I slipped off my shoes and belt and put my watch into a small, plastic tote. A stoic guard in a grey uniform waved me through the metal detector and then preceded to pass a beeping, plastic wand around my body. I had to have my ID verified and my hand stamped. It was a bit like going through security at the airport, yet the heavy steel doors and clanging locks were a grim reminder that this place was not designed to get its patrons to another destination; it was meant to keep them there. On the back wall, a large, colorful logo hung, emblazoned with the words “Department of Corrections”.
After arriving at the chapel, I watched as rows of men in brown jumpsuits pressed through the door. They were all different. There was a man covered in tattoos, another with bushy brown hair and an unkempt beard, and another with thick, NASA-engineer glasses and a quirky grin. There were folks of every variety: black, white, Hispanic, Latino, and Native American. Yet, despite their numerous differences, those brown jumpsuits served as a reminder that the law makes no exceptions. A small, laminated card hung from a lanyard around each man’s neck, bearing his name, a mugshot, and his ID number.
As I looked out over the sea of faces from my vantage point on the stage, it was difficult to imagine that these men had all done something worthy of their current situation. They all looked so normal; just like anyone else you would meet on the street. I thought about how each one was someone’s father, husband, uncle, boyfriend, brother, or cousin. I wondered what each one had done to end up here. Though the uniformity of their appearance made it difficult to think of them individually, rather than collectively, I wondered about their stories. I wondered about their lives before they had come here; where they had lived, what job they had worked, and whom they had loved. I tried to imagine them sitting before a judge as they heard their sentence fall. I wondered how some of them must have felt, knowing that they would never see the other side of that razor-wire fence again. I thought of their families, and I wondered how many birthdays, first steps, graduations, weddings, and Christmases they were missing. I tried to imagine how it must have felt to know that you were wasting years of your life that you could be spending with those you loved because you made a stupid decision.
However, as we shared songs about the love and grace of the One Who came to save us, I watched as lips quivered, hands raised, and eyes filled with tears. I saw the gratitude in their eyes as we talked about the sacred head that was wounded for us, and the smiles on their faces as we sang about joining the feast of Heaven. I watched them sway, cry, and lift their hands in praise as they sang the name of Jesus. After the service, I was greeted with firm handshakes, broad smiles, and numerous expressions of gratitude. As I watched the way these men cared for each other, and the way that they were consumed with their desire for Jesus, it reminded me that the story that led them here was not the only one they had. Yes, they all had a story of darkness, heartache, and sorrow. They all carried deep wounds and aching regrets. They were all facing the consequences of their actions. Yet, they had another story, a better story, a story of hope. No longer were they defined by their darkness; they were defined by the light of the One they loved. No longer were they slaves to the vices that had brought them here; they were now children of God. No longer were their hands stained with the blood of the innocent; they had been washed in the blood of the spotless lamb. Though they were still labeled as offenders by the law, they were now considered sons by the Father. Though they could never change the story with which they had come, they now had a new story; a better story.
Though we may not be confined to a prison cell, we all have a darkness that we’ve tried to outrun. We all have heartache and deep regrets. We’ve all made bad decisions, and we’ve all had to face the consequences of our actions. We all have a story we’d like to forget. But just like those men, we all have another story; a better story; a new story. It’s a story that we’ve heard since we were young; a story about a brave prince and the world he came to save. It’s the story that urged Peter on as he raced to the tomb, that knocked Paul off his feet on his way to Damascus, and that burned in the hearts of the early Christians as they faced the lions in Rome. It’s a story of death and resurrection. It’s a story of light and darkness. It’s the story of Jesus. It’s the story of grace. And, best of all, it’s your story, too.