Waiting rooms, I’ve found, can be awkward places to start up conversations. The occupants are usually in the midst of something difficult, so the typical small talk seems out of place. Even casual questions like, what are you here for? can be too prying, or bring painful emotions to the surface. And the waiting room at a jail may be even more awkward than others; I wonder if perhaps there is more of a sense of personal humiliation or failure felt by those waiting to visit a son or daughter, husband or mother.
Yesterday afternoon I went to the jail to meet with an inmate who, I’m told, wants to make some changes in his life. I was late, and the staffer at the desk said I might not make it before visiting hours were over, but I decided to wait and see. Something—or Someone—inside me was gently nudging me to put down my book about how to read the Bible and talk to the woman two seats down from me. She’d already told me that she’d been allowed in this late before, but the staffer had warned that she might not have time today. Trying to bring a little relaxation into the discomforting wait, I made some goofy joke about the awkwardness of starting a conversation in jail: “so, come here often?” That seemed to break the ice, and she began to open up.
Life’s been hard, especially the past several weeks. The person she was visiting she loved, but he was hurting her deeply. With him in jail, his friends helped themselves to the tools in her garden shed. Her closest, lifelong friend had just died. Bills kept piling up and things kept breaking down, and she seemed very alone. Life wasn’t turning out the way I’m sure she’d dreamed it would.
Half a lifetime ago I probably would have spouted off with some nice-sounding Bible words—all true, of course, but empty sounding in the present context. Today I could only say, “I’m sorry,” and, “I wish I had easy answers.” Then she got called to go visit; she’d have maybe five minutes with her loved one. I wouldn’t get called, but I decided to wait for her.
I learned before she did that she wouldn’t get the chance she’d waited for, and for a reason that had to sound as stupid as it did frustrating (he’d gone to get his haircut!). When she came back into the waiting room, I commiserated with her about the missed opportunity. “He’s bald!,” she said with a frustrated laugh. I handed her my card and asked her to call me. Our church might be able to help with bills, or maybe there was something we could do around her home. That evoked another story of things breaking! I asked if I could pray for her, which I did, asking God for peace and for a community to wrap its arms around her. I asked God to truly transform her loved one, and through that to draw her near Him. Then she left.
I don’t know if I’ll ever hear from her or see her again. I hope so. I hope she’ll give me…our church…my God…a chance. Frankly, I hope He will give her a chance. I hope we’ll have the chance to serve her, to fix some of the broken things in her shed…and in her heart.
Several years ago my wife asked, in a moment of painful honesty, “how can God put back together a cup that’s been shattered into pieces? I know he’s the Potter, but even potters can’t repair a cup once it’s been fired.” I didn’t know then and I don’t know now…but I’ve seen God restore my wife, so I know that—somehow—he can restore what is shattered. That is my prayer for my new, nameless, jailhouse friend.
[Author’s Note: I never imagined myself hanging around a jail, but thanks to the incredible love and gracious persistence of a wonderful 80-plus year old saint, here I am. I’ve spent more time in the jail in the past two years than ever before in my life. (I suppose I could even say that the thirty minutes I spent there today was more than I’d spent there until two years ago!) But it doesn’t compare to the quarter-century of Friday nights she has selflessly devoted to the men and women inside. She’s told me more than once that, but for the grace of God, it could be her in there. I don’t particularly enjoy it; I don’t think I’m particularly good at serving or encouraging or mentoring the inmates. But the opportunities keep coming and there’s something inside me that says I need to keep going.]