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  • Laura MacNeil Smith

Unspoken Rhythms

We’ve spent every Friday morning for almost the past two years in the Prison meeting with the juvenile inmates. We wake up with our routine of preparing materials, packing the car, stopping to buy pate from the street vendor, going to the grocery store to buy the rest of the snacks or hygiene supplies we bring and turning the corner to the police station. We walk down the long dark tunnel to the entrance of the prison and once we’re inside, we wait for the guards to bring the kids out.

While I’m used to following this routine like clockwork, I’m also quickly reminded that nothing about the environment of the prison feels familiar or puts me at ease. The smell hits you first—a mixture of sewage, sweat and trash that makes my stomach churn. Rats the size of small dogs always scurrying in dark corners. The yells from the other prisoners as we cross the courtyard to our usual meeting place.

Sitting with the kids last week, I've realized a lot of unspoken rhythms that we’ve fallen into. How when we sit on the floor of our dirty hallway, the kids sit on their sandals to keep their clothes clean. How the newest prisoner is always in charge of carrying the food or hygienic supplies we bring. The young man brought in last week wearing nothing but his underwear, who is at the mercy of staying that way until someone offers him clothes. How once in awhile a burst of laughter escapes and they are like any other normal teenagers outside these prison walls. Three of the juvenile inmates have been there since the very beginning when we first started visiting the prison almost two years ago. Most haven’t even been able to meet with a judge yet for their official sentencing. I wonder if the justice system wasn’t so broken if they would still be in here at all.

Seeing everything so up close, it’s hard to see the “justice” in it at all. I remember coming in one week to the girls telling me an officer’s phone had been stolen, presumingly by one of the female inmates. In response, every single female in the prison was searched, stripped and beaten on the cold concrete floor. The phone was never found. Sharing the Gospel in a place with situations like this is a lot different than sharing anywhere else. Scriptures come alive in a different way when they are all you have.

I’m reminded of how the number of prisoners keeps growing steadily and lately our group keeps getting bigger. We met with 14 youth this week.

They say the eyes are a window to the soul.

When I look around the room, I see a soul that is lost and scared, usually the newest prisoner to arrive. They constantly shift their gaze around the room and can’t seem to relax. There’s sadness and grief there. And a lot of uncertainty too.

I see eyes that glare in defiance, with hardness. As if to try and scare me away to make me feel that they couldn’t care less if I am there or not.

I see eyes that meet mine and acknowledge with a slight smile, as they try to listen intently, as they search for answers and encouragement in the message.

Prison ministry is a hard one to walk through. At times it’s been one of our most amazing ministries, at times it’s been one of the most difficult ministries. When I look at The CAMP, community work was always the kind of work I dreamed of doing, for as long as I can remember, but when God started placing the prison on our hearts, it threw me for a loop. There are weeks my doubt gets the best of me—What are we doing here each week? Does this even matter to them? Do they even care? In those moments I’m reminded of how even having the privilege to enter the prison each week was an act of God and a rare opportunity allotted to very few people. I never could have made that happen on my own. Only God. Some weeks it feels like we are getting through to them, other weeks we leave with the heaviness of it all weighing deep in our souls. More than anything, the past two years have taught me that it isn’t my job to work until I get the outcome I want, it’s my job to be obedient to what HE calls me to, no matter what the outcome is.

Every week, without fail, there is usually only one prayer request—-“liberasyon.” Liberation. Freedom. And so we pray for it, even when is seems like a far away dream. It’s a need we haven’t forgotten—and maybe one day Lord willing, we’ll be able to offer help that way too. But for now we’ll keep working on freedom for the soul, of showing up each week and sharing the Gospel. Whenever they eventually get out of prison, they will forget my name and they won’t remember my face. They won’t remember what I said or what we did, but perhaps they will just remember someone who showed up and showed them kindness in the name of Jesus.

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