Bob Perry on Missing Fathers & Redemption in Prison
The senses recoil when you walk into a high-security prison. A pungent mix of mildew, old food, and rancid mop water buries itself in your nostrils. Drab cinderblock walls and cracked linoleum floors stretch to infinity, screaming of dehumanization. But the faces and body language of those who watch you walk by are the most painful part of the experience. A mix of contempt and bewilderment accompanies their silent stares: "What are you doing here?" Responding with a smile and a nod seems out of place when you know that the only reason you don't share their despair is that in a little over two hours, you will walk back out.
It took a year-and-a-half's worth of applications, training sessions, interviews, background checks, watching videos, and signing waivers before the bureaucracy gave me permission to walk down that hallway. Only then was I allowed through the five sets of steel-barred doors, past the administrative offices and the mess hall (where that smell originates), and into the educational area. A prison guard checked my identification one last time before I was finally allowed to enter the classroom. And there, a group of men I would surely cross the street to avoid on the "outside" approached me to shake my hand and greet me—with a hug.
Before I experienced it, it would have been hard to imagine the level of gratitude and openness those men are willing to show to someone who hails from a completely different universe. There is no façade of authenticity in a prison Bible study group. No questions held back to save a reputation. No "Christianese" words used to sound pious. Just a genuine search for answers and a yearning for someone to tell them why they matter—a concept they have rarely, if ever, heard someone apply to their lives.
The Abstract Becomes Personal
Even inside those walls, there are times I have to remind myself that I am among men who have committed serious, and in some cases, violent crimes. When they recite large swaths of the New Testament from memory, pausing only to point out the Old Testament references contained within the passage they're quoting; when they provoke deep discussions about God's nature and purposes; or when they display genuine humility and concern for us and their peers, all the stereotypes attached to their baggy blue prison garb disappear.
Montel is one of those men. A little over six feet tall, with a chiseled jaw, muscular, tattooed arms, and a stoic countenance, I was a little intimidated the first time he entered my personal space. In over a year of meeting him in that classroom since, I can never remember seeing Montel smile. I probably wouldn't smile either if, at age 42, I had spent nearly half my life in prison. I don't know exactly what Montel did to end up in the dreadful setting where I talk with him each week—we're not allowed to ask. But I do know this:
Montel's nickname is "Homicide."
The Common Thread
Montel is not a unique character inside these walls. He shares much in common with the other inmates who attend our weekly discussion group. Each of them grew up in the inner city, engaged in criminal activity beginning in his teen years or even earlier, was a member of a gang, and was involved in both the use and the trafficking of illegal drugs.
If you have them write down the names of the friends they've had throughout their childhood, teen, and adult years, most of the names they list from each timeframe will be the same. There's nothing unusual about that. But if you then ask them to circle the names of those who have been in trouble with the law, 85 percent of the names will get circled.
Bob Perry is a commercial airline captain. He and his wife of 35 years attend Center Pointe Christian Church in West Chester, Ohio. They have five sons. Bob holds an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola University and a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy. He defends the Christian worldview at truehorizon.org.
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