The Spark That Burned Everything: A Prison Epiphany

And they saw a great light.

And they saw a great light.

“I was angry for a long time,” he said.  “But then, I had a dream that changed everything.”

I was sitting with Ray, a Minnesota prison inmate, and he was sharing his story with me. He had been in and out of the prison system the majority of his adult life. His first real infraction was nearly beating a man to death. Before that, he had been a good guy, a caring son and brother, respectful and hard-working, saving to earn his GED. But then a 3-year-old girl was raped and killed and he learned through whispers on the streets that a childhood friend of his had done it. That friendship ended immediately. Ray responded in rage and retribution.

“He learned his lesson, I think. I don’t know where he is no more, but I messed him up bad. I thought everyone would be glad that I did it. But, I never felt good about it. No one else did, neither. And, it was the spark that has made my whole life burn to bits.”

For years, through all his drinking and robbing, gang-banging and beating, he never stopped being angry at that man who hurt that little girl. The anger was a catalyst — for violence, for allowing pain to control his life and guide his actions. He wanted to hurt himself and the world.  After some time in and out of jail, he eventually ended up in a Minnesota State Penitentiary. While his anger persisted he knew it would kill him if he didn’t change. And so, he started going to bible studies.

One day, they read the story of the magi visiting the Christ child, following a distant star and bearing gifts. We call this story ‘the epiphany’ — a great revelation. As they read, he thought of his own children, and what he couldn’t give them. He thought of the kids he remembered from those “Feed the Children” commercials growing up, all skin and bones, big bellies, white flecks of dried spit and foam plastered to the corners of their mouths. And he thought of the little girl he had hoped to defend.

If he had just let it go. If he had just minded his own business. If he had just continued being caring and respectful. Rage and retribution weren’t worth it. If not for what happened to her, and for his violent response…where would he be? The whole story confused him. In any case, he felt like no kid was worth that trouble. She led him to prison. No kid was worth that. He went to bed that night rattled, angrier than ever, and totally alone.

And then he had a dream that changed everything.

***

He saw the star high above and beyond him through a broken skylight, and he went out. He entered the cold night air, hot breath rolling slowly from his nostrils. The journey was long, through the barren streets of his neighborhood, past his old house, the corner he used to stand on at night, the streetlights he used stalk out from under, the grocery store he would steal 40’s from.  All the spaces of his life empty and dark, but brilliant light above and beyond.

After what seemed like hours, he arrived beneath the star. He was standing in front of the warehouse where it all went down—the beating that changed his life forever. His heart started pounding, and he knew the man would be in there. He clenched his fists, ready for a fight.

As he slid the iron door open and walked in, it was only her, alone and bathed in starlight through the broken roof above.  It was no place for a girl to be alone, but still, she was pristine and precious, her curly hair tucked beneath a pink winter cap—just as he remembered from the photo of her in the paper. She reached out and he lifted her tiny 3-year-old frame, feeling her warmth, feeling her lifeblood surging through him, feeling her forgiveness of the man who killed her, and her hope that he, Ray, might forgive him too.

***

One of our greatest skills is the ability to ignore—to ignore the other and to ignore the love of God. Strangers’ candy is poison. Beggars are only buying booze. Keep the walls there—the sight of them is sickening. Their relationship is disordered and unnatural; we’ll have nothing to do with it. He wronged the world, and we will never forgive him.

There is a better way.

Epiphany is about light. We are called to be people of light. We call them wise, these three men with a simple insight. They saw something brilliant, new and clear and shining in the darkness of the winter sky, and they went toward it. Without knowing what they would find, they chose to abandon darkness and live in love.

Ray had the same insight.  He knew he must change.  He struggled with the story.  He dreamed of a better life. And what did he find? She was ok.  She was with the living God. She was alive in love, and she willed his anger away. That painful moment years ago was a spark that burned everything. And yet, in it, he discovered reconciliation. In that dark place, she was a spark of hope. She was his epiphany.

–//–

The cover image, from Flickr user Don Ayer, can be found here.

 

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