March 13, 2016
Sunday, 11:30 a.m.
Letter #426: Well Done, Good and Faithful Servant
This Thursday wasn’t unlike any other at La Palma. Baked chicken for lunch (or more accurately, partially baked chicken) always has the kitchen running to push the trays out on time, which for them is an hour late at least. Though it shows up on the menu four times in five weeks, you’d think it was Thanksgiving, the way they take forever to prepare it. Yet still, the bird comes out pink, one of the ways the kitchen workers save time while preparing to feed 3,000 inmates. This is one of those times when “rare” does not necessarily indicate an increase in value, for sure. Fed to low-life inmates, you could say these worms get the early birds, no?
In any case, the chicken lunch delay often sabotages our entire afternoon program, which normally begins at 1:00 p.m. When the lunch hour turns into the lunch two-hour, we run into staff shift change at 2:00 p.m., and no inmate movement is allowed for thirty minutes, thus effectively cancelling all afternoon programs. This may include yard, school, chapel services, or inmate-run programs such as band and music lessons. Under normal circumstances, I would relish the opportunity to have an afternoon off to get caught up on letters or studies, but Thursdays are our Kairos Prison Ministries days, when our faithful outside guests come to lead us in Biblically based discussions and fellowship. Ever have a tiny piece of chicken ruin your whole afternoon? I have.
But today was a better day, a day in which a little chicken would not interfere with my afternoon. Programs were delayed slightly, and I welcomed the brief stroll in the Arizona sun to the chapel, where the Kairos men were waiting for us. Casually dressed and warm-hearted, the often-formal barrier that exists with many outside guests is lacking with these men who build friendships with society’s rejects. Handshakes and hugs? These freely dispensed niceties are rarer here than homemade cookies (which, if you recall, they bring in some 40,000 of during their four-day event weekends) and help each of us to see how we all are part of the same family.
Just after greeting each of us and while everyone was still standing around, one of the men pulled me aside and asked me to sit down in one of the chairs that we’d placed in a large circle around the room. As I sat, he placed another chair in front of me and sat down facing me. I had known this guy for over two years, and he’d never done something like this. With a clear conscience, I didn’t think I was getting a verbal spanking, yet I knew it was serious by the man’s demeanor.
Leaning forward so that I was the only one who could hear him, he spoke, sadness in his voice and written on his face: “Christopher, I just wanted to tell you personally, since I know how special Bill Whealy was to you …” and my mind went numb. I had just seen Bill and his sweet wife at our recent Kairos Concert at the closing program for a four-day event. Recovering from multiple drastic surgeries that had sidelined him for months and months, he looked somewhat older and even a bit frail, but he still had that mischievous spark in him covered in layers of kindness and love. I’d hugged him before and after our concert, not knowing when I’d have a chance to see him again.
Now I heard the words “passed away this week,” and I didn’t know what to say. The truth was, I’d expected this at some time or other. Bill couldn’t last forever, and he’d done more than his share of fighting through, making an incredible comeback, weak though he was. I sat, stunned, looking down, and my voice said, “Thank you for telling me.” I didn’t want to talk about it or hear details. I just wanted to sit with my thoughts, as if conversation, even with another friend of Bill’s, could somehow take my last moments of reflection away, away into the present reality where Bill is dead.
See, the Bill that I knew was a larger-than-life personality, a large-framed man who accomplished big things in the military and in his life as a private citizen, including years as part of the Kairos organization. The man he’d been in his military career was the stuff of books I’d read in my youth and only dreamed of doing. With the window for military service now permanently shut, I saw the man who visited me in prison as far more likely a hero for me to aspire to. The Bill I knew took time for his family, honored his wife, served in his church, and still made time for ministering to “the least of these.” That is the guy I want to be, and I was proud that Bill considered me a friend, once telling me that a note I gave him was the nicest he’d ever received in his life.
In the meeting on Thursday, I was asked to lead a prayer for the Whealy family and given time to say anything I wanted to about Bill. Preferring to send those thoughts in a letter to his family, I just prayed for them. Sad as I was, I couldn’t help thinking about how I first got to know Bill as he was serving lunch at the Kairos four-day weekend event. When I asked for more olives for my taco salad, Bill dumped the entire bowl onto my plate and then made it look like I’d wanted that many. I laughed again at the memory and said we should pray for the angels who have to put up with him now.
Bill will be missed, for sure. A true gentleman, and friend, he was like the baked chicken served by our kitchen: a rare bird, indeed.