I met Javier – aka Zoom-Zoom – at Otisville State Penitentiary, 80 miles north of New York City. I was there coordinating a retreat for Thrive For Life Prison Project. Javier spoke perfect Spanglish and stood five-foot-nothing, though I soon noticed his outsized personality and energy. Hence his nickname.
At the retreat, Javier spoke eagerly about life’s recent ups-and-downs. With even greater enthusiasm he expressed his love for Jesus and how, over the course of his 27 years of incarceration, he had come to know himself as deeply loved and blessed by God.
A month after meeting, I received the call. Javier was ready for release. I hopped in the car with Zach Presutti, SJ, Thrive’s founder, to fetch Javier.
For the first twenty-minutes of our drive, Javier was Javier – talking excitedly, conjuring plans for his future. Then he went quiet and leaned his head against the car window. He clawed at the door handle, saying “I don’t feel so good…I’m nauseous.” I dumped the contents of the “Welcome Home” bag I had made and handed it to him, you know, just in case. Luckily, he didn’t have to use it. Later, Zach explained, “It’s common for guys to get nauseous on the way back. You have to realize, Zoom hasn’t been in a car for 27 years!” Wow, of course.
Later, we stopped at a diner. Javier’s first meal “on the outside.” As I made for the door, Javier stalled in the parking lot. “What’s up?” I asked. “Mira, mira – look!” He pointed to some squirrels chasing each other up and down a Maple tree. His delight with them arrested me: I suddenly realized he hadn’t seen squirrels, or any animal for that matter, for years.
Eventually, we reached the city limits. Javier, was enchanted how much the city had changed since he had last seen it as a 19-year-old. At each stoplight, he swore every other person on the street was either a relative or friend from his old neighborhood.
In time, we reached our Manhattan office, which is near our Jesuit parish. Zach attended some paperwork, while I showed Javier the church.
We entered the sanctuary. As Javier approached the altar, he closed his eyes and lifted his arms and face to the heavens. Full-throated, he sang snippets of his favorite hymns. His praisings reverberated above.
I handed him my cell phone. He had never used one before. “Wanna FaceTime your mom in Puerto Rico?” After nearly three decades without seeing her face, suddenly there she was. Through tears, he whispered, “Mami, I’m home.”
At that moment, I lowered my gaze. For as they say, “one is not bold in an encounter with God.”
* * * * *
This whole year has felt like a Lenten penance in the desert, so I’m not thinking about what to give up.
Instead, I enter this season replaying images of that day with Javier. I don’t know if he would reckon his time in prison to wandering a wasteland, like the Israelites, like Jesus. Nor do I know what he made of those hours traveling back to the city. But I see parallels to those biblical stories, and consider the day as a kind of roadmap in what-to-expect-as-we-stumble-out-of-this-pandemic. It also offers lessons I’ll carry with me through these next forty days.
First, that day is a reminder that I have to accept the journey might be disorienting. Javier was thrilled when we picked him up, but that didn’t prevent dizziness and discomfort. So too, as the season moves us from fear to greater freedom, there are going to be moments we’re nauseous. We might even, at times, start clawing for ways out. This, too, is part of being a disciple. This, too, might be our experience as things reopen and we do things we haven’t done in a year. It’ll be okay. The feeling will pass. Keep going.
Second, I am reminded that the journey is also one of profound joy. Often, I mistake Lent as a time to focus solely on my own darkness and sin. But the ultimate goal is to emerge with renewed vision. To see the world with fresh eyes, of tenderness and wonder. Javier stood mesmerized by two squirrels in the parking lot outside a rackety old diner. I want to live with that sense of awe. How can I come through on the other side of Lent and this very long quarantine donning a childlike spirit, considering everything, myself included, as charged with God’s grandeur?
Third, when I step out of the wasteland and back into the world, can I – will I – like Javier, insist that we’re all radically related?
* * * * *
Today we enter the figurative desert in the midst of a very real pandemic. Javier’s story is a modern-day parable demanding its own observances: Where are we going? How do we get there?
So, too, his story suggests aspirations: Know yourself as forgiven and loved. Practice gratitude. Live with wonder. See yourself as radically related to everyone you meet. When we emerge from the desert, this is who we are to be.
Pandemics will end. Wanderings shall cease. Easter will come. Until then, we lower our gaze and step into the sand. For God is there, just as He will be on the other side, ready to welcome us home.
This reflection was published with Javier’s consent.
Photo by Jose Aragones from Pexels