Two or three Tuesdays a month I visit the re-entry unit at the Washington, DC Jail. I spend an hour or so talking with some of the incarcerated men about their lives and where, if at all, they see or feel God. We always start with prayer and then we read and reflect on a passage of scripture and share with one another how it speaks to us. I also participate in a ministry for men and women who have returned home from incarceration. We have the same kinds of conversations, except we are outside the walls of the jail instead of behind them.
During my time with these men and women I have heard some of the most heartbreaking stories and some of the most hopeful. Experiencing God’s word through their language and lens has opened scripture to me in profound new ways. When I read the many passages in both the Old and New Testaments about having sympathy for people in prison, or remembering prisoners as if we were in prison with them, I now have the faces and names of women and men that I know and love to connect with these texts.
Recently, we talked about the story of Jesus’ temptations in the fourth chapter of Matthew. Until this discussion, I would never have connected Jesus’ words, “People won’t live by bread alone but by every word spoken by God,” to the experience of being in solitary confinement. I struggled as I listened to the discussion to find the correlation. I’ve never been incarcerated nor I have I ever been confined to a small space with no human contact for days, weeks, months or years so I had no context for the comparison. One of the men made the connection crystal clear: he said that being in solitary is like living on bread alone because you are deprived of everything except yourself and God. I read that chapter in Matthew very differently now.
The conversations I have with men and women who currently are, or were previously incarcerated, have reoriented how I read and engage scripture. They articulate their understanding of how God speaks to their experience in scripture with clarity and hopefulness because they can see their stories in the lives of Joseph, David, Paul, the Syrophoenician woman and others. Many relate to the story of Lazarus because oftentimes they have had to die to things like addictions and violence in order to fully live again. Walking out of jail is like walking out of the tomb.
In reading scripture and sharing our stories with one another, inside and outside the jail, I have been transformed too. When I read the Bible now, I have a different perspective. The prisoners are no longer the faceless and nameless people we include in our communal prayers on Sundays. They are the women and men with whom I share my brokenness and who welcome me into the experience of theirs.
Beth Bingham is an MDiv student at Virginia Theological Seminary from the Diocese of Michigan