|Abingdon Press, May 2015|
A funny/not-so-funny moment occurred while I was writing As Waters Gone By. I needed a detail of
information regarding a potential prison sentence for a person who accidentally injured someone significantly, someone without family. I also needed details about visiting the incarcerated in a specific state prison.
My mind said, “Easy. I’ll ask one of the felons I know.”
Those are words I never imagined saying. I could have said, “I’ll ask one of the felons I love.”
Both my brother-in-law and two friends from church are open about the crimes that gave them more than enough experience with the legal system. They’re changed men, walking a path well-lit by God’s grace and their families’ forgiveness. But they’re still paying the penalty for what they’ve done.
I lived more than five decades without seeing the inside of a courtroom, without watching someone I love in the court news on television. I would gladly have skipped those experiences. But they birthed in me empathy and compassion I’d lacked before.
It’s heartbreaking to know more than I ever wanted to about the prison system, the justice system, and what incarceration can do to families. The embarrassment and consequences linger long after forgiveness.
Like many law-abiding citizens, I’d held preconceived ideas about those who find themselves in trouble. I saw only the crime and not the person behind it, or the family behind that person. I saw punishment but missed the application of grace and the power of redemption.
Now that I’ve seen them at work in people I know, now that I’ve felt the blows of societal shame and the injustices family members of the incarcerated bear, my heart is rearranged. My empathy for victims can remain strong and steady, even while expressing compassion for the perpetrator.
That’s one of the reasons I wanted to tell Emmalyn and Max’s story in As Waters Gone By. The prison visitation scene came from my sister’s experience. The dropped phone calls. The long stretches with no contact. The reality that a prisoner’s release date isn’t the end of their emotional incarceration…or their family’s.
I’d lived under the assumption that my default setting was to love as Jesus loved. It wasn’t until imprisonment hit closer to home that I began to understand a shade more of what He meant when He said, “I was in prison, and you visited me” (Matthew 25:37).