Our curate is a guy in his 40s who was for many years a prison governor. Recently he asked the question ‘is God in prisons?’ and told this story, which is true:
‘There was a very difficult prisoner; he was violent, uncooperative , dangerous – almost impossible to manage or to be with. Over a long period of time he came to be held in the segregation unit of the prison, away from others, and he was frequently physicallly restrained. He began a ‘dirty protest’ which only exacerbated the difficulties he created and that staff faced. We tried everything: you name the approach, we gave it a go. We were always informed by the best psychological input available. But nothing worked.
One day, I sat with a group of staff in the appalling stench outside the cell while the prisoner shouted abuse at all of us and tried to squash more of his faeces out of the crack in the door, hoping to hit us with it. Eventually, one officer spoke up. He wasn’t young or ambitious – in fact he was older and overweight; he had no obvious faith commitment; and he didn’t seem particularly bright or committed to helping the vulnerable or damaged in the world. But he said this: ‘Let me go in, Governor, and give him a fag, and have a chat with him.’
Madness. The prisoner was handcuffed at the time and very dangerous; he could easily have injured the officer very sriously. I asked him if he was sure, and he said he was. I gave him the ‘cuff keys and we opened the door. To allow himself to go in would be to risk injury to himself – and it would be for me to risk my job if it went wrong! But that’s what happened.. That’s what he did. And everything changed.
… One bloke moved from his own place of comfort into the most remarkable danger out of concern for the humanity of another. It was both that simple and that impossible – and it worked.
It is my view that this man was moved by God; he was God’s arms and legs here on earth, moved by a sense of God in himself that he probably couldn’t even articulate. In doing what he did, I think he showed himself to be an angel; he gave everyone a glimpse – however slightly, however imperfectly – of something that matters more than ourselves, of something greater; he gave us a glimpse of the transcendent … found in relationship.
… So – is God in prisons? My view is that he is as active there as he is anywhere, and this example – of hundreds I could choose – shows this to be the case.
But I think it also shows something else about God: he might not be as obvious to see at first glance as we might expect, or would like to expect. And that has implications for us in our lives, too: we need to look out for him – and we need to look beyond the glorious and into the ordinary. We need to be alert to those around us, and we need to be alert to our own lives to sense him, to sense his presence – and to determine what our reponse should be… to become what he wants us to be – in prison or anywhere else.’
(Rev Gary Deighton)