"I'm on my way to the prison!" I called out to my wife as I ran toward our car. It would take me about l5 minutes to get to the maximum-security penitentiary on the outskirts of town. There I would visit a man behind bars for life--first-degree murder.
I had been to that prison so many times before. Each time, an eerie feeling came over me. Nothing was predictable when walking through the front doors. I had found that out before!
When conducting Bible studies in a penitentiary during another pastorate, I wore a clerical collar.
"You'll find it safer in here with a collar around your neck," the chaplain had advised me. So I purchased one. While walking down the long, winding corridors to the chapel, I was glad for that visible protection. This was true especially when large crowds of men walked toward me, filling up all the spaces between the walls.
But on this particular day, I dressed casually, not in the clerical giveaway. It was just plain me going to visit a friend.
"Sign here!" the guard ordered me through the glass window when I reached the main counter in the lobby. I knew where to sign. I had signed those cards numerous time before.
After signing in, I took my seat on the hard benches lined around the front room. Others were there--most of them smoking, looking out the dirty windows, wandering back and forth, waiting their time to be called into the inner rooms.
Presently, a guard came through the mechanized door. It slowly opened, hiding its thick frame inside the wall. Prisoners' names were called out. I recognized my friend's name. I could then get up, walk toward the door, and file in line for processing.
"Put your shoes in here. Put your belt in here. Empty your pockets showing outside. Hang your jacket up over there." We all did as instructed, pronto. I was glad I had no holes in my socks.
One by one, we filed through the metal detector. One man set off a buzzer. He had to walk back through the contraption.
"What is it?" he asked. Was it his glasses? He took them off. The buzzer buzzed again. I looked back at the person behind me, shrugged my shoulders. The next time the fellow went through, there was no buzz. I didn't catch what was the culprit. It didn't matter.
I was next. I walked through. Nothing happened. I was OK.
My shoes, belt, and jacket were passed through. I reached into the box to get my shoes and then my belt. One of the women guards took my jacket, walking down the corridor with it.
I leaned against the wall. Everyone else had been found "clean." So they were handed their belongings. One by one, they leaned against the wall, put on a shoe and then another, belted up and wedged their pockets back into their cavities.
The large metal door at the far end opened slowly.
"You can all go through except you," a guard called out, pointing at me.
"Except me?" I asked quizzically.
Now what? They had my jacket.
"She took my jacket," I said matter-of-factly when everyone else had disappeared, leaving me with the lone guard.
He shrugged his shoulders and then said, "Don't worry about it. They're just checking something out."
"Checking something out?" I muttered.
In a couple of minutes, the mechanized door opened. There stood the female guard with my jacket hanging on the tip of her index finger. With the other hand, she motioned for me to walk toward her.
When I got to the end of the processing room, I looked up to see a male guard staring at me from the other side of a glass window.
"Do you know what we found in your jacket pocket?" he yelled at me through the thick glass.
I shook my head, feeling like an urchin caught in the principal's office at school.
With that, he turned around to lift a large white sheet of paper from a desk. In the middle was a mound of something.
"What's that?" I asked innocently.
"It's marijuana!" he glared.
All of a sudden I felt my heart leap out of my chest. Then I envisioned spending the rest of my life behind bars, conducting Bible studies for fellow prisoners till I died. I'd probably get one phone call a month to my family.
Like a flash, it dawned on me what had happened. But would that guard believe my story? That ultimate question could determine my destiny.
I knew I had to tell him the truth. But if I told him too imploringly or too casually, it could raise suspicion. So, here goes, I thought to myself; do it right.
"Listen. I'm a minister from down the road. We have a Wednesday Bible study every week. We also have a free clothing center in the church. Last night after the study, one of the women in the congregation was going through the clothing. She came upon that jacket. She gave it to my wife, saying, 'I think this might fit your husband.' Sure enough, I put it on this morning and it fit. So I said to my wife, 'I think I'll wear this to the prison.' I did, but I didn't think to check out the pockets!"
Would he believe that one? It was true, sure, but would be believe that one?
He turned his back to me. He lifted a phone on his desk. He started to dial a number.
"Who is he calling?" I asked myself. "Is he dialing another minister to check out my vocation?" He didn't know my friends.
"Was he phoning my wife?" No, he didn't know my home number.
"I'm losing it," I muttered.
Presently he turned back toward me and put down the phone.
"I was just talking with my superior," he said.
"And I was just talking to my Superior," I said, pointing upward. (He didn't get a chuckle out of that one).
"He said that considering the circumstances, we are barring you from visiting the prisoner today."
Fine with me, I thought. Another day will do.
Hoisting my newfound jacket over my shoulder, I lit through the open mechanized door, darted across the front lobby, and dashed for my car.
Fresh air hit my face; it never felt so good. The sky turned its luscious blue; it never looked so good. All the way home, I kept taking in every tree, bush, flower, and bird. They all looked extra-special to me.
Not really caring if people in the cars alongside me were noticing, I sang at the top of my lungs, "Glorious freedom! Wonderful freedom! ..."
Through it all, I came to appreciate more than ever the freedom I enjoy every day I wake up. The close call made this often-taken-for-granted gift of life more significant than ever.
God was good to release me into a new, fresh awareness of His provisions, His protection, and His leading.
J. Grant Swank Jr.