375 | Playing at Ministry

March 22, 2015
Sunday, 11:00 a.m.
Letter #375: Playing at Ministry


Dear Family,

From just after 7:00 every morning until 9:45 every night, I have lots of choices. With the exception of three separate one-and-a-half hour-long count times at 10:00, 4:00, and 8:00, I can be in my cell or out of it, in my pod or in the multi-purpose room, programs building, or yard. Between the hours of 9:45 p.m. and 7:00 a.m., I have less choices: I get to be in my cell.

Being in my cell is not that bad. I guess it isn’t that good, if you aren’t currently in prison, but you eventually get used to it. Because all of my worldly possessions are in my cell, it’s a bit like being sent to your room, where all your toys are (a reason my parents NEVER sent me to my room as punishment). I have books to read or business magazines, writing supplies, art materials, and food if I get hungry. I constantly keep a rather noisy fan going in my cell to drown out the noise of thoughtless inmates yelling and laughing in the dayroom, helping to make my cell a bit more like a sanctuary from the chaos. (See what I mean? I just made myself a cup of tea.)

When I’m out of my cell, it is for a distinct purpose. I am either teaching a class, attending a church service, making a phone call, or using the computers in the library to create materials for the music program. It’s not that I don’t like just sitting around doing nothing … wait, no, that’s exactly it: I can’t stand it. I detest the mindless waste of time doing nothing. No offense to the guys who love playing cards all day, every day, but no thank you for me.

In fact, I’d so much rather be in my cell writing a letter or working on a project that I stopped going to yard for nearly nine months. We have an option to go to yard either in the morning, afternoon, or evening on a rotating schedule that often conflicts with my other activities. But, I wasn’t making exercise a priority, either, and it became easier and easier to skip the yard time altogether.

Recently, one of my brothers and a good friend encouraged me to do more to stay fit. I knew I didn’t want to stay in the habit of not going outside or exercising, but I needed the prodding and encouragement to make me assess my schedule and make time for exercise. Then, to the shock of many of my friends here, I just did it: I went out to yard, on an afternoon when a class I teach got cancelled.

I love to play basketball, so it was easy to make that my primary mission of the outdoors adventure. I don’t mind running laps, but add a ball and a competitive angle, and you can keep my attention long after the monotonous thumping of my shoes on pavement begins to set in. My mentoring buddy, Leo, and his cellie, Joe, have taken a liking to me and picked me on their team. I did well enough to help our team pull off a win and get asked to come out to yard more often.

And that’s when I began to notice something far more significant than simple exercise taking place. I found myself playing with guys and playing against guys who never usually talk to me in our 120-man pod, and basketball was giving me an excuse to interact with them. Some were young, ex-gang member types who don’t go to church and don’t typically sign up for extra courses of study, while others were the types I see playing games in the dayroom or headed for yard at every opportunity. With little to no common ground besides living somewhat in the same neighborhood, I found myself learning a bunch of names for familiar faces.

After losing a game, I’ll typically run laps while waiting for the next game while yelling out commentary on the current game on the court. After only a handful of yard outings, I’ve had several significant conversations with bystanders, officers, and guys waiting their turn on the court. Many of the guys are getting more comfortable with me, too, yelling out, “That’s right, Larry Bird!” after I make a good play. I also got props for coming in third of forty in three-point shooting, but nearly destroyed my left elbow when I slipped on our slick silt-covered court. Besides the beautiful bruise, I’m gratefully no worse for wear and having a blast.

This basketball thing has had far greater implications for me than just the exercise and the rush of trying hard and winning. It has opened up so many conversations for me back in the pod. In fact, two of the guys I play basketball with have opened up to me about their current difficulties with their loved ones, and several others now go out of their way to talk to me. These aren’t guys who would naturally be my friends here, but they are guys who need good friends, good influences, good examples. And now that I’ve dropped into their routines, their activities, their interests, we’re building casual friendships.

Why does this lesson need to be taught and re-taught to me? Why can’t I just get it, already, that stepping out of my comfort zone, getting involved in others’ lives makes ministry opportunities happen? Though my intentions are good, I can get so wrapped up in good intentions with blinders on, that I miss the very obvious needs and opportunities right in front of me.

And Lord, help me remember that you can use all kinds and types to build my character, if I’m willing to be on their team.