The following article is the latest of Dan’s reflections on prison ministry in Belize. His last article can be found here.
When I walk into Belize Central Prison, the stench of human waste and sewage hits, wave after wave, the deeper into the compound I get. The buildings in the prison complex are in various states of disrepair, worn down by humidity and financial neglect. On any given day, over the din of activity at the prison, one can count on hearing country music or blistering evangelical preaching from speakers installed throughout the yard. And at lunch, the reliable, if slightly unwelcomed flavor of the same stewed chicken, with the same rice, with the same spices. Every day.
Of the five senses, touch is mostly absent, outside of an occasional fistbump or high five.
I visit with a man named Steven in administrative segregation, which is where men are sent if they have committed an infraction while serving time. Although Steven is the lone occupant of his cell, other men have two others within their cell. “Ad Seg,” as this part of the prison is commonly known, is open to the elements: rain, mosquitos and afternoon sun come through the barred doors of cells, which face the outdoors. The men who are sentenced there are not allowed phone calls, nor are they allowed to leave their cells. Many are there for six months. It is an intentionally harsh place.
When I meet him, Steven has been in Ad Seg for a few months already. I listen to him talk about his time there. And I tell him that we will be coming to visit with guys at Ad Seg to pray with them, and would he like to pray? He smiles: yes. I put my hand up to an open space between the bars. He presses his hand, fingers and palm, against mine. We both pray out loud. And then our hands linger, pressed together. I wonder when he last touched another person. I shudder to think it has been weeks, if not months.
Though all five senses feature in the Gospels, touch plays a prominent role in the ministry of Jesus. It is, in fact, the primary way that Jesus heals. The Incarnation reveals that God is not content to heal from on high, at a distance. In Jesus, God places fingers into ears and mouths; spits and muddies up the ground to restore people’s senses and sense of belonging. In fact, touch is so vital in the Gospels that the evangelists speak more than once of people stretching their weary hands out, simply to touch the tassel at the end of Jesus’ cloak. And in each case, Jesus never forces healing on anyone: his healing is always by invitation.
For many of the men at the prison, their experience of touch has been anything but healing. Many have experienced touch as destructive, wounding. The absence of touch, too, has been a source of deep pain, stirring the tragic, nagging suspicion that one is not lovable. Either way, many men are deeply traumatized.
Some men speak of childhoods where physical and sexual abuse and neglect were commonplace, suffered at the hands of people who were supposed to protect and embrace them. Their fathers, uncles, mothers – often ensnared in their own unprocessed trauma – took out their frustration, powerlessness, and anger on these men, sometimes in uniquely disturbing ways. One man shares with me that as a child, he was punished by being made to kneel on cheese graters, while spreading his arms wide, holding books in his outstretched hands.
Jesus reveals that touch can be the way to show and receive love, healing. But touch can also crucify, as Jesus also knew from his own experience.
One day, I pray with Mark 6:53-56, where crowds are gathering to see Jesus, to touch Jesus. To be touched by Jesus. In my prayer, I also yearn to be touched by Jesus. But when Jesus looks in my direction, he looks past me, over my shoulder, and there are the men at the prison. In that moment, I feel the desire rise up from deep within, to be a healing presence among the men…
…to offer touch that makes the invisible God visible: the lingering fistbump, the quick, assuring tap on the shoulder.
…to declare to each person: you exist…you are real…you are flesh and blood…and you are beloved by God… Here, right now… And you are not alone.
It is a beautiful invitation from Jesus. And it is one from which I shrink back. To Jesus, I mumble something about my sinfulness, my temptations to let ministry be about my own glory rather than God’s. I think of the ways my anger, my resentment, my pride often taint my thoughts, words, and actions. And I think about the depth of suffering that so many of the men I work with have endured. Still endure.
Who am I to be given this daunting invitation and responsibility?
Somehow, in a world where people so easily use touch to denigrate, manipulate, and destroy, we are invited to trust that healing touch can communicate God’s love and grace.
Even still, trust is a towering, nearly impossible act for many who’ve endured the nightmare of abuse and neglect. Edward, a victim of sexual abuse and neglect as a child, tells me that several pastors (Catholic and Protestant) have encouraged him to simply pray for God to heal him. But both Edward and I talk about how, given the depth of his woundedness, prayer alone is insufficient. Or maybe better put, prayer ought to acknowledge that healing can come through people who have professional mental health training, as well as pastors. Yet as we talk, we acknowledge that such professional help is tragically lacking in Belize and even where it does exist, it is out of reach for many due to cost. We lament this together.
We talk for a long time. Edward tells me more of his past: the neglect he experienced, plus the abuse, the depression, and the regret he feels for his actions. He desires the healing of his wounds. I feel powerless in the face of his trauma and hurt.
We pray together. I pray that somehow, Edward knows that he is loved by God. That somehow, healing will come.
We ask for the grace to trust Christ, who shows us throughout the Gospels that touch can be healing, restorative, reconciling.
He whispers talitha koum, taking the hand of a girl who only appears to be snatched away by death, restoring her to life.
He washes feet, upending our notions not only of who is who in the social hierarchies we invest so much energy into, but of who God is for us.
He gently places his hand on the side of the soldier Malchus’ head, interrupting what could have devolved into a tit-for-tat battle between soldiers and disciples at Gethsemane.
And after his resurrection, he draws Thomas closer, inviting him to touch his pierced hands and side, prompting Thomas’ healing and confession that Jesus is indeed Lord and God.
We ask for the grace to trust that death and death-dealing touch are not the last word for God, who raised Jesus.
We ask for the grace to trust that Christ continues to extend his hands, pierced as they are, with the desire to heal God’s people. And, as unlikely as it seems, we ask for the grace to trust that he now heals through us, his Body, broken as we are, capable of holiness as we are.
Sometimes, we catch glimpses of Christ at work.
Martin is the last intern I talk to before leaving for the weekend. He is animated about how much progress he has made in making a daily inventory of his anger, his resentment, and the ways his pride overcomes him. He has a swagger about him; he feels like he is actually becoming a better person (really, the person he has always been, deep down). Martin is seeing his healing in real time. In his words, it is “Father God” who leads him, gives him the strength to go forward.
We finish talking and Martin asks me to pray for him. We bow our heads and pray. And then, as I am standing up, I say, “oh, and Martin, pray for me, alright?” Meaning: pray for me in the coming week. But he takes my hand and I sit back down. He prays for me, right then and there. His words wash over me: encouragement, gratitude, hope.
Slowly, Martin’s pain, regret, resentment and pride are being healed. When he takes my hand and prays for me, I realize that my own frustrations, resentments, and pride are capable of being healed as well.
And I realize that it was never about me bringing healing.
It is Christ who heals.
And it is through Christ and with Christ that when we reach our hands out to other hurting hands, we are capable of healing one another.