KOH2RVA: Day 225

jail barsI went to jail last Friday.

It’s the fourth time I’ve done it on this year-long, every-member mission trip. I do it because I’m haunted by that verse from Matthew 25 where Jesus says, “I was in prison and you didn’t visit me.” So I go to jail to see Jesus, or at least some of his brothers. I went on Friday, and I took Tyler Forrest with me.

Tyler is a relatively new member of First Baptist Church. He’s a young man, a strong man; he works as a personal trainer at a fitness center. I saw him up in the balcony one Sunday morning at the 8:30 service and the next thing I know he was coming forward, saying he’d like to join the church. He said (and I quote): “This is the first church where I felt the Spirit.”

So, last Sunday I challenged the church once again to “get off the bus” and onto the mission field and as I was standing at the back door, shaking hands, Tyler came by and asked, “How do I do that?” I said, “Why don’t you come to jail with me on Friday?” and he said he would be glad to.

I knew I’d found the right man for the job.

Turns out Tyler knew somebody in the Richmond Jail. “Not a bad guy,” he said. “Just somebody who got busted for selling drugs.” So we drove down together on Friday, made our way through security, and ended up in the chaplain’s office, where we were greeted by Father Alonzo Pruitt, an Episcopal priest, and my friend Mike Kelly, “Michael Patrick Kelly,” he reminds me, a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic who works out at the same place I do: the Jewish Community Center.

It’s in interesting world we live in.

Mike led us up to a cell block on the second floor where “his” guys were waiting. They seem to be in some sort of program where you get special treatment for good behavior, because they were exceptionally well-behaved. They applauded as I came into the room, which made me feel a little embarrassed. I’m not a hero. If I were a hero I would be there every day, like my friend Mike, and not just when the guilt gets the best of me.

I didn’t want to be “preachy,” so I told them that funny story about the time I set the outhouse on fire while my brother Ed was still in it. When I was finished I told them that if they wanted to hear me preach they could tune in to Channel 8 at 11:00 on Sunday mornings. And then I asked if I could say a prayer.

I prayed that they would know the love of God, that they would feel it in their bones, that they would be reminded daily how precious they were to him, and that there was nothing they had ever done or ever could do that would put them beyond the reach of his love. And then I said “Amen” and was getting ready to say goodbye when Mike asked the men if they had any questions. They had a few, mostly about the story I had told, but then one of the men on the front row looked up at me and said, “Thank you for the prayer.”

And that was the moment. That’s when heaven came to earth. I could tell that something in that prayer had touched him and I imagined that it had been a long time since anyone told him he was loved. And maybe that’s why Jesus shamed me into visiting the Richmond Jail, because he knew that man was in there, and needed to know God’s love.

“You’re welcome,” I said.

On the way back to church Tyler and I had plenty to talk about. I don’t know if he will make jail ministry his “way” of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, but he might. I saw him bump fists with the guy he knew in there, and in his own way he reminded him that he, too, was loved by God.

That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Going down to the city jail and pouring out a bucket full of God’s love? I’m not sure I would have done that if we hadn’t been on this mission trip, but I’m glad I did.

I’m really glad.

KOH2RVA: Day 80

I went to jail yesterday.

I wasn’t sent there, thankfully; I went of my own accord, to see what it’s like, and to see how Richmond’s First Baptist Church might get involved during this year-long, every-member mission trip we’re calling KOH2RVA.

I drove downtown on Broad Street, past City Hall, past VCU Medical Center, down the steep hill into the valley that divides “that” part of Richmond from the rest of the city, and then I turned left on 18th Street, went a few blocks more, and there it was: the Richmond City Jail.

I took this picture from across the street. You can see the razor wire around the perimeter fence, the old jail building, the new construction going up to relieve the severe overcrowding inside (I’ve heard that as many as seven or eight inmates are sleeping in cells built for four). I parked in the parking lot and went in the front door where I was greeted by a friendly security guard and an imposing metal detector.

“Do you have a cell phone?” he said.

“Yes sir.”

“You have to leave it in your car.”

I walked back out to the parking lot thinking, “Next time, leave cell phone in car. Check.” And then I walked back in again. The friendly security guard didn’t make me remove the contents of my pockets. He just waved me through the metal detector and then asked me to stand with my feet apart and my arms outstretched as he “wanded” me. Eventually I was buzzed inside where I waited my turn to talk to the receptionist, who was sitting behind a wall of bulletproof glass.

I looked around. There were heavy iron bars blocking the hallway to my right. To my left was a kind of waiting area, with chairs that looked like molded plastic cubes. Straight ahead was another hallway, more bars, and behind the bars a long line of inmates on their way to lunch. They wore bright yellow jumpsuits. Some wore jumpsuits with broad, horizontal stripes of orange and white like you might see on a highway safety barrel.  Both seemed designed to keep the inmates in their place, literally and figuratively.

When I got to the window I asked for Father Alonzo Pruitt, the Chaplain. He’s really the only person I know at the jail. The receptionist said that he wasn’t in and I didn’t know what else to say. I thanked her, turned, and walked away.

Was my trip to the jail a failure? I don’t think so. I think it was an “orientation tour.” I plan to go back again, maybe many times. You see, I’m haunted by that verse from Matthew 25, where Jesus says,

“I was in prison, and you didn’t visit me.”

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Click HERE to see Eva Russo’s pictures from inside the jail.  I need to warn you: the pictures are graphic and disturbing, but they also make it clear why some kind of jail or prison ministry is so important.  These people, too, are the children of God, and they might go days or weeks in such a place without being reminded of that.

Gender Confusion

Well, here’s one more thing you should probably know about the new pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  I would have mentioned it sooner, but I only just found out myself.

I went to get my new Virginia driver’s license several weeks ago, but didn’t notice until after I left the Department of Motor Vehicles that right there on the front of the card, just under the word sex, was a small capital “F.”  That’s right: Female.  I laughed about it and thought I would ignore it until a few weeks later when I was going through airport security.  The security officer looked at my driver’s license, looked at me, and then looked back down at the license.  She didn’t say it, but I could almost hear her thinking, “She looks like a man but it says here she’s a woman.”  It happened again on my next trip and since the airport is not a place you want to arouse the suspicions of security officers I decided to get it fixed next time I went to the DMV.  That turned out to be today.

I recently bought the car I’ve been leasing for the last three years and needed to get it registered.  So, I went to the DMV with a sheaf of documents in my hand, got my number (B148), and sat down to wait.  When they called me up a little later I showed my papers to the man behind the counter and explained my situation.  “I want to register my car and get some Virginia license plates,” I said, eagerly.  I had been looking over the options while I waited and was excited about the possibility of getting one of those “vanity plates,” although I didn’t know what I would put on it if I did.  I need not have worried.  After looking over my papers the man behind the counter (who had some very interesting tattoos) said I was missing the crucial document and that I would have to come back when I had it. 

“Well, while I’m here,” I said, “can I ask you about this?”  And then I showed him my driver’s license.  “It says I’m an ‘F,'” I said, “but I am not now nor have I ever been an ‘F.'” 

“Hmmm,” he said, looking at the card and then looking up at me.  “Hold on a second.” 

And then he went to talk to his supervisor.  When he came back a minute later he gave back my license and apologized.  “I’m sorry,” he said, “but you’re going to have to come back with your passport or birth certificate…something that identifies you as a male.” 

I looked at him in disbelief. 

“You’d be surprised at some of the people we get in here,” he said, smiling. 

I took my driver’s license and left the building slowly, still shaking my head over what had just happened.  In the end I wrote it off as just another encounter with the DMV.  I’ll get my documentation together; I’ll go back on another day; I may even get one of those vanity license plates.  But I’m glad I didn’t get it today.   If I had it would have read: