Extending grace

Driving through a town in Indiana recently, I got caught up in traffic. Such as traffic is in certain parts of Indiana — about three cars lined up front-to-back. 

I figured a train was coming and settled in for a little Hoosier brain-nap. In the early summer, nothing — particularly time and trains — goes by quickly in Indiana. 

But then I noticed the line of men being hustled across the street by a couple of full-bodied Hoosier troopers. The men were in the traditional gray-and-white-striped garb of prisoners. Like in an old movie from a Southern chain gang back in the 1930s. 

They were manacled, hand and feet, and going from the courthouse back over to the jailhouse. That’s why traffic was stopped. We had to let them by. 

I describe them as “men,” but to me they seemed little more than boys — kids in their late teens and early 20s, shuffling along in minced steps. There was only one older guy and he was chatting up the guards who laughed at something he said. I got the impression he had been through this before. 

A few minutes in front of the judge to make things official. Then back across the street to kill time until the lawyer showed up. 

I thought of that old song: “In the Jailhouse Now”: “I had a friend named Ramblin’ Bob. He used to steal, gamble and rob. … But I found out last Monday that Bob got locked up Sunday. They got him in the jailhouse way downtown.” 

It was Monday morning, and it was not too unlikely that they had been in front of the judge for a weekend’s bender. But it could have been for anything. The litany of problems in rural America is no better than our big cities. Sometimes a lot worse. Make up your own list — everything from driving under the influence to domestic battery. 

I don’t glamorize these men. I remember an old Richard Pryor routine where he talked about visiting a prison and meeting with some of the inmates. He had gone in with the idea that they would be his oppressed innocent brothers. He walked out saying, “Whatever you do, keep those guys behind bars!” 

Watching as the guys crossed, I couldn’t help but wonder about what their stories might be. As a society we do seem to want to throw an awful lot of our own young men into jail. 

But that’s easy for me to say. They didn’t try to break into my house. Or beat me silly for a couple of bucks. I doubt these guys were innocent victims of an oppressive system either. 

As I watched them return to the jailhouse, I kept thinking about how much of the New Testament takes place in prison. Jesus has to remind us that one of our fundamental duties as believers is to visit those in jail. It’s supposed to be the ordinary for the believer. 

I know that grace extends to anyone, but it is easier to believe that than to live it. 

It’s an election year and the ideologies come out in force. Immigrants. Crime. There’s always a pat answer served up by smiling candidates and commentators offering generic bromides that usually involve somebody under lock and key. 

Seeing those poor Hoosier souls, I wondered what was next on the pilgrimage. A pledge that this would be the last time, or another manacled step on a road that wasn’t going to get better. Loved ones back home tearfully concerned; or nobody anywhere to give a second thought. 

He’s in the jailhouse now. 

I don’t pretend to have any great answers. But I do think that we’ve got to take care of each other a little better. 

That wouldn’t make much of a campaign pledge — “Let’s take care of each other a little better.” But it might make for a good prayer. 

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.