Author: The Rev. Deacon Ed Richards
My name is Ed Richards, and I am the deacon at the Episcopal Churches on Panama City Beach, Florida, namely Grace Church and St. Thomas by the Sea. In the past, I have done a fair amount of prison ministry. I am sharing with you something that has been going round and round in my head lately.
I have been thinking a lot about the folk I used to visit in the Federal Prison in Marianna (destroyed by Hurricane Michael) and the folk I visited at the Northwest Florida Reception Center (Locked down because of the Covid-19pandemic). I wonder how they are doing. Have they kept the faith they had developed? Are they safe and well? Are some of them closer to home so they can at least get visits from family? What are they feeling being in very crowded conditions with no way to maintain social distance?
Like everywhere, some of the men and women I visited were good folk who just made some bad mistakes. Some of them, both men and women, had no family or family that abused them. Some of them had families they truly loved who they rarely heard from and others had regular letters and telephone calls. Some of them longed to hear from family and others shared the good and bad news they received during phone calls and in letters. A few of them had meaningful jobs within the institution that gave them a sense of accomplishment, most did not.
Most of them longed to be on the outside. Some, who had been in and out so many times and over so many years, just wanted to pass their time in peace with the few friends and visitors they got to see. They knew they had been institutionalized and just could not cut it in the free world unless there was a support system, which they knew did not exist.
Some of them had been truly bad folk who had hurt and even killed others. Sometimes in fits of rage, sometimes calculated. Some had been pushed to the brink; others were enforcers for the gangs to which they belonged. Some were young, others older than I am. Some had short sentences, most were there for decades.
The thing that they all had in common was that they had discovered the love of God in Jesus, while there. And as I said in my Holy Saturday reflection, there was for them an Easter moment, a changing and resurrection. And that love shown in them. I know that there are people I know on the outside who just exude a feeling of calm and love, it is part of them. One of them was my spiritual director years ago. I always felt at ease, comfortable and loved when I was with her, even though she challenged me and my way of thinking. It is like that with some of the folks I have visited in dark places. They bring light with them. On one of our last visits before this pandemic hit, I was lamenting about the inability to find other men on the outside who would come inside with the few of us so we could continue our ministry. Two of the men at the talks started ministering to me and the other volunteers, saying that all things were possible with God and it would happen in His time, because it was His work and it was important to Him. It was the reverse of what I felt should be happening, but it was the right thing because it was a God thing.
So I wonder how those folk are doing. I pray that they are safe and healthy. I pray that this will be over soon, even though the science says probably not. But I do know that one day, in the future, I will be able to visit with them again.