A few winters back my husband assisted with an overnight shelter at Virginia Wesleyan College for the homeless in Virginia Beach. He had the simple task of visiting with the guests – men who had come for a hot meal and to seek refuge from the cold. One particular individual relaying bits and pieces of his story indicated that he was originally from the Mississippi Delta. Excited to make this connection, my husband shared that his wife (that’s me) was also from the Delta. And then he went on to ask the next, most obvious question, “Where in the Delta?”
Without any pause the gentleman replied, “Parchman. I was in Parchman for 16 years.” For those who are not familiar, Parchman is the Mississippi State Penitentiary, one of many poignant sights that stirs your soul as you drive south down the monotonous stretch of Highway 49.
As a child our family would join the Arants, another family who lived not too much further south, for an occasional Sunday Dinner at the Superintendent’s House – a brick rancher that sat directly across the highway from the prison at Parchman. I believe Mr. Arant had been appointed by the Governor of Mississippi to serve on the prison board for a term, hence the invitation.
Two memories linger in my mind about those dining experiences – white stripes down the sides of the trousers of the “trustys” (not to be confused with trustees) who served the tables and LOTS of really good food, much of it grown and harvested by the inmates right there at Parchman.
I don’t think the Superintendent still hosts Sunday Dinner, at least I haven’t heard anyone mention going in a long time, but I still think about Parchman.
It’s an odd thing what the Lord puts in your path.
Over the course of the last several months I have encountered people in church, on the playground, at gatherings who have loved ones who are incarcerated. One is raising a small child, two are young women in college, another is working a job in the suburbs. Their lives have taken an unexpected turn as they long for their family members – a husband, two mothers and a sister. It’s something you stumble upon when talking with them, but it is never really the topic of conversation. It is a reality that they long to make known about themselves and yet they keep it tucked away, uncertain of its impact on those around them.
I ache for their loss. The loss of time together, of dreams, of memories. I know I can’t take away that pain or shame or disappointment that they feel to some great or large degree, but I can pray for them and for their loved ones.
The heart of the gospel invites us to be people of compassion. Sadly, life’s pretty painful for a lot of people in this world. Would you join me today in praying for them, as well?
Don’t forget about those in prison. Suffer with them as though you were there yourself. Share the sorrow of those being mistreated, as though you feel their pain in your own bodies.
Hebrews 13:3 NLT