Not many people plan to go to prison on their birthday. I’m sure there are plenty of people who party too hard and wind up spending some time behind bars, but not me. Had you asked me a few years ago how I’d spend my 38th birthday I would have given you a dozen different scenarios involving family and friends. None of which would have involved where I’m at today. Today I stand in the yard of the Lebanon Correction Institution, Ohio’s most violent maximum security prison surrounded by inmates. There is no panic. There is no fear. I’ve made my peace. I tune out the taunts and swearing as I focus on my target. He’s a big man I simply call Khal Drogo. He’s beat me before and I’m determined not to let it happen this time. I set my feet as I try to determine which way he’s going to go. If I play this deep there’s no way that softball is going over my head again.
I’m part of a group called The Four Seven. Unlike most “prison ministries”, The Four Seven’s purpose isn’t Bible studies and conversions. It’s a non-profit organization focused on bettering the lives of convicted criminals and their families by preparing them for the journey ahead. I’ve been in the prison for small groups and education workshops countless times. I’ll admit, the first couple of times were intimidating; the razor wire fences, the guards in the towers, the clang of the steel gates closing behind you. On hot days the heat and smell of men in the blocks is overwhelming. But that insecure feeling isn’t there anymore.
Today was my first time in the yard though. It’s the annual volunteers vs. residents softball game. I counted four cell blocks that came out at the beginning, but quickly lost count. I was told afterwards there were 1400 men in the yard playing with or watching us and only 4 guards out there. The realization that standing in an open field at least 100 yards from the closest guard should have been more alarming. But as I looked over my shoulder at the man 20 feet behind me doing lunges my concern wasn’t will he shank me for no reason. It’s “will he get in my way if I have to go deep for this ball”.
I don’t know a lot of the men by name, I’m bad with names, but I recognize their faces and I remember their stories. They’re stories they’ve shared in groups with me of a life I can’t even imagine. Lives lived hard. Poor decisions that have torn apart families and forever marked them as outcasts of society. I drive home in silence every week with the weight of what I just experienced hanging over me. These men have deep insights on life, love, and faith. I’m always humbled. I think I’m going in to minister to them and wind up being ministered to in return.
What makes this ministry so special isn’t the conversion stories (which are always great), but the relationships that are built. When working with inmates you have to be careful what you share or ask about. We don’t need to know why they are in prison. And we don’t share a lot about where we live, work, etc. When you do that you immediately focus on the person along with their fears, loves, joys, and emotional well being you form a relationship unlike any other. A relationship that reminds you of each others humanity and inherent need for connection. For these men, that connection has been taken away. A day like today brings a little bit of that back.
I remembered the importance of that connection the inning before as I stood on second base. The second baseman leaned in and said “you having fun yet”? I looked up into the giant grin at a large black man who I should be very afraid of. “You can step off the bag if you want man” he says as the pitcher turns to look at me. “Where else would I rather be?” I said in response “But I ain’t that dumb”. He laughs and steps back as the batter steps up. Today for a couple of hours there are no convictions, no bars, no razor wires, and no guards. We’re a group of men, friends, fathers, husbands, and sons, playing a game together on a beautiful afternoon. None of us would rather be anywhere else.
I write this not to pat myself on the back or to recruit more people to join The Four Seven. I write this as a reminder to all of us (myself included) of the humanity in every living person. So many times we read stories on the news, see that one action, and make a judgment about that person for the rest of our lives. Whether it’s a convicted murder, rapist, politician, pastor, or coworker we will impact all future relationships based on how we respond to that one misdeed. These men and millions like them in the US penal system need hope and humanity as much as any of us. It’s important that we not forget them or allow a system to prevent them from reclaiming part of their soul to reconcile with society.
I watch the pitch and hear the crack of the bat as the ball is hit high and hard. Just like I thought, Khal Drogo hit it right where I’m standing. I catch the ball on the run and immediately through it to second base: double play. We’d go on to win the game which we know we’ll pay for next year. Afterwards we circle up on the diamond. Volunteers and residents, arm in arm as we pray. The sounds of the rest of the yard and the hundreds of other inmates become quiet. Afterwards we say gather our stuff and start to head out. As we get to the door I hear over my shoulder “hey, how about we play football next?” Now I’m afraid.
If you’re interested in learning more about The Four Seven and how to support, please visit www.thefourseven.org.