Take Me to Church
The Florida Department of Corrections was established in 1868. It says so right on the logo. That’s 155 years of misery bound up inside these razor wire fences; 155 years of blood and tears and beatings and cover-ups, of roach- and rat-infested dormitories, sub-standard medical care, untreated mental illness, salmonella diets, and a workforce trained to hate.
Not complaining. People have been complaining since 1868 and it’s done no good. This is just the way it is. This is the prison system I grew up in. I first arrived at Lake Butler on a county van in 1993 to serve a decade. Then I returned in 2005 and I’ve been locked up ever since. I’ve wasted most of my life on the rec yards and in the dayrooms of the Sunshine State’s correctional institutions. Close to 30 years. Damn near one fifth of the Department’s bloody history. Lots of changes during that time: secretary changes, legislative changes, policy changes, uniform changes… But if there has been one constant over the years, it’s the good Pentecostal and Baptist folks that come in every Sunday to minister to my broken brethren.
“Fellers,” I remember one old country preacher saying as his wife beamed at us from the piano, “I could be wearing them blues just like you. And sitting in them same pews. The onliest difference is I didn’t get caught. And I found Jesus before that old devil could get his hooks in me good…”
Sunday after Sunday, rain or shine, they would arrive with a message of love and hope and forgiveness. Some of the greatest hits: that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, that Paul was a murderer and the Lord still used him to do great works in the early church, that Jesus was crucified between two common criminals and he promised them a place in paradise on that fateful day…
These people would hug you, call you “brother,” pray with you, make you feel less alone in the world. God’s love was more than just an abstract idea in those services, more than just some ancient mythology on a Dead Sea Scroll. It was a palpable presence that filled the room, emanating from their smiles and pulsating in their hugs and handshakes.
But then a darkness crept over the land. Religion and politics intertwined. God’s all-encompassing love was suddenly limited. There were terms and conditions to salvation. Sure, the Sermon on the Mount was still relevant and, yes, Jesus’s greatest commandment was still to love one another. But there was also Levitical fine print that could not be ignored. Certain restrictions applied.
At least this is what I assumed was going on in recent years. Especially when the evening news ran a segment in 2019 about a pastor getting booed by his congregation for calling out former President Trump on his lack of humanity. Compassion was dead and division ruled the day. No shelter, no quarter, no love. Even the Church had succumbed. Matthew 25:35-45 had no place in the modern American landscape. Not in these hateful and hyper-partisan times. But again, this was all conjecture. All theory. I haven’t been to church much over the last couple decades. Practically zero attendance on this bid. Up until recently. (More on this in a couple paragraphs.)
Everyone is Christian when the handcuffs get slapped on. God is like Momma—the last person you think about when you’re out there doing dirt and the first person you call when they throw you in a holding cell. Lord knows how many calloused and trembling hands I held in county jail prayer circles back in the day. Full of desperate men like me petitioning the man upstairs for a little mercy. Staring down the barrel of life in prison will make a born-again Christian out of even the most devout agnostic.
But then we get sentenced and sent down the road. And as we work our way through the post-conviction process, our hope and faith evaporate with every denied appeal, every deceased loved one, every unaccepted phone call and unanswered letter. Not everyone though. My friend Lester Wells has not missed a church service since he came to prison in 1983 for a crime he insists he did not commit. Forty years in a cage and his faith has not wavered. Even though he’s lost everything. Hard not to draw book of Job parallels when I see Mr. Wells praying in the mornings.
My situation is different. I am not an innocent man. I’m guilty of 99% of the crimes I’ve been charged with, and the list is substantial. Not proud of this but there’s no getting around it. No one to blame but me. In fact, that one percent that I’m actually innocent of is offset by the few things I managed to get away with. So it all balances out. Especially when you factor in the crimes that weren’t technically crimes but in many ways were worse than the burglaries and robberies that put me here—the women I used for sexual pleasure and ego gratification, the lost souls that I could have affected positively but instead infected with the miserable slavery that is addiction, the lies I’ve told, the people I’ve let down, the disgrace I’ve brought upon my family… So when that great white-bearded cosmic wish-granter in the sky opted not to rescue me from the colossal mess I made of my life, I accepted my fate with no hard feelings. After all, I’m the one that put me here.
But I haven’t been hanging out in church. For these last eighteen years I’ve just been making the best of this bad situation—playing soccer, playing poker, doing pullups and dips, gambling on football, hanging out with Momma on Saturdays, doing my time… Then, a little over a decade ago, I started writing these essays and books which proved to be a watershed moment on the timeline of my incarcerated journey. This led to an interest in self-improvement, the study of philosophy, mindfulness meditation, neuroplasticity. The Law of Momentum is not just the working title of book three in the Miranda Rights trilogy, it’s a powerful force that can carry us to both dizzying heights and crushingly low depths. It all depends on which way you get moving.
But momentum is also a strange and mercurial current. It can shift like the wind. This is especially evident in sports. Take football, for example. One team is racking up chunk yardage, going up and down the field, scoring almost effortlessly. But then the opposing team digs in and forces a goal line stand, then drills a long field goal just before the half, then forces a turnover to open up the third. Suddenly, they’re only down ten points with the ball at midfield and an entire half to go. What happened? Momentum shifted.
I experienced a momentum shift of my own recently. Things were humming along. I was working on my seventh novel, pumping out these essays, surging toward the finish line of this lengthy prison sentence, when I made a couple questionable decisions. Nothing major—a joint here, a bottle of buck there, cranking up my old parlay ticket for one last run. But it was enough to stall my momentum. And after a few repetitions of these old behaviors, I was moving in a completely different direction: backwards.
Things got real bad, real quick from there. (For a more detailed account of this unraveling, check out Divine Intervention Part Two.) The point is that I had to do something drastic to shift the momentum. I needed a goal line stand. So on Sunday, November 13th, 2022, I signed up for church. First time in forever. Just to change up the energy. Just to escape the hovering dope smoke of my unit and sit in a pew for an hour. Just to be around some positive people.
And do you know what I discovered? Those same volunteers are still showing up every weekend. Those same country preachers and their piano-playing wives. And they’re not interested in politics, or who’s Baptist or Catholic or a Messianic Jew. They definitely ain’t in it for the offering plate. They’re just living Matthew 25, spreading a message of unconditional love and hope to us, the least of their brothers.
I’ve been going for a few months now. I won’t pretend it’s always awesome. Sometimes it’s boring, sometimes I disagree with the message, sometimes I’m grumpy because I have to miss football. But I always feel better for going, I remain clean, and most importantly, I got the momentum shift I was seeking.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite passages from Michael A. Singer’s The Untethered Soul.
“Your relationship with God is the same as your relationship with the sun. If you hid from the sun for years and then chose to come out of your darkness, the sun would still be shining as if you had never left. You don’t need to apologize. You just pick your head up and look at the sun. It’s the same way when you decide to turn toward God—you just do it. If, instead, you allow guilt and shame to interfere, that’s just your ego blocking the divine force. You can’t offend the Divine One; its very nature is light, love, compassion, protection, and giving. You can’t make it stop loving you. It’s like the sun. You can’t make the sun stop shining on you; you can only choose to not look at it. The moment you look, you’ll see it’s there.”