Finding Freedom in Prison

On Thursday, March 9, I had the privilege to enter into the realm of profound second chances.

At the invitation of my friend, Rick Klau, we went to prison. Usually my friends invite me out for a beer or cup of coffee, but Rick thinks a little differently than most people, if you haven’t figured that out already.

At some point in time, a friend or colleague invited Rick to go to prison, and now Rick is returning the favor. We went as representatives of Defy Ventures, “an entrepreneurship, employment, and character development training program for currently and formerly incarcerated men, women, and youth.”

We traveled to Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, a level 2 prison with an incarcerated population of about 3,300 hundred men. Rick and I were part of a group of executive volunteers numbering almost 50, who had the privilege to act as judges for the 47 Entrepreneur’s In Training or E.I.Ts who had completed a 6 month training program in entrepreneurship. Thursday was the day that they would be graduating from the program and also the day when five out of the 47 would receive a cash IOU upon release to help seed their start-up. The E.I.T.s were pitching their idea for a start-up in the style of Shark Tank. The first place winner would receive $500, second place — $400, all the way to $100 for 5th place. The winner of the first place prize was a young man convicted of murder when he was only 15 years old. His story was heartbreaking, and his weight extremely heavy.

It would be an understatement to say that Thursday represented one of the most inspiring and hopeful days of my life. It is difficult for me to articulate what happened, which is a first for me. The entire experience was so profound; I am almost afraid to talk or write about it for fear that my descriptions and recollections will fall short of actually capturing the fullness of the experience.

It was also a humbling day for me. I think a piece of me went to prison on Thursday thinking I would be an escort for God, in fear that God might not make it past the metal detector and series of locking gates and barbed-wire, 12 feet tall fences. Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, God was already there in prison in the lives of the E.I.T.s waiting for me and the other executive volunteers to arrive

Granted, not all the E.I.Ts spoke so explicitly and openly about God, but some did. For those who didn’t, God was still palpable. In addition to showing up in the lives of the E.I.Ts, God also decided to show up in the passion and inspiration of Defy Venture’s founder, Catherine Hoke, who, from 10:30 am to 7:30 pm focused on one seminal thought — “No one is irredemable. No one.” And for the next nine hours, she, and we, went on a journey of retrieving and telling our redemption stories.

The novelist, Ernest Hemingway, wrote, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”

As Catherine reminded us throughout the day, we are all ex-somethings. But how many of us can really be honest about that? If I were to ask you to raise your hand if you have a skeleton or two in your closet, how many of you would be honest enough to do so?

Early on in the day, the E.I.T.s, their family members, and the volunteers were asked to step to the middle of the gymnasium. On one side of the line, E.I.T.s; on the other, volunteers and family members.

“Now”, says one of Defy’s staff, “Take five steps back. Are you ready?”

“Step forward to the line if you’ve ever been arrested.” All of the E.I.T.s stepped to the line. Some of the volunteers and family members stepped forward as well, but not before looking down the line at their fellow members, to make sure it was safe to do so.

“Step forward if you’ve ever called someone a derogatory term on the basis of someone’s race, gender, or sexual orientation. “ Some of the E.I.T.’s stepped forward; so did I and one other volunteer. I grew up in the south where using the N-word was a common occurrence. I was 13 years old when I asked God for forgiveness after an encounter with an African American man who changed my life forever.

“Step to the line if you lost your innocence before you were 20 years old…15 years old… 12 years old… 10 years old… 8 years old… 6 years old…” Many of the E.I.T.s kept their feet firmly planted on the line as the digression in years ticked away.

This process of stepping to and from the line felt like it went on for hours, when, in fact, it was more like 20 minutes. It was heavy. The facilitator tossed us in the deep end, E.I.T and volunteers and family members alike. We were clinging to one another to stay afloat. Well, we figurative clinging at least.

You see, if you were a volunteer, you could hug other volunteers. If you were an E.I.T., you could hug other E.I.Ts, but volunteers and E.I.T.s were not allowed to hug one another. So, in the absence of being able to hug one another, we reached across the line, and shook hands and high-fived one another. We affirmed one another. We looked one another in the eye, having been encouraged not to look down at the ground at any point in time, as looking to the ground is what we do when we feel shame, and redemption is stronger than shame.

“No one is irredeemable. No one.” Yet, if you peel back enough layers of anyone’s life, there is a back-story, a redemption story that is almost always dogged by shame. Whereas we express regret and remorse for the terrible choices we make that hurt others and ourselves, it is shame that always threatens to unravel and undo us. Shame drives home the idea that we are unworthy of God’s love, that we deserve what’s coming to us, that what we did in our past cannot be forgiven or redeemed, and that we do not deserve to be loved.

What was happening at Valley State Prison on Thursday, and what has been incubating there for the last six months, and in other prisons around the country, is nothing short of God’s grand redemptive experiment. Whether you are an E.I.T at Valley State Prison or a volunteer like me or Rick, the experiment has many steps, but it is the final two steps that have to be successfully navigated before one can claim their story as a redemption story.

The last two steps are overcoming shame and death. I am convinced that these are the two strongest and greatest affronts to the abundant life Jesus desires for us and our lives. If the experiences of my past or even my present can convince me that the message of shame and the experience of death are equal to or greater than God’s power to love, forgive, and redeem me, then there is a very good chance I will never climb out of the hole my poor decisions have put me in.

But the message of the gospel, the message, too, of Defy Ventures, is that no one is irredeemable. No one. If you belief that, and you trust that, and you take Jesus at his word, and you heed the words of Paul, that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, then there is nothing so big, so horrible, that God cannot redeem you. In Jesus, our mess can become our message.

When I look at Nicodemus from John 3, I’m pretty sure he thinks of himself as an executive volunteer. After all, he’s from the religious class. He’s the person who people come to looking for spiritual direction. He’s invested in keeping up appearances. He’s not the sort of person who would step to the line easily if someone said, “Step to the line if you act like you have everything figured out, when in reality, you are hurting and broken, and don’t know what you’d do if anyone really took a closer look at how your life is hanging on by a thread.” Yeah, Nicodemus is an executive volunteer. He’s the guy who gets to leave the prison at the end of the day, when everyone else goes back to their cells.

Only, if Nicodemus is honest, the E.I.Ts, in so many respects, are so much more free than Nicodemus. Yes, they’ve hit rock bottom. Most everyone in their lives has already written them off, preferring to forget that they even exist. They’ve been tucked away in a remote location off of HWY 99, literally in the middle of nowhere, so the rest of us don’t have to see or be near them, lest we be reminded that we’re all only one terrible decision away from being locked up.

Maybe Nicodemus comes to Jesus because he’s free on the surface, but not so free on the inside, in the part of ourselves where we can be locked up without fear of anyone noticing. Maybe Nicodemus comes to Jesus expecting to school Jesus when, instead, Jesus turns the table and tells Nicodemus he’s never really been born in the first place. Maybe Jesus’ words unlock a cell for Nicodemus, and he’s able to finally own up to the fact that there are things he’s done in his life — some known only to him — where he needs a second chance, where he needs to begin the long and earnest journey of articulating and living out his redemption story.

I know there is so much more I want to share with you about the trip to Valley State Prison with Defy Ventures, but I will stop for now, and leave you with this quote from a favorite writer of mine, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, who captures what Defy is doing, and the work we all can commit to doing if we can begin to be honest with ourselves, with other, and with God.

Estes writes: “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.
One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these — to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity. Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.
There will always be times when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it. I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate. […]
In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.”

I’ve been to prison. I can’t wait to go back. I’ll be heading to a different prison next month in Solano, CA to take part in Defy’s Business Coaching Day.

Photos by Tom Kubik.