February 9, 2020
Sunday, 9:30 p.m.
Letter #482: It’s No Promised Land, But There’s a Giant
Today’s church service was a beautiful combined service with the Spanish brothers leading worship in English and Spanish, and an outside guest preached. It makes me look forward to helping the English ministry build a worship team, since the current group of guys can’t make it through a practice session without arguing, so they aren’t allowed to lead worship.
Besides the clearly dysfunctional worship team (I went to a practice on Wednesday and was voted in on Friday, so I know from first-hand experience), I am sensing that God put me on this yard, in this building, for the purpose of reaching the biggest guy on the yard, a guy I’ll call Saul. Saul was the guy who’d seen me holding my Day Planner and asked if it was my “paperwork.” I’d said, “No, it’s just my Day Planner,” and he’d immediately acted disinterested, but I’d received the message loud and clear: certain types of cases are not welcomed here.
The very next day, the guy who played piano for the Spanish church was moved from the prison, because he knew one of the new officers from before prison. The crazy timing didn’t escape me, that I arrived less than 24 hours before the only pianist for Spanish or English church services got moved. A mini-commotion erupted in our building as two guys attempted to steal some of the pianist’s personal property before officers got around to packing it up. Saul—I’m calling him Saul because I believe God wants him to be the next Paul—intervened and told the two would-be thieves that stealing is not tolerated in our building, no matter how anyone feels about anyone else’s case factors. Saul then gave them the option to a) relocate to another building or b) get beat up and then relocate to another building. They wisely chose option a).
That night, Saul walked by as I was encouraging a young man who was saying he wants to reject God because his appeal to reduce his sentence was denied. Saul jokingly said we should head to bed, since it was already midnight and we’d been talking “long enough.” I laughed, grateful he was interacting with me at all, since it signaled a step in a positive direction.
On my way to the worship team practice the next morning, Saul walked out of the building with me and commented on my stack of books. “Oh,” I responded, “I’m just bringing some stuff to show the guys what I did at other prisons.”
Saul immediately quipped, “Huh. So, you will show the church guys your paperwork, but not me, eh?”
I laughed, “Yeah, well, I don’t know about you … when you told me to stop talking with that guy last night, I was afraid you were going to force us to leave the building, like those other two earlier.”
He laughed, then told me the whole story behind why he’d done what he did. He explained that he knows it is morally wrong to steal from anyone—even if you don’t like the person. I praised him for taking an unpopular stand, and he stopped to wait in the laundry line, so I also stopped with him. Saul said, “Listen, I hate kid touchers. I was forty-two days from going home, and they put a kid toucher in my cell. I beat that guy so badly, he left the prison by helicopter, and I caught an extra six years for it. I had to call my dad and tell him that I wasn’t coming home.” He told me he had an eight-year-old son who’d died in a car accident and that he can’t have more kids of his own. At that point, he looked down at me, and tears were rolling down my face as God’s heart for Saul poured through me.
A buddy of his walked up just then, so I fist-bumped him and turned away, heading into the chapel, where I burst into tears and prayed for his salvation and for wisdom in how best to say only what God wanted me to say.
I waited a couple of days before approaching Saul again. “Sorry about last time we spoke,” I said, pantomiming tears, “but my ‘allergies’ got the best of me.”
He grinned. “Yeah, I noticed.” Then I told him if he ever needed any writing done—songs, poems, letters—to let me know, and I’d be willing to help out with it, because I’ve been encouraged with how he’s trying to make a change in his life. He genuinely thanked me and said he’d keep it in mind.
The next day, I overheard someone offering Saul a trade: two small packets of banana chips we get in our lunches for a pack of cookies. He said no, so I offered my pack of cookies to the guy, and he gave me the banana chips. Saul said, “Thanks, Christopher. You ruined it for me! I was holding out for a better deal. Now we’re gonna have to fight. Go get your shoes on.” He stood up as I went upstairs to get the cookies. I knew he was joking, but still … he’s 6 ‘4″, 285 pounder. It’s kinda a scary joke.
I shot back, “Yeah, I can’t fight you properly in these sandals. I’ll go get my shoes on … I’ll be back in, like, two weeks.” He laughed and sat back down.
Later that day, he approached a table I was sitting at in the dayroom. I looked up from what I was writing, and there he was, holding out a black folder to me. “Here,” Saul said, shaking the folder at me, indicating for me to take it. “It’s my paperwork.” I knew that meant that the facts about why he was in prison were in the folder. It is how, for years and years, that General Population inmates have verified that people they deal with on a regular basis aren’t in prison for sex offenses. I know that if I touched his folder, I’d have to reciprocate, and I destroyed my paperwork the day I received it twelve years ago. I stalled for time.
“Umm, I’m not sure how this works,” I said truthfully.
“It’s easy,” Saul said. “I show you mine, then you show me yours, then we fight.”
I just stayed seated and looked up at him. “Well, hmm … I don’t have … ”
He cut me off with, “I’m kidding! Ha! It’s just a project I need you to help me with! You should have seen your face … you looked like you had an accident in your pants.” (To be clear, I did NOT look like that. Really.)
I spent the next several hours working on a very personal project for Saul, learning along the way all about his history in prison, and amazed and grateful for the God who loves Saul enough to send me to him, either as Stephen or Timothy … Saul will become Paul!