My name is John White, and I had the honor to serve four terms in the Ohio House of Representatives. During my service, my focus was to encourage Ohio's faith communities to partner with state and local governments to help solve the most difficult social problems facing our state. The following experience gave me a fresh clarity on the opportunity we have to engage those communities that are ready to tackle the issues surrounding returning citizens.
I had my reservations about traveling two and a half hours to Marion Correctional Institute in central Ohio. I had plenty of reasons not to go. It was icy -- in fact, black ice lay on the road that morning, and it was cold. I was just going as a favor to the warden who I admired and heard much about. However, I, already disdainful about the inconvenience, turned around after slipping a little and started to go back home. Then something got my attention and told me to get back on the highway and GO. I’d like to think it was the Holy Spirit and that I heard the voice of God. That makes good piety, but maybe it was just a guilty conviction that I didn’t want to let her down. Either way, I can look back now and see…more on that later.That wintery morning, I had a nagging temptation to be lazy and just stay home. I was a legislator and had reached my goal. What else was there to learn? Besides, I didn’t know what to expect and didn’t want to be embarrassed. It could be awkward. It could be very uncomfortable. It was self-talk time! “John do the hard stuff today to be the person you want to be tomorrow. After all this is what I tell my kids to do.” (I probably got that line from some cheesy motivational poster on a wall somewhere). At this moment I had an internal street fight on my hands. Marion won.
Snarling barbed-wire fencing. A dreary day on a dreary piece of land with a dreary welcoming. Bars…lots of bars and locked doors everywhere. I couldn’t move. It took 25 minutes just to get into the place. Everywhere you move, security doors slam shut behind you. “Empty all your pockets!” I shoved down the impulse to shout, “Hell’s bells, don’t you know who I am? Weren’t you expecting me?” And then, there they were. 300 men stuffed into a room singing gospel hymns. A choir of 40 men; Black, White, Latino, old, young. There were clearly some grandfathers in here, probably some sex offenders in for life. They were in awkward choir robes and amazingly proud of it. All were holding hands singing aloud and sometimes off key. Tattooed, arms raised high, unashamed. A rank, sweaty-men smell permeated the room. They were unashamed and clearly free. Two giant men surround me. They were both lifers. On my right, a Black man revealed he was locked up for murder. On my left, a White man admitted his Aryan Nation leadership and former hatred of anything not him. Their arms were raised, tears in their eyes. Not me! I’m not buying it yet. I’m holding back and my shield is on to anything that disrupted my facade, my comfort of how I saw the world or needed to see the world to protect my long-developed mental box. I witnessed the experience of forgiveness and repentance as they all got on their knees, celebrating oneness through their Creator. I opened my eyes and looked around, still a skeptic. But what I saw was a joy that was raw, unvarnished, palpable and honest.
I felt naked and vulnerable. I was disrupted. This was not what I expected. I hadn’t even given a speech yet, or even been introduced. They probably couldn’t care less about my visit. They had found meaning, purpose and a divine and sacred brotherhood in the bowels of a medium-security prison in the middle of nowhere. They said that they were going to pray for me, asked about my family, and offered to write. They didn’t ask for anything in return. It was as authentic as anything I had ever seen before. I was numb and my chest was pounding, but I felt as alive as never before. Surprisingly, I didn’t want to leave. I hugged as many as I could grab to say goodbye and that I was coming back to see them. I wanted to worship with them again, an experience that was as powerful as I have ever felt in the grandest of cathedrals. This was a holy ground, I thought, and the whole place (some 2000 men and staff) all knew that it was different. I felt beaten up, penetrated, small, ruined and renewed!
What did I discover that day…what was God wanting me to see? Why was I feeling so rich and honored, and yet a little unworthy to be a part of this? How does this work? What program in that prison makes this stuff happen? I think I saw more truth in that prison than I have seen in a lifetime of sermons and Christian books. I experienced a world that I wanted to see everywhere. The impact was as powerful as a blow to the head. Where can I find more of this? How do I get ruined every day in order to feel the joy in my heart now, and what does this have to do with being a better man, father, friend, legislator, leader, and Christian? I spent that day with imprisoned people considered to be the worst of sinners, only to end up ironically captivated by their freedom. What haunts me at this very moment is how many invitations I have ignored, because the road was too perilous, risky, and unknown. Even more tragic was the reality that I had been so sure of myself, that I thought there was nothing for me to learn. I didn’t realize how I had fenced myself in, not allowing myself to be moved by anything that would penetrate my protected and comfortable way that I saw the world, my community, and my neighbor. Before that day, I had never known anyone who went to prison and was completely humbled by the experience. As I drove into my lovely suburban neighborhood and pulled into my garage alone, I knew what I had to do...