As far back as I can remember I was fascinated by crime. I never got caught up in the grotesque details or crime photos, but rather in the people and stories. When a crime happens, two worlds collide and everything up to that point comes crashing together. During my second year of undergrad I realized that there was some opening in my schedule and I quickly jumped on an opportunity to add a minor in the Sociology of Law, Crime, and Deviance. To understand crime, I felt, would be to understand humanity.
Most Seminarians are required to do what is known as CPE – Clinical Pastoral Education, i.e. we serve as chaplains. For many its our first attempt at true, hands on ministry (hear about fellow blogger Maggie’s experience here!). Its frightening to say the least. People typically spend their summer CPE in a hospital, nursing home, care facility, or other social service site. For me, I took this opportunity to work with the incarcerated community. After hours of fundraising and advocating for myself, I was given the opportunity to do my CPE at a medium security state prison, working with 1300 male incarcerated citizens.
After some initial training, I went into the experience expecting to meet some pretty bad dudes. And I was more than okay with that because, well, its easier when they’re monsters. Think about it. You hear of an atrocious crime on television and wonder “who could possibly do such a thing?” And you look at them and point out all the ways in which they are different from you. Or at least I do. I want to make sure that my life is in no way headed down whatever path led them to prison. We are different. They are a monster and I am not. They are behind walls and I am not. But I was quick to find out that’s really not how it works.
My prison work made me realize one major thing: we’re all human. Every day I would hear people’s life stories, their struggles with forgiveness, and their own, often beautiful, take on God. I heard their fears, their regrets and their secrets. It was challenging work but I felt such a connection to these men and their stories. They struggled with the same things I do. And we could connect, not necessarily by the same life experiences, but by human experiences. As author Bryan Stevenson wrote in his book Just Mercy, “Our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing.”
Together, we all share this beautiful, complicated thing called humanity. Together we search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Its not us and them. Its not monsters and humans. Its just, well, humans. Created in the image of God, we all share the same spark of God that lives within us. And that’s where we connect to one another. When I am able to see Jesus in my neighbor, be he incarcerated or not, I can suddenly see him as nothing other than a child of God.