I have to share a little story before I get to what I'm thankful for today.
The prison chapel is badly in need of some tender loving care. The roof needs replacing and the paint is peeling from the walls leading down to the back door. Last Tuesday it was chilly in the prison chapel basement. But, as is usual there, I was warmly greeted by several inmates. A stop in the visitor restroom revealed floors grimy from age and cracked and peeling paint on the wall. I know the State of Wisconsin has a badly strained budget. Even so, when I look around inside the razor wire fences, it seems the chapel is the last building to get attention.
In a little corner classroom I am greeted by one of the inmates who has attended our Bible study faithfully for about a year. He calls me "Chaplain" or sometimes "Mrs. Chaplain."
His mother has cancer, and he recently had hopes that the parole board would let him go home. Such was not the case, and he is trying hard to keep his spirits up. He came to prison as a young man, but now he is middle-aged and very concerned that his mother will die befoe he gets home. He asks me to pray for her, and to pray that he stays strong. I've mentioned this inmate before. He causes me concern because I can see two warring sides of him. He longs to be a good man, to encourage others, to do what is right. He has had a hard time in a new prison job because he is being taunted for not stealing. So far, he has held his head up and resisted. But he has a dark side too. Of course, everyone does, and inmates more particularly do, but in this man it is more evident, and the struggle he wages is clear. I have grown to care about him, and I hope he can see his mother once more. At the same time, I'll be concerned if I hear he's actually out on the streets. I'll call him W.
About halfway through our study W. suddenly sat up very straight, looked at me with wide-open eyes and said, with a voice full of excitement. "Mrs. Chaplain, I saw the most wonderful show on PBS the other night. Did you see it? It went all the way back to the days of Abraham Lincoln! Did you know that there was a big disagreement in this country about slaves? There was this man, I can't remember who he was...a Christian man with a lot of slaves...and he had a dream and he came and told the others that he had to get rid of his slaves right away, that God says it is wrong. The others argued and made fun of him, but he did it!" W.'s smile was wide and his eyes sparkled.
I was slowly absorbing the fact that he was telling me about a peice of history he knew nothing about. He went on, "There was a big, terrible war between...I think it was the west side of the country and the east side...?" An inmate sitting next to him said gently, "It was the north and the south." "Right!" exclaimed W. "Did you know that, Mrs. Chaplain? There was a big war and Abraham Lincoln said the slaves had to be freed. Do you know about that?"
"Yes. It was a long, terrible time. It was called 'the Civil War'."
"Right! That's it! The Civil War."
"And Abraham Lincoln was president."
"Yes! They said that on TV. And Lincoln was a great man. He said they had to set they slaves free!"
"Was Lincoln a Christian man?"
"I think so. Some people don't think so, but I do. Either way, I sure do believe he was the right man for the work that had to be done..."
We went back to our Bible study and soon concluded. A guard in a prison van drode me back to the gatehouse. I signed out, passed beyond the razor wire fences, and drove away. But my thoughts have been returning inside ever since.
What kind of life did my inmate friend live before he committed the crime that landed him in prison? How is it possible for an American Black man in his forties to not have heard of the Civil War (or as they say down south, "the War between the states")? If I hadn't watched his face and heard his tone I would not have believed it.
Over the 20 years I've been visiting the prison where my husband is a chaplain, I've heard and seen many things that have made me deeply sad. None struck me quite like this.
Today I am deeply, profoundly grateful for my education.