“Give me your eyes for just one second
Give me your eyes so I can see
Everything that I keep missing
Give me your love for humanity
Give me your arms for the broken hearted
Ones that are far beyond my reach.
Give me your heart for the ones forgotten
Give me your eyes so I can see.”
A Day with Dad—What a concept! That’s what I was doing this past weekend. I was helping to facilitate a day of play and camaraderie between fathers and sons, fathers and daughters.
A Day with Dad– –What could be better? Just a full day of Dad with the kids—playing games, doing craft projects together, watching magic acts and puppet shows, singing songs, eating barbecue.
Sounds like a slice of Americana, doesn’t it? A portrait of a typical middle-class family. Perhaps fathers and children all over the country were doing exactly that very thing this past weekend. It’s almost idyllic in its concept.
Except for one small detail…
The dads I was with this past weekend—the ones playing games and singing and laughing with their kiddoes for the day—are all serving 20-30 year prison sentences in a maximum security penitentiary in Rosharon, Texas.
This program with which I was involved is called A Day with God offered by Forgiven Ministry, a prison ministry out of North Carolina. This organization conducts kids’ camps at prisons all over the country, trying to connect incarcerated parents with their children in the hopes that those children won’t follow their parents into an earmarked and almost ordained life in prison.
This Day With God truly is a day of joy and sorrow. There is laughter and tears and fun and games. Dads dance with their teenage daughters for the first time in their lives (a tender moment of bonding and tears that almost rips your heart out). They teach their sons how to tie a necktie (a skill the fathers learned only the day before from male volunteers). They spend an hour or more stringing beads on big safety pins to make a tiny lampshade for a light to ward away their child’s nighttime fears in the absence of their father. And most importantly of all, they have long minutes of quiet time in which to bless their children (an act that, I can assure you, never happened in their own lives).
There are also moments of almost delirious fun. Games, inspirational rap songs (whoa, is that an oxymoron?), riotous puppet and magic shows, and world-class entertainment by those performers who have come to believe that prisons are a worthy venue for their talents and skills. And let me tell you…you just haven’t lived until you have watched forty or more hardened and tattooed inmates strut hand-to-waist through the corridors of a maximum security prison doing the Love Train. Now, that is truly a sight to behold!
I’ve been a part of these Day With God Kids Camps before. Many times, in fact. But prior to each event, I have to confess, something happens to me every single time—
A fearful reluctance fills me and urges me to find an excuse not to attend. It starts with tremors in the gut. A feeling of home, of wanting to be home, of wanting to be nowhere else but right there in the sanctuary (or dare I say, prison?) of my own insulated life.
I think of all the reasons I shouldn’t attend and of all the reasons I should stay at home where I am free. Free to open the back door and walk outside into the herb garden. To watch the monarchs and giant swallowtails sup on nectar from the pineapple sage and coral vine. To be free as a butterfly.
Free to live without bars and steel gates and razor wire and officers with automatic weapons. Free to laugh, to cry, to make mistakes, to forge relationships, to play with my kids or grandkids whenever I choose.
Free as a human who is not caged behind bars.
I tell myself I am going on this prison ministry trip because of the kids. Because children—even those with a parent in prison—deserve to experience, if only for a day, what it means to be the child of a dad. I tell myself I am going only for those children who stand a 75% chance of winding up exactly where their fathers now are.
The inmates who participate in this Day With God Kids Camp apply many months beforehand. The requirements are stringent, and they can have no infractions up to the moment that their children enter the prison gates.
These prison ministry trips are a trial for me. I have to admit that. While the inmates who come into the chapel where we are holding the event have the illogically eager look of young men with a bright and unencumbered future, the reality is that this is a pivotal moment in their life as an incarcerated father and in the life of their free-world children.
As we well-meaning church volunteers stand in line to greet them, the entering inmates high-five us and shake our hands. But I have to tell you the truth about this moment—at least the truth as it pertains to me…
I find that I have to pray very, very hard in order to stand there and make sense of what is actually transpiring.
I have to admit that I tend to be a judgmental person. Just a tad. I tend to believe that prisoners are in prison because they deserve to be there. When the inmates walk into the gymnasium or chapel or wherever we’re holding the event, I see the Felon. I see the tattoos and the hardened veneer of a career criminal.
I have to ask God over and over to give me His eyes, to help me see what He sees, to lose my judgment, to set aside my prejudices, to realize that there are those who are lost, who are forgotten, who have ended up where they are because of almost unbelievably traumatic circumstances that I cannot even fathom.
I can’t do that on my own. I have to ask God to do that for me. I have to rely on a power that I simply cannot find on my own.
And so, on this day, these inmates will hopefully learn what it means to be a father. They will come to the realization that there are expectations for fatherhood, even if that father is one behind bars. There are no exemptions, no excuses. Fatherhood holds real expectations. Real responsibilities.
What has become most profound for me is that, after about an hour at these events, amazingly enough, I no longer see the felon. What I see are men who are hurting…deeply. Men who would like for life to be different, but aren’t sure how to make it so. Men who truly want to do the hard work that it takes to make their life and their children’s lives different.
By the end of the day, what I see are broken Dads. Dads who are praying, who are crying, who are clinging to kids that they may not see for a very long time. And many of those hardened, criminal prisoners are begging their children to do anything but make the same mistakes that they have made.
So what is it that happens to me, I have to question? And then, suddenly, I realize what it is. What happens is a change in perspective. A change in Me. In my perspective. To be sure, there is a profound transformation in the lives of the inmates involved in this Day With God. There is no doubt of that. But, one of the biggest transformations that takes place at these events is in me.
It is in my perspective. I have changed. I have allowed God to give me His eyes. Just for the day. Just for that moment. And that has made a world of difference.
And that is the true Gift.
That is Grace.