It is not like the movies. At least, it hasn’t been for me. There is no glass separating me from Michael. We can hug. There are rules about where he can sit and can’t sit; there is a time limit. We are not supposed to talk to other prisoners and their visitors. We need to be careful of our eye line, mainly for the guards but also to respect the privacy of others. And, yeah. It is kinda weird at first. You get used to it rather quickly, though, especially when it is football season. Michael and I do love to talk football.
I met Mike when he was in kindergarten and I was in 9th grade. We had been paired together as “pen pals” by the elementary and high school teachers. He was a round-faced, smiling child who loved the Bengals; I was equally round-faced and loved the Lions. We got along swimmingly. I had always wanted a little brother, and Michael was Winnie the Pooh adorable. We met several times over the course of the year, and he made a little Cincinnati Bengals flip book that I still have today.
Decades passed, during which time Michael committed murder. Let’s put it out there. He did it. He took the life of another person. A lot of people think they know the story. They don’t. But it is not my story to tell, so I won’t. Needless to say, ish went down and perhaps the greatest sin was committed: Michael extinguished the life of another human person. The brutality of the event cannot be captured by language, and I am not going to try.
I wanted to reach out to Michael almost immediately after his arrest, but I didn’t. Part of it was fear; part of it was uncertainty about how to do it. Twice I started to write him, and twice I felt bewildered by what to say. Hey, guy! I hear you’re in the clink? How’s that working for you?
I was still new into my pastorate when a local boy made good came to the church to sing. That’s an understatement. Martin Bakari is a Julliard-trained lyric tenor who has toured the world. Martin came to sing at our Feast of the Epiphany service; the house was packed, and Michael’s mother came to support Martin, a longtime friend of the family and of Michael. After, as I received the congregation while exiting, Gilah came up to me with tears in her eyes. “I’m Michael’s mom,” she said. We hugged, and thus began a wonderful relationship that has seen Gilah, her husband Shep, and Michael become involved with the church. Without question, the three of them are gifts to me as a pastor and a person. I love them fiercely.
Loving someone in prison is difficult. It produces a mixture of hope and shame. I cannot express how impressed I am with Michael, with his spiritual, intellectual, and mental development. He has done his time well. Very well. And we have hopes that he will receive parole at some point in the future. Every time I think of parole, though, I start to feel guilty. I know the deep ramifications of his crime. I understand how it has touched this village and the people in it. I know that there is pain and loss that will never go away. There are no sides here. Not really. There are no winners. It would be easier if Michael were a monster. If he weren’t a loving, compassionate, funny, dynamic, handsome, passionate guy, it would be easier to walk away from our visits and not feel empty. I wouldn’t have to cry in the parking lot because I want to take him to lunch, but can’t. It would be easier for me to watch his mother and stepfather negotiate the myriad emotions that come with a rather public crime in a rather small place. Good people have been irreparably impacted by that one damn act.
Loving someone in prison means thinking about emotions different. Suddenly, you begin asking yourself if you have the right to feel the way you do. Laughter erupts, and then a flash: Someone is dead, and you are laughing? You hug, and then an internal reminder: Others don’t get to do this, so why do you? It becomes a challenge to our Christian notion of love, that it be boundless and creative, infectious and powerful. Love in prison always comes with an asterisk. A pause. A “yes, but.”
I have a lot of “tough on crime” friends. They think you should lock them up and throw away the key. Education? No! Television? No! Weight rooms? No! They see the sin as all-consuming, all-defining, all-encompassing. The child of God has been wiped away and replaced by a caricature that is easy to demonize. And I get it, to some extent. Honestly, if my brother has died from murder rather than suicide, I sometimes wonder how my life would be different. I wonder if my understanding of God would be different. I do know, however, that my view of God is different having met Michael. As a result of loving Michael. Recently, we were on tenterhooks awaiting word about a transfer. There was a snafu with the paperwork and it looked like Michael might end up away. Far away. There was anxiety. Some tears. A lot of prayer. But we just received the best news we could: he’ll be close, and have opportunities to continue his rehabilitation. I am not ashamed to say that I had a big smile on my face for most of the day. I’m supposed to visit him tomorrow, but can’t because of his move. That’s okay. We’ll see each other soon.
Jesus told us to visit people in prison. I think Jesus knew that it would benefit the visitor and the prisoner. Truth be told, I have a lot of skeletons in my closet. I have done some stupid, stupid things. I made some tragically irresponsible decisions in my life and if I had been caught, I would have gone to prison. For a long time. I am not trying to brag on my sin, but rather to say that my life could have worked out much differently. Learning to love Michael has also helped me begin the process of forgiving myself for some of those mistakes. I long ago made reconciliation with the people I have hurt, but I find it difficult to forgive myself. Loving someone in prison is helping with that.
Lent is winding down. Jesus will be in jail soon. Will you visit him? Or are you just going to wait until he’s resurrected and comes to you?