April 6, 2009
Monday, 6:00 p.m.
Letter #79: Tony the Tiger
Greetings! Thank you for praying for me. God often lets me see clearly how your prayers affect my days here, by moving on my behalf to accomplish His purposes. I’ve told God that I want to be used, and despite my weak faith, my selfishness, and my pride, He shows off His power, enabling me to serve.
Recently, Tony,* a tough, big Italian guy with black hair** serving multiple life sentences, approached me in the dayroom. Tony has a reputation for having a quick temper and hating just about everyone who’s not serving a life sentence.
“Lifers” are typically a rough bunch, since they essentially don’t have much of an incentive to practice good behavior—no matter what they do, they can’t earn good behavior credits that amount to a reduced stay in prison. Thus, most of their grievances are handled with their fists or homemade weaponry.
My cellie, who, you should recall, has himself done 18 years of prison, 15 of it on the “mainline”—not in protective custody, as he is now—warned me to stay away from Tony, since Lorenzo has seen Tony explode in anger a few times while with him in the medical clinic. While I appreciate Lorenzo’s sense of caution, developed over years of prison fights, multiple stabbings, and general mayhem, I tend to approach people and life here a bit differently. Now, granted, I’m far less likely to witness fights, stabbings, or riots while on a Special Needs Yard—protective custody—than typically occur on a mainline yard.
However, because of my nature and my morals, I don’t intend to participate in such activities either! Originally, I thought that due to my genetically passed condition of weenieitis, I would be constantly nervous about living amongst the bane of society, and yet I’ve gratefully found the opposite to be true. That is, I think I make many of these—especially the career criminals—nervous to be around me, since I don’t respond to situations in a usual or predictable manner.
Now, back to Tony … he approached me to ask a now-familiar question of me: “Why is it that you’re always cheerful?” He also told me that he has watched me over the past few months and says that I “don’t belong here … you’re different from everyone else.”
With that beautiful opening, I was able to share with Tony how I’m no different in God’s eyes than he is and that my mistakes put me here with him. After finding out that Tony has stage four liver disease and doctors have estimated he has only four years left to live, I asked him if his outlook on life has changed, leading into a discussion of life after death.
Interestingly—no, shockingly—Tony believes in God. He believes that Jesus paid for sins on the cross, but he’s stuck in the all-too-familiar belief system that supposes that by somehow balancing bad deeds with some good ones, you’ll somersault your way into God’s good graces and—make it. It seems silly to most of us, I’m sure, that someone like Tony, serving multiple life sentences, could ever think of earning God’s favor, but he’s no different from you or me, since (as I had the joy of sharing with him) none of us can earn God’s favor!
Tony watched as I adjusted the spine of another man, one who is known to have committed some particularly heinous crimes. Tony hates him, his face not able to restrain the look of disgust as I helped the guy with a knot in his back. Afterwards, I told Tony that Jesus died for that guy just the same as us … and the dayroom period ended, leaving us with a commitment to talk again. Please pray for God to open Tony’s heart!
Praise God! Ricky, who wrote me a note recently while on orientation status, just got off orientation. Though he told me he didn’t “feel worthy” of attending church, I persuaded him to try it—and he loved it. Pray for Ricky, who is struggling with something.
*Of course, it’s his real name! After all, we only try to protect the innocent.
**Not his true hair color. Clairol, I believe.