As Maeve and I approached the prison carrying our supplies for my one-man performance, “A Visit with St. Paul,” we wondered; “What’s it like for a person serving a long sentence?” The imagined prospect of having our own freedom taken from us was enough to chill our hearts. The canopy of large coiled razor wire surrounding us only served to underline the gravity of incarceration.
The lay chaplain greeted us at the entrance and together with the corrections officer, she helped us get through security. The staff was friendly, even if the many locked corridors were forbidding.
Men who regularly come to the weekly Bible study were scheduled to attend the event. They were eagerly expecting the performance, the chaplain told us. The same could be said of me, who had been looking forward to this night for months.
The team of volunteers showed up just before the inmates. We could easily see that these were five highly motivated people. How else could they come weekly to a place that most of us don’t even want to think about? When the inmates arrived in the chapel, the exchange of greetings between them and the team was warm and enthusiastic. Any fear that my audience was going to be a “tough crowd” melted away as joy filled the room.
The premise for my performance is that as St. Paul, I’m under house arrest under the emperor Nero, as reported by Luke at the end of the Acts. My audience is a group of “visitors” who have come to hear my stories and share in the lessons learned from my life as a missionary. For the inmates that night, it must have been ironic that they were my “visitors” and I, their “imprisoned” friend.
For the next ninety minutes, I had the unique privilege of dramatizing the life of the Great Apostle for this diverse group of men. Clothed in prison garb, I could not forget that they were convicted criminals. But I treated them as I would any audience. In fact, I gave them what was perhaps my best performance. As the Holy Spirit worked in each of us, the Risen Jesus, with His joy, peace, and healing love was once more present.
“When two or more gather together in my name, there I am.”
Jesus was there in their affirming nods, their frequent smiles and the occasional, hearty “amens!” When I finished, their standing ovation was so long and spirited that the chaplain had to stop it because of time constraints… but not before my heart was aglow with gratitude.
As we drove home, processing our experience, Maeve and I marveled at what the Lord had done. The “Joy of the Gospel” is what Pope Francis calls it. It was this joy that had broken into the lives of these brothers! Men whose days are most likely lived out in boredom, frustration, and loneliness, were for that evening, infused with the mercy, beauty, and radiance of the living God.
The morning after the performance, I opened my Bible to Psalm 34. The first two verses said it all;
“I will praise the Lord at all times, his praise ever in my mouth. Let my soul glory in the Lord; the lowly will hear me and be glad.”
They – the “lowly” - were made glad as the Word of God was brought to life for them. As Jesus promised, he “proclaims freedom to captives.” -Luke 4:18
We – who are “lowly” whether we acknowledge it or not - have only to open our hearts to receive the joy of the Gospel. We can grow in the freedom that God so lovingly and faithfully offers to us.