One of the projects that I got involved with in early Faith Partners ministry had to do with the incarcerated population. It seems as though I was confronted after church one Sunday, out in the parking lot, by the two parents of a young man who was sentenced to a year in county lock up for a variety of substance abuse-related offenses. They had heard me mention in Sunday School the work of Alcoholics Anonymous and its efforts at taking meetings inside jails. They explained their sons circumstances and wanted to know about the possibility of meetings in the county jail where their son was located. I told them what I knew.
They invited me to visit their son a couple of Sundays later, and I accepted. Face time was limited to a “visitation area” where people talked to the incarcerated population over video phones. In any case, I offered to correspond with the young man for the duration of his stay. Not thinking of myself as too overly pious, I justified my intent based on the simple principle that if I was on the other side of the video, I would appreciate hearing from people on the outside myself.
On my way home, I gave some serious thought to the quandary: what does one write about to a person that they just met, years apart in age, with no apparent shared interests, and the desire not to be too patronizing. After all, I thought, I didn’t even know his family that well, and there was over 30 years difference in our ages. I was into work, jazz music, tennis, and foreign movies. What could he have been interested in? I reflected on the many “prison ministries” I’d learned about over the years, but still was skeptical. Quoting Scripture was fine, but applying it to an unknown situation seemed to be a bit presumptuous.
By the time that I sat down to type out a letter, I decided that I would focus on two things: 1) my interest in studying Scripture, and 2) my life in recovery. And that’s how I introduced myself. I told him in three lengthy paragraphs of some abstract event that happened in my life of late and how I handled (or typically mishandled) it. I said how I meant to intentionally redress the issue and seek to make amends. Those familiar with AA parlance will know where that is coming from. Then I made mention of some topical Scripture passage that was struggled with in Bible study or in Sunday School that week. I enumerated points I’d heard and tentative conclusions I’d drawn. Lastly, I posed a question which was meant to elicit a response, thinking that if there was going to be ongoing correspondence, I would to my best to facilitate it.
After my second letter a couple weeks later, I decided that I could commit to sending a letter on a schedule of every 10 days or so, sometimes even once a week. I found that I could even meet this schedule while traveling for business on the road. Interesting that the recipient noticed the different postmarks from around the country – Seattle, WA; Philadelphia, PA; Los Angeles – and asked me what that was about. That just gave me another topic for discussion. I found that I was no longer fighting boredom of staying in a hotel room, but found it relaxing to talk about my experiences in another town with different people. I could put my ongoing life in perspective.
Over the course of a couple years, this correspondence “ministry” took on legs and grew. People approached me quite frequently about dialoging with loved ones and friends who were incarcerated for substance abuse. At one point I found that I was mailing letters to as many 9 letters at a time to various corrections facilities within the area. To this day, I still find it a gratifying experience. I have met many of those to whom I’ve written, either through visitations or after they were released and they showed up at church. Some have actually gone on to experience a life in recovery, apart for drugs and alcohol. I like to think that my ongoing correspondence and sharing might have played a small role in that.