This is a reflection I wrote about our church’s support for a member who has been in jail. A group of us went to show our love for him at a court hearing, and I wrote this reflection immediately after because I was so touched by the experience. The member’s name has been changed to protect his identity.
For eighteen Church of the Villagers, our day began with jumping on the train and heading downtown to the federal courthouse to show support for Jeff. Eighteen of us found our way through the maze of ostentatious concrete, showed our ID’s, removed our belts, checked our cell phones, and followed Bishop J and Jeff’s sister Marge into a marble-lined space right outside the courtroom. There, in a wide circle, we held hands and prayed silently for a man we loved. Bishop J said “Amen”, and we shuffled into the polished wood and leather court.
It was an alien landscape, and we were all a little nervous. No one said a word as we sat apart from each other, just as the lawyer had instructed us, to fill up the space so the judge would think the whole city was there to love and support Jeff. We were early, and we all sat very still, curious, and bewildered through another man’s hearing.
Finally, people started pouring into the courtroom, talking and joking— like we were suddenly in a bar full of irreverent defense lawyers.
Then two men walked in wearing dark blue prison uniforms. One was our beloved Jeff. Behind him was a man whose nose was bright red, like he had been crying. He turned toward us and waved at the couple sitting to our right. They stood up and waved back frantically. When the prisoner turned back around to face the judge, the man sitting next to us burst into tears, holding his head in his hands, weeping.
We watched the back of Jeff’s head as the judge and lawyers set dates for filing this or that, and then it was over. We stood and watched for the moment we had all been waiting for. And then it happened: Jeff turned to gaze upon all of us, the community that loved him desperately, wondered how he was feeling, wrote to him, waited for his calls, sent him cards and worship bulletins and brightly colored photos of Sunday services. He waved. We waved back. And then he left us jealous for another second of eye contact, longing for just one word.
Our community has had so many feelings since Jeff’s arrest, but the overwhelming behavior has been support and love and prayer. Whatever Jeff did or did not do, we can’t help but love him fervently. He has made such an impact on our lives, and we will not let him feel alone. And I think that the ministry of our church to Jeff in these last few months has made a big difference to him.
As we sat in the courtroom yesterday waiting for a glimpse of Jeff, I found myself thinking of all of the people in our scriptures who were imprisoned—from Daniel and Jeremiah to Jesus and Paul. And I thought of how their loved ones must have felt waiting to catch a glimpse of them. I thought of how Paul might have felt in prison writing to the church he planted in Philippi. How his face might have contorted with fondness or longing as he penned these words in chains:
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.
And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
Like Paul, like Jeff, it makes all the difference in times of trial to have a community of saints who love you and pray for you. Even if we must be separated by bars and distance, we are carried through—sometimes limp and helpless—on the wings of angels summoned by the prayers of friends far off. We have all experienced it at some time in our lives. We learn from those who carried us once in their prayers just how to pay it forward.