YOU VISITED ME
Matthew 25: 31-36
February 7, 2016
Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
Big Muddy Correctional Center
Mathew 25: 31-40, part of the famous Last Judgment scripture by Jesus, is filled with compliments. Everybody has done one of the good deeds mentioned. If you have ever fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick and visited the imprisoned, you’ve done good deeds. According to our Lord, those who do such good deeds to the “least of these” have done it unto him. No good deed performed on Christ’s behalf will ever be forgotten, no matter who you are.
Like you, I’ve done my share of good deeds. And I’ve fallen short, i.e. missed the mark as the apostle Paul likes to say. For example, persons in prison haven’t seen me very much. While I have not taken the initiative to minister to and visit with persons incarcerated, no invitation to serve you has ever been rejected.
In 2014 at Big Muddy, the men’s choir sang. Every song they sang fed my soul. Minds were transformed by the word and music of songs like “Amazing Grace”, “Our God is an Awesome God” and “Jesus Loves Me”. Wherever the songs of faith are sung, lives are touched. Last year, Roger Russell came with me. Our time was cut short. Why? We were short staffed. In that brief time of prayer and peaching, the Holy Spirit visited us. Our souls, minds, bodies and spirits were fed. And we rejoiced. With the benediction, I was convinced that Big Muddy was in my rear view mirror.
So a third invitation to return took me by surprise. Maybe God has decided I have something more to learn, understand and know about serving the people of God detained in a correctional center. As the prophet Isaiah responded, so do I. “Here am I Lord, send me.”
From 1970-79, I was appointed to my first church on the Southside of Chicago, at 50th and Wabash, across the street from DuSable High School, a stone’s throw from the Robert Taylor Homes. A stranger who was a Mom desperately needed to see her son in the Joliet State Prison. To get there, she needed help. So, I took her.
Shackled in chains and under the watchful eye of a guard; mother and son talked verbally and non-verbally. Not allowed to touch, they had a powerful reunion anyway. Twenty minutes to catch up on family news. Twenty minutes to see how his Mom was aging. Twenty minutes to hear those magic words, “I love you son; I love you Mom.” Twenty minutes without the rancor and bitterness of the past raising its ugly head. Then, the guard whisked her son away.
In silence, I watched tears of joy and sorrow, emotions of hope and despair, prayer and promise rise and fall in twenty minutes. As we returned to Chicago, this mother talked about her son. I listened. We parted. And I never saw her again. God used me to help this mother see her son again and speak love to him, and him to her, one more time.
In a 2012 meeting of the College of Bishops in Des Moines, Iowa, the host Bishop invited other bishops to accompany him on a visit to Mitchellville Women’s Prison, a medium/minimum security prison. They started a new church inside the prison that the host bishop wanted us to experience. Like today, we worshiped together. Inmates read scripture or led singing. After church, each Bishop sat at one table for conversation. Everybody shared. One young inmate who sat to my right was a lifer, who told us why. Later on, she smiled at me saying “You look like my grandfather.” Perhaps, my face showed doubt.
In response, the middle age woman went to her room, got a picture and showed it to the group. She was right. Why did she identify me with her grandfather? Something beyond my gray hair and old age had to be the cause. On the internet, I found a court case that offered some insight. She survived a chaotic childhood. Her father was absent. Her mother had mental illness. At age four, she ingested LSD carelessly left for a child to find. The family disintegrated and the grandparents became legal guardians. My presence brought back good memories of a grandfather who took care of his granddaughter when she got in trouble and lifted the burden of her life sentence by never, never forgetting about her. Presence can be a powerful factor.
In 2013, one of my pastors invited me to travel with him to Spanish speaking San Pedro Sula, Honduras. His church is supporting the ministry of another church in that town. On one of the days, I ran errands in the medical/eyeglass clinic. Patients who needed glasses were examined, fitted with prescription glasses and sent on their way, free of charge. Expectant mothers and their children received free medical and dental care.
Before we left town, our host invited us to worship services at the San Pedro Sula Prison, said to be “the most dangerous correctional institution on earth.” The guards led us through the entrance. Then the inmates took over and led us to an air conditioned chapel. It was absolutely jammed. Well over 100 men attended. We sat among them and worshiped. Invited to bring greetings from America, we shared our purpose statement; to greet on behalf of Christ and his church, to let them know they are remembered in prayer that God would look out for them until that day… Strangers, inmates, non-Americans, brothers in Christ clapped for us as we departed from them.
Lord willing, I’m headed to the Holy Land for the seventh time on Feb. 16. Again, I’ll visit the place where our Lord fed the 5000 and changed water in wine at Cana of Galilee. We’ll board the boat and sail on the Seas of Galilee, the same sea where the fisherman toiled all night and caught nothing until Jesus said, “Cast your net on the other side.” So many other sights like the town of Bethlehem, the church of the Nativity, Lazarus Tomb, the Garden of Gethsemane, Calvary and the Empty Tomb.
What will come more alive to me this trip will be the dungeon under the palace of Caiaphas. Caiaphas was the high priest who rejected Jesus’ ministry, facilitated his conviction on false testimony and detained him all night in a dark, dank dungeon of cold rock probably 150 to 200 feet deep. Today, tourists go down in the dungeon by a series of stairs. Then, Jesus was let down and brought up by ropes placed under his arms. In the dungeon all night, all day, suffering for you and I; our Lord stood the test so he could save us.
Sad to say, your god and mine spent all that time in the dungeon and no one visited him, not family, not disciples, nobody. Maybe our Lord foresaw what he would have to endure Holy Week in a dungeon with no visitors. Is it any wonder that one of the expectations of the Last Judgment passage had to do with visiting those in prison!! “I was in prison and you visited me.”
Fanny Crosby was a famous hymn writer, blind most of her life. Her first hymn that gained worldwide fame in 1868 came as a result of a prison visit. As she turned to go home one evening, a prisoner cried out in a loud and pleading voice, “Good Lord, do not pass me by.” Fanny went home and penned the words to this hymn still being sung 140 years later. Here are the words.
“Pass me not, O gentle Savior, hear my humble cry; while on others thou art calling, do not pass me by.
Let me at thy throne of mercy find a sweet relief; kneeling there in deep contrition, help my unbelief.
Trusting only in thy merit, would I seek thy face; heal my wounded broken spirit, save me by thy grace.
Thou the spring of all my comfort, more than life to me, whom have I on earth beside thee? Whom in heaven but thee?”
“Savior, Savior, hear my humble cry; while on others thou art calling, do not pass me by.”