The night of my Paw Paw’s funeral, I sat in his ancient, tattered leather chair, family photo albums piled around me, flipping through the pages of our history and having myself a good cry. Pictures of the life my grandparents shared – the holidays, the vacations, the small moments of joy – spread before me like a feast for the heart. I cherished, especially, the faded mementos they’d kept over the years, such as the many random pages plucked from various coloring books, scribbled on and inscribed by their grandchildren.
So many pages were dedicated to my uncle – their son – and the beautifully hand-drawn cards, poems and letters he’d sent to them over the decades in which he’d been incarcerated. I felt simultaneously like an intrusive voyeur and a curious anthropologist as I took each card out and read through his words. The cards were meant for the eyes of my grandparents; but, now that they were gone, I felt a deep need to see the relationship between a son who spent most of his life behind bars and the parents who continued to love him from afar.
What struck me was the vulnerability on every page. He wrote freely of his mistakes and regrets, making no excuses for himself, never pleading his own cause. He encouraged his parents, reassuring them that the path he took wasn’t their fault and that the love they’d given him was his only treasure. He recounted fond memories and dreamt of a future in which he might be with them again. He lavished words of love upon them and closed every letter with your son.
Maw Maw had tucked these gifts of love away in our family photo albums, among the Halloween photos and the coloring pages, the Christmas cards and the senior portraits. A convicted criminal, who spent more of his life behind bars than in the free world, was just as much an object of her love and devotion as her chubby-cheeked grandkids blowing out birthday candles.
He marveled, in his letters, that his parents had never disowned him after all the heartache stretched across so many years. Through the decades of separation, they held fast to their son quite simply because he was an inextricable part of them. Distance and bars and time – and, yes, his choices — may have conspired to separate them, but their stories were forever intertwined.
Placing the last photo album back on the shelf, it occurred to me that I hadn’t written to my uncle in a long time. My excuses of not having enough to say turned into having too much to say. I shook my head at the thought that scrawling out a letter to my uncle had seemed an insurmountable task, that taking a moment from my full and free life to include him had seemed something I could put off for later.
My uncle, the prisoner, out of sight and out of mind, like the masses currently incarcerated in our country. Women and men, daughters and sons, mothers and fathers ravaged by poverty and addiction and mental illness and cycles of abuse, who have often, in turn, lashed out at others. When the brokenness of the world collides with the brokenness of the human heart, we all feel the impact.
The Bible sings of a Creator God who made people in his image and this incredible fact alone makes every human being a miracle. Our prisons are filled with God-replicas whose stories are inextricably linked to our own. If God were putting together a Great Family Album, they’d get their dedicated pages right alongside ours. Indeed, if the Gospel of Christ is to be believed, then it’s God’s greatest hope that every prisoner exchanges letters of love and vulnerability with him and that all of their correspondence be signed with, your son or your daughter.
Perhaps my uncle could be so bravely vulnerable because he grasped what seems to elude so many of us and that is this: For the criminal or the free person, all that matters at the end of the day, the thread that binds all our stories, is love. The theologian Beldon Lane wrote: “Divine love is incessantly restless until it turns all woundedness into health, all deformity into beauty and all embarrassment into laughter.” This God-type love is what my grandparents had for their son, and it’s the kind of love God is absolutely on a mission to extend to us all – the kind that won’t rest until our shame is overtaken by it.
That binding thread of love is also the greatest equalizer. It’s one thing we all desperately crave and, conversely, one thing of which we can perish from lack. Is it possible to send the message that crime has to be punished but nothing banishes you from the family of God? Imagine a response to that kind of powerful hope. What could happen to the hearts of the incarcerated if we helped them see the greatness of a God who sees the brokenness within us and still offers grace and mercy?
Perhaps we don’t have to organize a prison initiative or carry political clout to reach out to the imprisoned and let them know that our album is incomplete without them and it’s our mission to help add back the pages of their lives – their sorrows, their joys, their mistakes, their lessons learned. And when they ask us why, instead of rattling off recidivism statistics or launching into a polemic for activism, we can simply tell them the truth, which is this: The histories of our country, our culture, our church and our humanity are incomplete without you because God says so. When you were jailed, you didn’t disappear. Your pages in the album can’t be destroyed because Divine love won’t rest until you have a whole and lasting life. Our stories are inextricably linked because of the greatness of a God who longs to fix the brokenness within us all. Every one of us has been among the ashamed and we can all be among the redeemed.
That night, as I lay awake in my grandparents’ home, perhaps for the last time, my heart at once broken and magnified, I decided I’d write my uncle as soon as I got home.
The album is still incomplete and I must do something about it. My starting place is making sure he knows he’s still got a page and always will.