Sunday, October 24, 2004

One-dimensional Figures

I have commented on stories from Real Live Preacher before. Yesterday, he posted a story titled Visiting My Picasso, which recounted a small incident which revealed much about where he was writing from.

As for me, I’m here to visit my cousin who has broken her life into little pieces that can never be put together again. Prison has taken the shards of that life and assembled them into a Picasso-like image of her former self. Both eyes and her mouth are now on the same side of her face, and she speaks to me through glass framed by black steel. I don’t know how she will function on the outside. Perhaps she will have to be broken down and rebuilt again when she gets out. I wonder who will be up to that task.

Something about this place shatters everyone connected with it and rebuilds them into angular, one-dimensional characters: The guard, the warden, the prisoner, the visitor. This is not the world you know, and good intentions count for nothing. Even an innocent encounter with a stranger can spin off in directions you can’t imagine, and there is always someone looking down from above, making the worst possible guesses about who you are and what you might be up to.
Very true, this, and it is something you have little to no control over. The challenge is detention ministry is how to break through this and somehow help all those in the system to be more than one dimensional if they choose.

You have to hold onto the knowledge that what you do is often not that important. What is important is who you are, and that you are faithful and present. A key part of our work is that nobody is paying us to be there, and we are not relatives of anyone inside -- we don't have to be there, we want to be there. We have nothing to give but our attention, we're not there to hand out money, or goodies, or get out of jail free cards.

And that is what is so hard, so exhausting about this work. When inside, you really have to be seriously present all the time, completely there for everyone you are dealing with. The person or persons in front of you right now have to get your best attention, but at the same time, you must remember where you are the the limitations of that. You can't coast and daydreaming will not work. By the time we get back to the car on a Sunday, we are often limp. And you will never know about many of your greatest victories and defeats -- and you will sometimes wonder if you are having any effect at all.

But when you can really engage another person in a way that, even if just for a minute, takes them outside the place they are in, whether it is the prison outside or the prison within them, you offer them the opportunity to be someting more than one-dimensional characters in a badly written play. The nature of these places makes this difficult, and the stange relationships between the various groups can make is difficult to effectively work with more than one group at a time. In detention ministry, we are told that our calling is to everyone in the system. The reality is that if you work with prisoners, you probably will not be that effective with corrections officers or administrators, and security restricts you from dealing with visitors. That's a sad effect of the one-dimensionality of the relationshipes between the groups involved.

So you do what you are able and allowed to do, you make yourself present to those you are there for, and you leave the results in the hands of God.