This is the Broward County Courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale. I have seen entirely to much of this place in the past ten months as I tried to simply be with two young men who had drug charges. Both of them were homeless when I met them a year ago, lost, wandering the streets, seeking solace in crack and getting themselves into a whole lot of trouble. I know what’s like; I was there, but, thank God not involved with crack cocaine that destroys lives and one’s values almost instantly. They landed into my life last September. Back then I wrote this to my Arise readers:
Though I haven’t done any Twelve Step work in many years it was pressed up me unexpectedly this past month. (The Twelfth and last step of AA and any other step program says: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to [addicts] and to practice these principles in all our affairs.“One who is in recovery knows that the best way to stay in the light is to help those who are struggling in the present moment. I am ministering to two men in jail who have subsequently come back to the sacraments. Their names are [Augie] and [John Matthew]. Please pray for them. I am not afraid of the personal risk involved in this ministry to guys on hard drugs and have done so for many years. I take my cue from my shepherd who went over hill and muddy dale, through thorn and thicket and brought back the smelly, muddy, thistle-encrusted lost sheep high upon his shoulders. I ask for your continued prayer.
Well, it is now a year later. The times I spent in court for each of them have been numerous. I learned a great deal about our American justice system and our jails. As Americans we are basically interested in exacting our “pound of flesh” rather than seeking rehabilitation.
I was there in court just sitting quietly reading Morning Prayer — just simply there for these guys. And as I worked with them, I tried to help them enter the way of conversion to Christ and to realize that he could and would help them change. I tried to be with Augie and John Matthew to give them hope — despite what the justice system was trying to do to them — that change / transformation / renewal of life was possible. I did this because I know it is possible. I struggled with my own addictions and manic depressive illness in the 80’s. It devastated my life and by the grace of God and the help of some friends and a wonderful sponsor, Father Mike B. I began the long road back.
So part of my job — as any gratefully recovering person will eagerly do — is to simply be there to offer our “experience, strength and hope” to other “suffering” addicts. And believe me, any one who is so attached to something or someone suffers. America is suffering because of our attachment to material things.
Our justice system is focused on punishment, not change of life. If you strip people of their dignity and treat them essentially as scum, then people are going to continue to act that way. The American justice system simply perpetuates criminal behavior by the way it treats people in custody. It takes a lot of strength, a lot of faith for prisoners to survive incarceration without becoming hardened and angrier by the day. And it takes love which so many in our jails and prisons have no access to, unless God or someone pierces the almost impenetrable wall of this system.
Why do we allow this? Those of us who are Christians should be believing in what we pray, Forgive us, Father, our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Americans still want an “eye for an eye.” We’re still into capital punishment. And so-called Christians are doing this!
I continue to fight for both of these guys. I have spoken to the judge for Augie and, praise God, have received for him the mental health treatment he needs. He will enter the House of Hope here in downtown Ft. Lauderdale on Tuesday September 8th, Our Lady’s birthday. I am very grateful for that outcome. It is clear to me that God intervened for this 31 year old man. I have stayed by him because I am convinced of his essential goodness, a precious, but willful and rebellious sheep that wandered off and got stuck and muddied up in the thorns and brambles of life. John Matthew has a final court appearance (after about 10, I lost count; I was there for every one) on September 18th. The prosecutor, so far, is unrelenting in wanting to punish him. I will address the judge and testify to the work that I have patiently done with him to bring him to Christ and to be motivated to change his life.
The sad point is very few of us believe that change is possible. For our country with corruption on every level including the church. For troubled marriages. For ourselves.
For two years I was pleading with my readers “to enter personal transformation for the sake of transformation of our county.” I was told “to accept.
Well I don’t accept that cynical view of any person or of our country!
I know change is possible. The whole witness of my life as a priest is that it is!
Why? Because if we “Turn our life and our will over to God as we understand God” (the third step of AA / NA / SLAA, etc.) God will do the transforming.
And, I think our whole country might well find a cure for so much of our ills if we as a nation would enter the way of the Twelve Steps. But that’s a thought for another time.
Good and gracious God,
we praise and thank you for the gift of life and love you share with us
every single day.
I ask you please to watch over Augie and John Matthew and all those who have been trapped
in their own version of hell and who despair of the possibility that change is possible
Give them — give us — hope through Jesus, who said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to announce a year of favor from the Lord. (Luke 4:18.)
So be it! Amen!
P. S. I have more stories to tell about other people I care for who are caught in the justice system.