This week I learned that formerly incarcerated men who are participating in the reentry to society program are referred to as Returning Citizens. I really like that title. It has dignity in it. It focuses on what is happening now, not before. It puts them in the same boat with the rest of us. The question for all of us is not just, “Who were you?” The greater truth/question is about “Who are you?” and “Who are you becoming?”*
This week the program manager was not there to lead the check-in group, so it was just me and fourteen Returning Citizens. Now I have to say that made me nervous. My fears were that the men might take advantage of her absence and act up a bit, decline to stay on topic, be disrespectful, ignore whatever I offered, or just walk out. Like most fears, they were all unreal.
The real insecurities were within me. What do I have to offer them? Can I relate to them, since our life circumstances have been so different? Can I handle the group, (asking this reeks of wanting control)? Can I lead them to something meaningful that doesn’t waste their time?
Then there was the practical reality that I had already learned not to try to lead some pre-designed exercise. And in my last group a deepening question had proven meaningful. So what question might take them into the journey of self-exploration and personal growth?
I spent the afternoon practicing a Quaker way of opening ourselves to what we call “vocal ministry” in a meeting for worship. In worship, which is silent meditation, we listen to the Inner Teacher for guidance in our personal lives. And sometimes there is this nudge that says whatever is being spoken within us might be of help to the larger community. If clarity arises about that, we might briefly speak a few phrases of vocal ministry out loud for the good of the group, and then we fall back into silence.
During the afternoon, I was asking for such guidance from the Inner Teacher about a question to ask: something simple and heartfelt that could bring us toward wisdom for living. Finally, I remembered how Lara Naughton once asked the men inside Angola to pair up and respond to the following question: “How is your heart today?” I had been surprised by how sincerely the men had been able to speak from the heart in vulnerable ways.
But the question rotated in my mind and turned into this: “Who is in your heart?”
That evening the guys filed into the group room, mostly on time, and began re-connecting after a week away from each other. There was a lot of joking around, catching up, telling stories, etc. They obviously enjoy being with each other.
When the time came for me to call the group to order, we started with my meeting the newest member of the group who had just become a Returning Citizen. I asked the men to start off by telling me something about him. Several told funny stories about him from the days on the inside.
Then I told them the program manager wasn’t in town, that it would just be me with them for the evening, and I shared a brief introduction to the subject for the group: “Most people in society might think guys who have been to prison don’t care about anyone but themselves. They might presume you are heartless. So here’s what I want to know tonight: ‘Who is in your heart?'”
The guys didn’t have to think long before __________ spoke up, “These guys right here are in my heart,” and he laughed, then directed the response to them, “You guys are all in my heart.” I said, “That’s amazing. Tell me about that.” He said, “We all shared a lot through the years inside,” and he gave an example of a funny thing that had happened with one of the guys, (which I won’t share to protect their confidence).
Another man spoke up: “Yeah, I have a few of these guys in my heart too.” So I asked, “Who else is in your heart?” He answered, “My family.” I asked who his family was. He named his mom, sisters, an uncle, and some cousins. I thanked him for sharing that.
As though things were getting a little too sincere for him, one of the guys who hasn’t been outside for long turned things upside down: “I’ll tell you who isn’t in my heart.” Then he launched into a story about a prison guard who he still hated for being so mean on the inside, and another incarcerated man who was always playing practical jokes to get him in trouble. Then the man who had just come to us from inside jumped into a story about the same guy being violent toward a prison guard.
I had already let things go too far and had to speak up: “How did we go so far off track that now we are sharing who isn’t inside our hearts?” They laughed. “Can we get back to who is in your heart?”
Several men tried to speak at once, so I had to pick one to share and asked the other guys to hold it. ____________ said he was letting some kids from the neighborhood into his heart. “There was a time when they all saw me for what I was, a drug dealer. They knew what I was about. So I want them to see me for who I am now. I was leading them the wrong way. I am changing that by volunteering to help with the soccer team. I don’t know ____ about soccer, but I can be there for them, buy everyone a drink after practice, and try to lead them toward the right path.”
I said, “That’s pretty cool that you would pick the very kids you were hurting in your old life to help now.”
Then it was like popcorn. One man after another gave examples of who is in their heart. When the hour was nearly over, I had to ask a few of the men who had not spoken to check in if they wanted to.
One guy who always seems reluctant to speak took the challenge: “I became a Christian on the inside.” (He seemed a bit sheepish to say that out loud, so I admired his courage). “I learned I had to let God into my heart. And now I’m trying to let others in too. I ain’t sayin’ it’s easy. And I don’t let everyone in. It’s still not easy with my mom. But I am tryin’. I affirmed him for that.
I asked them all, “Can I tell you one quick example of who is in my heart?” They agreed, as long as I made it quick. I told them about one of my favorite moments when my grandson had awakened me about six a.m. with a little kiss on the cheek saying, “Let’s play Papa.” I simply told them, “My grandson Sam is in my heart.”
Then we closed. I breathed a sigh of relief that things had gone pretty well with their sharing. I think it was meaningful. And as they left the group room I realized that what I secretly wanted was for them to accept me. My real relief was that the guys seemed to be letting me into their circle, (which I am realizing is a kind of wisdom circle), even if I wasn’t on the inside of Angola with them.
There it is. I need acceptance and belonging as much as they do. And even if the reentry group isn’t about me, I still want to be accepted into the circle. Maybe that is one of our most human traits. We want to know we are worthy of love and belonging, even if we are in unusual places like a group for Returning Citizens.
*(I learned this sequence of questions from Lara Naughton as she asked men inside Angola State Penitentiary).