I have been troubled by the specter of prisons lately on three fronts in particular. I have been struggling with the effects on families of incarcerating undocumented immigrant parents. I have long been distressed by the prison industry that we have implicitly embraced in this country in the past 25-30 years. Finally, and most personally, I am regularly dismayed by the dark prisons that I see us building around ourselves that preclude the intimacy with loved ones that we are meant to share.
Harry and his family are regularly attending members of our Reformed Church of Highland Park. He is an immigrant from Indonesia who has been here since the mid-90s. Harry and his wife made a good faith effort and spent tens of thousands of dollars to gain citizenship since overstaying their tourist visa. (You would think that someone that wanted to right their situation would have an avenue to do so – but that is far from the case.) Unfortunately Harry was picked up at home by immigration agents in mid-January as he was heading off to work. He was locked up at the immigrant detention center located in Elizabeth, NJ for nearly three months. One day he is a loving husband and dad providing as best he can for his family. The next day he is a jailed criminal who can only see a loved one for one hour a day through a plexiglass window. During that time, I was among the members of our congregation that visited Harry every night. It was an incredibly emotional time for all of us. I personally felt an extra kinship with Harry – as a father, and more as a person whose time was seemingly suddenly limited.
This particular story ended well – with a true Easter miracle. Harry was ultimately released through the intervention of our amazing Pastor. Virtually none of the other dads are so fortunate. The congregation has continued to visit weekly with detainees at the facility in Elizabeth and started visiting detainees with a "criminal" record at the Middlesex County Jail. Imagine that you are a decades-long law-abiding, tax-paying member of society one day only to find yourself cut off from your family and in an orange jumpsuit the next. I can - as my own cancer diagnosis was similarly abrupt, inexplicable and life-changing. It'll certainly put your own challenges into perspective. As will hearing an 11-year-old girl tell about her father's detention and ultimate deportation and what that means to her and her family – as I did earlier this week.
My intent here is not to justify the actions of undocumented immigrants or to rail against prisons, though I believe that we ought to consider the wisdom and motives of our nation's policies. For some perspective I turn to Wikipedia – "The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate, and total documented prison population in the world. As of year-end 2007, a record 7.2 million people were behind bars, on probation or on parole. Of the total, 2.3 million were incarcerated. More than 1 in 100 American adults were incarcerated at the start of 2008. The People's Republic of China ranks second with 1.5 million, while having four times the population." How does that square with the Judeo-Christian nation that we claim to be? Are we to believe that Americans are the most immoral people on Earth, or the most deserving of punishment? Or might money be at the root of this evil too?
Our religion teaches us that we all make mistakes - that we are all broken and in need of forgiveness. Some of you may be ready to whip out the "eye for an eye" reference, but that is certainly not the basis of the totality of Jesus' teachings. It would be tough to argue that this is the kind of society that Jesus encourages us to pursue. We talk about family values but put our resources towards retribution to the near exclusion of all else. Where are the family values in breaking up families for paperwork violations? If we applied the "what would Jesus do…?" litmus test, it wouldn't be this. I have another suggestion. Since we apparently have such a poor appreciation of what Jesus would do in a given situation, I'd like to suggest criteria that we can all relate to more readily. What if, instead, we consistently considered "what is the best course of action for our children?" Would we leave families fatherless, would we have sick kids without health insurance, would we offer them unhealthy foods in schools and on every corner, would we drop bombs on their homes in far-off lands?
Maybe it is easy for us to build the brick and mortar prisons to put others in because we are so adept at raising the emotional and psychological walls that protect us from well-meaning others. I know of at least four couples that have recently chosen, in effect, to end long relationships/marriages rather than challenge themselves as individuals and address their personal issues. As if it will magically be better the next time around with someone else. I see in my own family circle how grudges, resentments and ancient anger has kept sisters apart for years; how the need for self-preserving insulation places an obscure emotional moat between brothers; and how the inability of a mother to admit the truth about the past keeps her from her adult daughters. We all know of too many similar instances. There are countless reasons why we aren't closer to the ones we love and who love us. None of them are good enough. Yet, we do it to ourselves - by choice.
The greatest shame is that God gives us the choice every day to make it right. We are all broken with the opportunity to mend by his grace. In each instance, there is a better road – one paved with compassion. Let's step up and out of our dark prisons and into God's light. If not for ourselves, then for all the Harrys and our children.