May 31, 2015
Sunday, 4:00 p.m.
Letter #385: Fouls and Fowls
Ever have those moments when you’re certain the universe is bending over backwards to teach you something? Where God makes it evident that His hand is in the finest details? You wouldn’t think a prison yard could fashion a moment like that, but it can.
During a recent weekly excursion to the concrete pad enclosed in razor wire we fondly refer to as “yard,” just thirteen of us chose to play basketball, and I was one of three who didn’t get picked for the first two teams. Waiting on the sidelines with the other two guys, I assumed we’d make up the next team to challenge the winners. Yet, when the first game ended, the guys I was waiting with picked up their remaining three players from members of the losing team.
Rather than beg to play or insist on it, I called “next” and prepared to select my own team to play the third game. But JD, a young man I’ve become friends with, quickly spoke up. Seeing that I hadn’t been picked because one guy on the court hates me and his buddies were pressured not to pick me, JD said, “Hey man, why didn’t you pick Christopher? He’s a good player, and he’s been waiting to play just like you, and you just ignore him and pick guys who just played, instead? C’mon, dog, that ain’t right!”
Alerted to the drama by JD’s boldness, another of my friends, Joe, spoke up. “Yeah, that’s not right. That’s not how we do it. I don’t care if you don’t like someone; that doesn’t mean he can’t play basketball with us.”
Awkward doesn’t begin to describe how that moment felt for the guys who quickly decided it was in their best interest to pick me for their team, and I made sure they didn’t regret their decision by playing tough.
Later, one of my friends pointed out two doves, just outside the yard fence but within the prison’s perimeter electric fence. Normally a symbol for peace, these two were anything but peaceful. They appeared to be fighting for or defending their turf, because amid much squawking and pecking, one was getting pretty beat up, with blood clearly visible coming from his chest. His attempts to fly away were unsuccessful, so he ended up limping off around the corner of a nearby building instead.
The victor ended his push for supremacy alone, strutting around in a patch of dirt and pebbles devoid of any forms of life, within the confines of a prison. No bird named JD had flown to the defense of the wounded dove, and it was obvious that the bully had no remorse, so I tried a bit of bird-shaming myself, calling out to the supposed victor through the fence. “Oh, yeah? Think you’re the big-shot tough guy, eh? Look at you, without anyone to talk to or coo with or whatever it is you do. I bet you feel really great, now that the only other thing around that could make sense of all that noise is gone. Yeah, real smooth, dude. Don’t look at me like that, with your little beady unblinking eye all crazy. Shame on you. You come to prison, and you’re still acting like this? What would your mom think?”
As if to further drive home my point, loud chirping above me got my attention. I am not making this up: a momma bird who’d built her nest in the shady rafters of our yard’s partial metal overhang was just then feeding her four babies, their necks outstretched to get whatever nourishment they could from her.
The mom, a yellow-bellied something-or-other, wasn’t fazed in the slightest by the prison-yard violence below her nor the actions of certain thugs on the basketball court. She was busy feeding her young, with a proud poppa nearby, perched on a loop of razor wire.
This was one family determined to break the stereotype of prison creating single-parent homes. It wasn’t clear what he was in prison for, but his yellow-bellied sweetheart sure knew how to keep the family together.
I watched, fascinated, as beginner flying lessons started, with momma bird swooping down gracefully to the dirt patch on the other side of the fence. Oblivious to the recent display of violence, momma bird tried to coax her babies to experience what must be the sheer joy of winged flight. Yard time ended before I got to witness little Orville and Wilbur’s first flight, but I’m sure they will do just fine.
For Memorial Day, I played in a four-on-four basketball tournament against five other teams. It took us five hard-fought games to finally emerge as yard champions, while my playing style and antics won me quite a group of supporters … and one guy who hated me for shutting down two of his layups, accidentally fouling him in the process. I’d apologized and made sure he wasn’t injured, but the guy wasn’t accepting any of that. With “Sinaloa,” the name of one of Mexico’s most notorious cartels tattooed on his stomach, it appeared I’d created an enemy with connections. He made certain I got to feel the payback for those two fouls by fouling me intentionally for the duration of the game, but it didn’t do much. I was our leading scorer as we blew them out, 16–5. Afterwards, back in our pod, he finally shook my hand, so I withdrew my application to enter the Witness Protection Program.
Matthew 6:26 gives us Jesus’ perspective on this: “Look at the birds … your Heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you more valuable to Him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?” God handles my battles and cares for my every need!