One spring had me moonlighting on crisis response. I was far from an expert. Only shadowed whoever was on-call, to learn what to do when there’s nothing to be done. Mostly, the work took you out into homes where the children who are wanting to harm themselves live. But one Friday night, the call was from a prison several counties away, near the Kentucky line. It took forever to get there, and, when we got near, you could not see a thing because that low valley had been drained of all light.
The prison wasn’t for everyone. Only if you got locked up before the age of eighteen. Like training wheels, to prepare you for the prisons they build for adults.
At the heart of the complex was a windowless room. It had bolted-down tables and the cheer of an emptied-out bottle of glue. Wide-body guards pressed themselves to the cinderblock, like bashful teens at a dance. A prison administrator came in, then went out. And then came in again. There was paperwork, but no one knew exactly which of it was necessary for this kind of case. Of course, the woman I shadowed and I had our usual documentation: cataloging the horror, making a safety plan, writing down at least five positive personal goals.
Finally, one of the guards went to bring back the cause of the problem. He came shuffling out of solitary confinement. Dressed in a pink paper gown that covered only his front. But it wasn’t the gown or the bare ass you noticed. What you saw was the wounds. What he’d done to himself. Gouged furrows of injury striping his legs. Arms like the ground beef that bleeds in its plastic. Any sharps, if it had a point at all, they had taken from him: pencils, forks, spoons, his toothbrush. They’d cut his fingernails, so he couldn’t use those on himself. But still, he kept on. Had spent the day chewing away the side of his lip, so it hung in a flap, giving a direct view on yellow teeth and sick gums. His lip hanging free slurred his speech, but you could tell somebody somewhere had taught him to say “sir” and “ma’am.”
They’d put him in solitary because the psychologist that morning had said, “suicide watch.” This psychologist was young, the prison administrator let us know. Prone to making things out to be more than they were. But, financially speaking, it just couldn’t go on. Suicide watch ties up your staff with the one-on-one coverage. It means you’re understaffed elsewhere, or you’re paying overtime. Surely, we understood.
In fact, it was why we were there. Crisis response could change things. Could override prior orders. Maybe somewhere, they could afford to do suicide watch. Maybe somewhere they had the money to give all the prisoners neck-rubs and footie pajamas. Maybe somewhere. Not here. Surely, we understood.
Of course, there was a story. When he was very young, someone had done horrible things to this boy, to his innocent body. After that, he’d been passed around, house to house, up there back in the mountains where his family was from. Now, what had been done to him, he had done to other small children’s bodies. The trial kept getting delayed for one thing or another, but there was no question. It was open-and-shut. This boy would not see the outside of a prison for as long as he lived.
After Jesus dies on the cross, and is laid in the tomb–but before Easter morning–he goes missing. Scripture is silent on exactly where to. But people began to say that, after his death, he must have gone straight to hell, to set free the captives. Maybe something like freeze-tag, Jesus tapping each person gently, saying, “You’re free now. Un-frozen.” But, arriving into that windowless room, with us all in a tableau of stone-faced despair, what could Jesus have done? Who among us could have been unfrozen? The prison administrator? The guards? The prisoner? The woman I shadowed and me, with our black ball-point pens and unfinished documentation? And what is it we’d do? Sing and dance? Clarify our positive personal goals? Open the gates and run free till the Sheriff caught up?
It may be too late here to say the word, “sin.” Well, whatever the word, listen: sometimes, it isn’t any one thing any person has done. Sometimes, it is the overall ruination. The unholy mess we have found ourselves in. Maybe it’s not an Easter story we’re wanting, of rising up from the wreckage. Maybe what’s needed is a clean break, a fresh start, maybe no less than Christmas.
So, here is a Christmas. It’s a starless dark night in a forgotten dark valley, and somehow, we have ended up huddled together in prison–the prison administrator, the psychologist, the guards, you, me, everyone. Not a prison of cinderblock. Stronger: made of suffering, and of the blindness to it, with walls so high and so distant, we cannot find the gate, and don’t always remember it is where we are. Our hearts are scabbed over. We live without hope. But on this night, the news comes: all of that is now over, the prison dissolved, like a change in the weather, and the world is made new. It is the strangest thing, and we cannot believe it. Here we are, shy in our love, in the presence of God. And here, Lord, is this child. He needs cleaning, a blanket, to be held, to be cherished. He has not yet been wounded, his flesh has not yet been torn, he is not yet in prison near the Kentucky line. Mortals that we are, we cannot promise our adoration will prove to be more than fleeting. But for this flickering instance, in the holy presence of the tender child we will one day betray, the doors of our hearts now are standing wide open, and we are amazed.