Inmates and poetry
So, last week I told you about the classes I’m teaching at the Allegheny County Jail. I’ve got two under my belt now and feel like an old pro. One, I led. The other was led by my co-instructor. It’s really quite the experience. The inmates are like sponges, soaking up whatever you give them. They appreciate anything we do, so much. I can only imagine how alone they feel. Everyone else has given up on them. When we walk in, civilians who aren’t C.O.s…. it’s like someone still cares.
In week one I met Dennis (“New York”), my technical guru. I met two guys named Dino. They grew up next door to each other in Penn Hills. Hung out together. Double-dated to prom together. Then, they went their own way for twenty-five years, and now, they are neighbors once again. Shawn wants to sing on Broadway. Wyatt wants to be a graphic designer. Michael has written a book. Tony and Akeem write poetry. These are my men.
In week one, I challenged them to develop a vision of the man they want to be… six months after release… five years after release. I challenged them to get specific. Will they rent, live with Mama, or own a home? Will they have a job? Run their own business? How will they handle their money? Who will be the other people in their life? A wife? A family? They need to form this vision now, and not wait until the day they are released. They need to spend every hour they have becoming the man in that vision. Jerome took three pages of notes (and I only had two pages of notes!). He read them all back to me and said he was going to read them every day. I couldn’t help but wonder, Do I have a vision of who I want to be in five years? Am I working on it? I told you, this kind of thing will change you.
In week two, we discussed problem solving. Kittie, my co-instructor, led. I showed them a clip from Apollo 13 when the engineers poured everything on the table to figure out how to build a CO2 filter so that the astronauts wouldn’t die. In the middle of the clip, there is a press conference where a reporter asks, “So, you’re saying the astronauts don’t have enough air to breathe.” The NASA guy responds forcefully, “No, that’s not what he said. He said, ‘We’re working on it.’”
During the discussion time, one inmate, an older man, said he just feels pessimistic. Every problem just leads to another, and it seems like nothing can be done. This week, the power was lost on their payphones to the outside world. I can’t tell you how frustrating that is to them. All I could tell him was that failure is not an option. There is no giving up. There is no lost cause. One failure only leads to another attempt.
Easy for me to say.
Another inmate, Akeem, gave me his thirteen-page poem to take home and read. Here is part of what he wrote…
When God shuts a door, it can never be cracked
Stories of my life can never go back
So the things in my future I can try to fix
Can’t hurt me with word, stone, or sticks
“Lead, never follow,” my dad would say
Looking back, that’s why I’m here today
Where would I be if it wasn’t for that
Exist, 6 feet under, or in jail for life
Thought I had friends ’till I came to jail
My soul is priceless, something I can’t sell
Come to my throne, and sit with me
God, I’ll walk the straight line if you let me see
Faith is not a walk in the park
But praying to God is where I’ll start
In this world is so much pain and sorrow
I’m scared to see what happens tomorrow
Ever since my cousin died I had hate build up inside
Something had to really change
Now i see it’s not a game
I don’t care what evil thinks
Because You were there when I should of sinked
When I die, I fly away
To your throne where I will stay
Next to you, I’ll wash your feet
Just to show you my heart’s not weak
This week I went back to return the poetry to Akeem. But he was gone. He was sent up state for 3 to 7. The other inmates are pretty bummed out about it. Oh man, my heart just sunk inside. Akeem was a servant leader in their group. I hope that Akeem survives prison. I hope he doesn’t come back as someone else. I hope to be able to return his poetry. I think he’ll need it. I pray he keeps writing it.
These are broken men desperate for redemption. For some reason, I can relate to their brokenness. I can relate to their desperation. I have already encountered more of God in this pod than in most churches I’ve been in. Life just seems very real there. And it passes, one minute at a time.
These are my men.