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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Jesus in an Orange Jumpsuit

By Richard Dixon
April 25, 2010

Orange jumpsuits — that’s what you notice first in the county jail. Tattoos, curious stares, and doors that clang shut melt into the colorless, institutional background of eerie quiet and antiseptic odor. It’s the orange uniforms that grab your attention.

My audience slouched in a semicircle, choosing to listen in return for any break in the dull routine. I volunteered to speak to these young men and women, to share my experience as a quadriplegic, to encourage them from my wheelchair to dream and overcome obstacles. While I talked about rediscovering hope and faith in the midst of tragedy, I wondered about the drugs or alcohol or petty crime that brought each of them to this warehouse of wasted potential.

Their thin veneer of disinterest faded quickly. They chuckled at jokes, scribbled notes, and responded to questions with authentic insight and honesty. Eyes penetrated my words, sincerely seeking some faint glimmer of the hope I described. They listened attentively to my tale of surviving and thriving in the midst of tragedy, but I couldn’t escape the sense that they believed joy and fulfillment were beyond their reach in a parallel world they’d heard about but never experienced.

Afterward I met an aspiring writer, an accomplished Christian artist, and a bright-eyed young lady who cried as she knelt to hug my service dog. They missed spouses and kids and pets and parents. As we chatted, they conveyed an unmistakable undercurrent of hopelessness and latent despair, an incongruous juxtaposition of youth and despondency.

I don’t know whether my message of hope and possibility truly impacted any of these struggling souls. Their words expressed commitment and determination, but they radiated a sense of suppressed pessimism, young spirits already beaten down by too much pain and failure and ingrained sadness that belied their brave smiles.

These aren’t the comfortable audiences to whom I’m accustomed. I’m a middle-aged guy in a wheelchair; they exhibit pierced body parts, tattoos, and a language that barely resembles my own. Most of their faces are black or brown, even in this predominantly white, middle-class community. We’ve traveled different paths to this gray, nondescript room.

These orange uniforms do not identify violent, hardened criminals. Most are incarcerated for short periods on minor offences, almost universally related to substance abuse. Statistics predict that many of them will return, and that they will escalate into more serious and dangerous crimes.

These are the folks about whom Jesus spoke when He said, “When you did it not to the least of these, you did it not to me.” And I don’t know what to do.

I have no answer — more precisely, I do not know how to share the answer in this place. They need to know Jesus, and I don’t know how to share Him here. I don’t know how to penetrate their self-protective layers of toughness and their hearts hardened against the pain of dysfunctional families and abusive relationships.

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me’ ” (Matthew 25:37-40,44,45, NIV).

My safe, familiar church sits less than three miles from the walls that confine and conceal these lost young souls, but it might as well reside on a different planet.

In one place Jesus is glorified; in the other, He languishes in a cell.

In one place He is Lord; in the other, He is a number in an orange uniform.

I prefer the God of sunny days, strong economies and friendly smiles. I like kindness and love wrapped in security and warmth. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, conjures peaceful images of familiar worship in comfortable surroundings.

But God calls me to confront storms and poverty and adversity. His grace isn’t always illuminated by morning sunlight streaming through stained glass windows. Gentle Jesus wants His love expressed in jails and drug rehab units and nursing homes. God doesn’t reside in a church building. He’s everywhere. He’s three miles away in a barren, hostile concrete enclosure.

I don’t have the right words. Jails make me nervous. I don’t identify with these battered young people. I don’t truly understand them.

But I’m not asked to fit in or to be comfortable or to pass along timeless wisdom and experience gained by walking on their darkened path. I’m not asked to understand them or save them or change them. I’m simply asked to go and bring what I can.

What possible difference can I make? I don’t know, but I have to go.

Jesus sits in a cold, lonely 5-by-7 concrete box, His purple robes exchanged for an orange jumpsuit.

I can no longer ignore Him.

RICHARD DIXON lives in Fort Collins, Colo.

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