IMG_3968There never seems to be any sanctuary in the jail. Barren walls, bright lights, noise, no privacy.

We sit and talk about the hardest things, the most heart breaking things, while guards watch us and other chaplains and youth sit together, not more than twenty feet away. There is no holy place to be quiet, no candles to light, no flame of warmth to wrap around us.

So I hold his brown-eyed gaze, I embrace him with my silence. I speak the words that come from my heart, without much censor, because I know he needs to hear that he is good, that he is held in God’s embrace, whomever, whatever God is to him.

The room closes in, the noises recede, the people are forgotten.

Our sanctuary is a tiny one, just we two, safe and held in enormous love, the unconditional kind. I see you. You are worthy. You are not the actions you have done or the actions that have been done to you. Here you are safe, for 45 minutes.

And when I cannot bear to close you down, when I sense your huge need to talk and talk, pouring out your sorrows, your anger, your fear and pain, well, then I break the rule and I hold the sanctuary open longer, stretching our time to 90 minutes, until your staff comes to take you back to your cell. The supervisor, who knows me well, must reprimand me to follow the rules. We eye each other. She nods. She knows I will break the rule again.

What is 45 minutes, 90, when an entire life of 16 years needs sanctuary? When this life has never known it? Who makes these rules? On what basis? On what experience?

In the holding of his gaze, in our jokes, in my questions to clarify his story, in his questions, in his stories, in our closing prayer together, sanctuary surrounds and holds us, taking us into a time out of time, a place of freedom for a short while, a place of rest, a place of truth and respect, a place of love.

I light the candle in my mind. He lifts his eyes to mine and the shield is lowered a bit more. Each week his words are more truthful than the last as he goes deeper into the story of his violent, chaos-ridden life. Each week I marvel at his resilience, his courage, his love for his mother and brother. Each week he shares a tiny bit more of the fear and the nightmares that have been with him for many years and are still with him even in the safety of the jail, as door locks are popped open and he flinches from the gunshots his mind and body heard. I long to give him peace, I long to give him rest. Each week I light the candle in my mind. Each week I listen.



©Lisa Ashley

March 11, 2016