
There were several bald white men, swastikas and lightening bolts tattooed in prominent places, whose eyes filled with tears standing next to their black brothers singing praise songs.
There was an older man, slightly overweight, who shredded his guitar as he played.
There were many Latino men who couldn’t sing the English verses, but roared the words enthusiastically as the verses switched to Spanish.
There were chants of “whose house?” “GOD’S HOUSE!” taken up by random men throughout the audience.
There was an enormous man with a scarred face and a twisted ear who sang every word with his eyes closed, and who hung onto every spoken word with rapt attention.
There was Roberto, a tattooed Latino man who stood stoically with a single tear running down his face when we asked if anyone wanted to give their life to Christ.
There were several faceless men who shouted encouragement at us as we spoke. “Come on now!” and “Say it!” and “Amen, hallelujah!” rang out as we spoke, and as they shouted, all of our nerves melted away.
I gave my speech. It was fine, nothing earth-shattering. But as I looked out at a sea of faces, I couldn’t help but think that I was looking at a group of men who had done unspeakable things. Murderers, rapists, thieves, gang members, drug dealers…all were represented. Yet in the same way, none were represented. All of the trash these men had brought with them had been washed away.
But even more striking were the ways in which these men were broken like me. Unlike so many churches, not a single man in the building would judge me for my cursing or my anger or my lust. Every single man had been through that and more and now sang “HALLELUJAH, grace like rain!” with their eyes closed, their hands outstretched, and their faces pointed toward Heaven.
As the service closed, we were quickly escorted out of the gymnasium, and our battered hands were wrung several times on the way out the door. I wish I could have stopped and talked to them all. The man with the scar and the twisted ear. The men with the racist tattoos. The men who could only speak Spanish. I hope someday we can worship together again.
Someday when we will ALL be wearing white.