In the Gospel message for this Sunday, Jesus encourages us to feed people who are hungry, give water to people who are thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, comfort the ill and visit people who are in prison. If we were to take this challenge seriously every day, we would be eternally busy people! It is such a tall order, in fact, that I tend to pick the parts that are easiest and most comfortable. I do believe, however, that this full passage is at the heart of Jesus’ call to us as faithful citizens. I have to revisit this passage often to re-engage as an active person of faith. When I look at this commandment, the final challenge is the only one I have never taken to heart. I have never visited someone in prison.
What could you do to
Feed the hungry?
Give drink to the thirsty?
Clothe the naked?
Comfort the ill?
Have you ever visited someone in prison?
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, two out of every three women in prison are mothers of young children. They also report well over 2 million people are currently in prison in the U.S.
According to Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, up to 33,000 immigrants are sent to jail every day. It costs $122 a day per person to be held in detention while awaiting trial. Many of these people are refugees, survivors of torture or human trafficking, and time in detention centers can make it harder for these people to integrate into society upon their release.
So why have I not visited people in jail, prison or detention centers? If I have to be honest, it is in part because it is not as convenient as donating clothes or serving a meal at a soup kitchen. It is relationship based, and since I do not know anyone in prison, it would require me to build a relationship. Where would I start? Who would I visit? It is just intimidating enough that I stick to the other challenges that Jesus has laid out out of ease and comfort.
Deep down, I also think we are taught it might not be someone’s fault if she is hungry or sick, but people in prison “deserved it.” That is part of the problem with our incarceration system, however. If people are not treated with dignity and shown God’s mercy and forgiveness, it will be harder for them to be well adjusted human beings. “I was ill and in prison and you did not come to comfort me” (Matthew 25:43). These are the people who need my comfort the most.
It is hard to have access to people who are in prison, but I have hope. My school works in partnership with an organization that goes into jails. There are opportunities for people to lead writing workshops and discussion groups. There is another program to help tape moms reading children’s books aloud so that we can deliver the books with a recording of the mom reading for her kids. In that way, the mom can continue to build a relationship with her kids. Reading the Gospel this week helped encourage me to take the steps necessary to visit people in prison. Offering comfort to those who society can forget is at the heart of the Gospel. It is never too late to do the right thing.