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Hope Behind The Prison Bars

IN the course of my voluntary institutional work as a visiting chaplain, one thing has been brought home to me again and again over the years. It is this: The experience of being in prison is not limited to the occupants of care facilities or penitentiaries. Fear is a prison; despair is a prison; hate is a prison.

Yet wherever I've gone - from cell to hospital ward - I've found a paradox still puzzling to friends. Let me put it this way: Hope breathes behind every tragedy. At the same time, I've found that -

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in one form or another - what liberates is a kind of lyricism. Does this sound unlikely?

A few years ago, I met an African-American here in Canada who had run into some legal problems. To compound the situation, he claimed to be a Jamaican. The Canadian immigration authorities held him in custody while they attempted to sort this out.

Months passed by. But neither fear nor despair was a prison to the thinking of this young man. On the contrary, nothing could stop him from smiling, even though his top front teeth were missing. Never have I known anyone who quite so epitomized hope. The most extraordinary thing was that he was almost always singing.

Most of his lyricism was prompted by an old hymnal that had come into his hands. His hymning had a surprising effect on other inmates: It penetrated prison cynicism to the point that they, too, became songful. Even some of the jailers were heard singing!

When my friend was not singing, he was composing. I visited him regularly in prison for almost six months. Every counseling session had both a literary and a musical dimension to it. He was virtually the only man I know who actually enjoyed being officially detained. In due course, this inextinguishable lyricist was deported to the States - quite undiminished.

But hope may not always be so close to the surface. On another occasion, I was contacted by a Salvation Army chaplain at the local prison who told me that one of the inmates urgently needed to see me. I had never met this prisoner before. When I entered his cell, I was quite unprepared for what happened. There stood a redhead, waiting for me with one of the most forbidding frowns I have ever encountered. He accepted my hand almost reluctantly. Then with hardly a pause, this fellow launched into a bitter tirade.

His total disillusionment with society and his protest about the injustices he claimed to have experienced spilled over now into surprising anger. I realized that, whether he had been communicating with me on the ``inside'' or on the ``outside,'' he was clearly a prisoner of his hate.

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I WASN'T able to get a word in. But while I stood there, I could detect something else behind all this rage: It was a feeling of utter hopelessness and helplessness. As his voice filled the cell, I sought desperately to find a way to reach this young man - a way of releasing him from this self-imposed imprisonment.

``Hold on, my friend,'' I said. ``I'm here to help. I agree with you: You've been the victim of a lot of wrong thinking and wrong doing. But sit down, won't you, and just for a moment imagine something with me.

``This may sound crazy, but imagine that you lived in a land forever covered with clouds: In your whole life - you had never seen anything but heavy clouds above you and frequent drizzle. So, naturally, you had come to believe that that was all there was to a sky anyway.

``Then one day, you happened to look up and just for a fleeting moment the clouds parted. To your amazement, rays of dazzling light shone through and you caught a glimpse of the most brilliant blue you had ever seen. Just a patch of blue sky - then instantly it was all covered up again by dark clouds.

`HOW would that make you feel? Although all your life up to that point you had experienced the most dismal kind of weather - just that quick glimpse lets you know that there is something else above all those clouds. Even if you never saw another patch of blue for a long time - wouldn't you still be looking up, just in case?''

No mention of God. No mention of prayer. No mention even of what the blue sky might be symbolizing. There really didn't seem to be much to my little story, but somehow it had touched a lyrical moment. This young inmate got the hidden message. His face softened. There was even the hint of a smile.

I got up to leave. He stepped toward me, and then in a low voice said simply, ``You've given me hope.''

There is something unassailable about the bright paradox that is sometimes born behind prison doors or that hangs above heavy clouds. Neither fear, nor despair, nor hate can muffle the song in the dark. Lyricism that liberates. Whether we're the author of it or the witness to it, it's lyricism that begins in some impossible situation as the smile of a freshly discovered hope.

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