The Gift of Mercy

woman, prisonI’ve facilitated a women’s expressive writing class for almost five years now. My students have been an eclectic group.

A small percentage of the students have been marginally literate, while some have their GED or high school diplomas, a few have technical or associate degrees, and others have a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

They are businesswomen, nurses, paralegals, marketing executives, laborers, housewives, mothers and grandmothers. They have come from two-parent homes, single-parent homes, grandparents’ homes and foster homes. They have been Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, Christian, and Buddhist, Atheist and Agnostic and everything in between.

The one thing these students all have in common is that they have resided in our county jail.

My son’s addiction opened my eyes to the realities of our world and myself. It started when I first attended a twelve step support group for families and friends of alcoholics and addicts. One of the most startling things that I learned there was that I was a snob. Granted, no one came out and told me that I was a snob. It simply became apparent to me in my very first meeting.

You see, I went to this meeting seeking a way to fix my son and his problem with addiction. When I walked into the room, I recognized a couple of the ladies there. In my mind, they were a mess. How in this world would they ever help me? I needed a professional.

The answer came to me within an hour’s time. These little broken women had wisdom and love that only humility can teach and they were willing and patient enough to share it with me. I was so ashamed of the person that I did not realize that I was, before that day.

Unlike me, they did not judge. They patiently let me have the time that I needed to become aware of myself by only sharing their experience, hope and strength instead of attempting to force solutions onto me.

In time, I began to really use and understand the twelve-step program that is the same twelve-steps used by the members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). This program began to teach me more about my own faith, especially with how to apply it in practical terms.

In AA’s early days, Father Ed Dowling, SJ recognized the similarities between the twelve- steps of AA and the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola. He became a great friend to the founder of AA, Bill W. Learning that the church had played a part in this fellowship’s roots made me want to dig deeper and learn more.

As you progress through the twelve- steps, you take what you have learned and you give it back. This is a principal also taught to us in the catechism.

“But St. John goes even further when he affirms that “God is love”. God’s very being is love. By sending his only Son and the Spirit of Love in the fullness of time, God has revealed his innermost secret: God himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange.” CCC 221

I began my service by taking a twelve step meeting into the jail. Then, I taught other classes as they were needed. Finally, I settled on teaching a creative writing class.

Organically, that class began to morph into the more therapeutic form of writing known as expressive writing. Expressive writing is a wonderful tool of healing as it helps us to look at the tough areas of our lives instead of running from them or numbing them.

We use this class to carefully examine our feelings which lead us to learn more about ourselves. As we get a clearer picture we begin to understand why we believe what we believe which leads us to better understand why we behave as we do. With time we might question the person that we thought we were; perhaps unveiling the creation that God really intended us to be.

Many times, when people learn that I teach in the jail, I will get comments such as, “They need to take some classes.” That would have been me. It was me, before I entered this program. Now, I see differently. Now I see beyond the label….and there are so many: dope head, drunk, junkie, bum, convict, and homeless, crazy, worthless, menace….and the list could go on.

If you rely only on the headlines, you will think that once caught and convicted; problem solved.

But, is it?

Nationally the rate of recidivism (rate of re-offending) is pretty high; something like 80%. The re-entry program that my class is a part of has a recidivism rate of 57%. And, it is run by volunteers, not professionals.

What does that tell you?

It tells me that it may be just the time, with our upcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy to realize that the folks that reside in our jails belong to us. Let me introduce to just a sampling of our girls:

Meet the eighteen year old girl, she stabbed a man just after he poured boiling water over her six month old baby. This happened just after she aged out of foster care with no place else to go.

Now meet the thirty-three year old woman who has six children. She asks me if she can look through her file, each and every class. She opens it up, laying out each certificate for every class completed, then her birth certificate, which she had never had before — a birth certificate that she could not wait to receive just so she would know who had been listed as her father — a replaced social security card that had long been lost and most of all a hard earned GED certificate that she would carefully pull out and then return back to its folder, near the front, a place of prominence.

I would say to her, “You really like looking at your folder, don’t you?” Her reply came laced with heavy heart, as she said, “You don’t understand, this is all me,” guardedly placing her hand over its contents, “I never had anything before.”

If you knew these additional facts that rarely make their way beyond the headlines, could you find the compassion that they so richly deserve? Would it cause you to stop looking at their sins and help you to be able to look at your own, instead?

It is my challenge. Everyday. It is what I have learned because I have a son who suffers from the chronic disease of addiction. You see, God really can take every bad thing and use it for the good. These ladies have opened my eyes.

I am not fool-hearted enough to think that my one little class will change their life. My twelve-step program has taught me that the results are between them and God, just as it is for my son and me. Like a tiny fragile seed, my drop of love only sits with them during the course of a few months and only time will show whether or not it was able to bear fruit.

At the beginning of each class, I introduce myself as “Jean”. By the end of the semester, without fail, I am “Mrs. Jean.” It is a show of respect that gets me every time. Sometimes they are an unruly bunch. I shoot straight with them, but I love them too. It does not take long for them to see that you care about them and what you give comes back to you in spades.

Mercy is a gift that we can all give. Start small. The next time a conversation turns to the mob mentality judging of our latest headline, stop. Offer a prayer of grace and mercy for the offender. Pray for their loved ones. Don’t add to that conversation unless it is a contribution of love.

Make eye contact with someone you might have previously passed by. Say hello. Offer a silent prayer. You will be amazed at how things begin to change for you.

The Holy Spirit will take over once you are open. Because once you’ve opened the door, you have invited that “exchange of love” into your heart. You will have entertained the ultimate guest. And, things will never be the same.

Jean is a the married mother of three adult children.  Her family converted to the Catholic Church almost ten years ago. She has been blogging at www.praying4henry.blogspot.com since 2010 in the online recovery community and teaches creative and expressive writing in prison ministry.