Five years ago, I decided to join a Bible study. It was an ordinary Monday night in January, and I met my friend who was leading the Bible study out front beforehand. I wasn’t sure if I’d like it, but I was willing to give it a try.
We walked through the doors and checked in, which took longer than anticipated. We set up tables and chairs in an upstairs classroom, unsure of how many people would join. It was a hodge-podge group: the faithful ones who always showed up, some who came when they had nothing better to do, and the first-timers.
We discussed the upcoming Sunday’s Gospel. Some were eager to share, while others sat quietly pondering the questions posed to them. Then, one person opened up about struggles from childhood and his battle with forgiveness and anger. “Why can’t I fix it? I don’t understand … Why can’t I fix myself? I know what the problem is, I just can’t seem to fix it.”
I was struck by his vulnerability in a room full of people who didn’t seem particularly close to each other. Another person said, “It’s like this: You’re in a 10-foot hole. You can’t get yourself out; you need someone outside the hole to pull you up. No matter how hard you try, you need someone else.”
Those simple words had such profound depth. “You need someone else.”
This beautiful and sometimes painful truth, stated so matter-of-factly, confirmed in my heart that I needed to learn from this group. There was something about these people in this particular Bible study. Though they were filled with questions and uncertainty, I could sense there was a fervent hope for something new. It was clear they would challenge me, ask questions I needed to ask, and share perspectives I hadn’t considered before. God was clearly at work, and I wanted to have a front-row seat.
Five years later, I’m still attending the same Bible study. None of the original people still attend. It still takes place in the same classroom at the same location: the South Dakota State Penitentiary. Prison.
Little did I know that volunteering inside the state prisons would give me a chance to take a closer look into the heart of God, the reason for our hope. What better way to see into his heart than through his most wonderful masterpiece, the human soul. When someone sits before me, sharing the details of their life—their struggles, joys, pains, hopes, dreams, fears, weaknesses and strengths—I am often filled with awe at how much God loves them. He chose them, knowing every decision they would make, good and bad, and yet continues to hold them in existence through his love.
When confronted with God’s love for these men, I am able to recognize the love he has, not only for them, but for me. For each and every person. God is much more in love with each one of us than we could ever realize. Through my experiences with these men, the Lord is helping me see reality in a new way—a way more in line with the heart of God.
I’m not trying to sugarcoat prison. You can find chaos, evil and despair roaming the halls. You can also find good men striving for holiness, men willing to face their brokenness and sin with courage, and men willing to venture on unpaved paths for a new way to live through surrendering their fears, anger, unforgiveness, addictions and wounds with hope of breaking the cycle.
In the popular prison movie “Shawshank Redemption,” Red says to Andy, “Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. It’s got no use on the inside.” Andy stands out in prison because he has something of which others are afraid: hope. For the Christian, hope isn’t something to fear; rather, it is something critical for our thriving.
In his encyclical Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI states, “The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.” Isn’t that something each human heart longs for? We all desire an unyielding hope that can sustain us through whatever may come. This hope and new life can only come from being immersed in the love of God. However odd it may sound, I am filled with this hope when I’m sitting with men in prison.
“Do not let that hope die! Stake your lives on it! We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of His Son” (Pope St. John Paul II, World Youth Day 2002).