“I am 27 years old. I’m in here for first-degree murder. And I have a beautiful mother.”
We’re playing a game called two truths and a lie. Have you heard of that game? Its a funny little icebreaker to help people get to know each other. The idea is that you tell people three things about yourself – two of those things must be true and one of those things must be something you make up. Your partners must then guess which of the facts you made up.
My partners in this game both happen to be inmates at a men’s prison. And I happen to be their classmate for the semester. The course is a an elective I chose in my Criminal Justice graduate program, and its called “Inside Out” – they are the “inside” students and I am one of a handful of “outside” students who drive over an hour to the prison each week with our professor.
Our first night of class is spent attempting to make everyone comfortable engaging with each other. Hence the game.
So here I am, facing a rather handsome gentleman who has just presented me and his fellow inmate with three facts about his life. Most of the other guys I’ve been chatting with stuck to small talk, but this guy just put himself completely out there right off the bat, I think to myself. I immediately look to the other inmate for guidance. “Well we know for sure he’s gotta have a beautiful mother, but… you know him better than I do! Which of the other two do you think it is?” “I think the lie is his age,” he says without even pondering. “Cause I know he’s in here for life.”
I’ll be honest. I felt just plain weird about assuming this guy had been charged with first degree murder. So I tossed my alternative guess his way. “Is the second one a lie?”
He laughs and for a minute teases that he won’t tell us which one it is. But he quickly caves. “I’m actually 33 years old.”
“Aaaahhh you totally could pass as younger!” I joke and turn to the next guy to continue the game.
But the first fellow is not at all ready to move on yet.
“What did you think when you realized I am actually here for murder?” His question is aimed at me and face is quite full of concern. “I mean, have you…. have you ever met anyone like me before?”
It’s a weighty moment. The make-it-or-break-it kind, when you know your next words have all the power to calm the storm or all the power to let it rage. Its the kind of moment I always feel Jesus made us for.
I lean forward and look the man square in the eyes. “I know lots of people like you. I have many friends who have been in trouble with the law. In fact, the reason I am studying Criminal Justice right now is because I have seen a great many people I care about stuck in this system and I want to see it reformed. I believe that we do not give people who want to right their wrongs the opportunity to so. And I believe that we do not give people who want to change the opportunity to do that either.”
Relief floods his eyes, and he settles back in his chair.
I’m sure I’ll be tearing up over this one later, because I know that relief in his eyes all too well. Its the relief I feel in my own chest. This is the exact conversation Jesus has with me every day. He is undaunted by the reality of my mistakes. He looks my brokenness square in the face and reassures me that He is not scared by it, not uncomfortable with it, and not willing to leave me in bondage to its consequences. He has lots of friends like me. And He is moved with compassion towards all of us. He gives us abundant opportunity to right our paths and change our ways. I believe He is far more convinced of the power of our destinies than we are.