He Knows My Name
It was dusty. It was hot. The absence of color was startling. Handing over our driver’s licenses and watching the double-gate with razor wire close was strange. Frightening? No. Just strange.
We walked down a concrete path through more gates, more security clearances and finally into a room for visitors. "Class of 2017" banners decorated walls and pillars, the gold streamers dancing in the wind created by an enormous fan in the corner. Clearly, something special was about to happen.
It was graduation day, the culmination of four and a half years of hard work; 58 textbooks, 16 exegetical papers, 16 ministry projects, countless Scriptures memorized and hundreds of study hours produced these six graduates. They marched in carrying a handmade cross before them – wearing cap and gown with a red stole. The only evidence of their identity as inmates was from a small portion of their prison blues with the word "prisoner" running down the leg past the hem of their robe. Even if for only a brief time, they were not branded by their past.
In the course of the ceremony a video was shown. It was Dr. Don Davis (Executive Director and Founder of The Urban Ministry Institute) with a greeting to the men and congratulations on their accomplishment, as well as a charge to go forward. When the video began, we watched the men as they listened intently to this teacher, this mentor, this role model on the screen before them. He identified the first graduating class of CIM (California Institution for Men) and they were surprised; this wasn’t just a generic video.
Looking right into the camera Dr. Davis continued, “Congratulations, Hector, on this momentous day. Congratulations, Luis, on your accomplishment. Congratulations, Stanley...”
At the first name the men looked stunned. As each name was called, they broke into broad grins and tears. “He knows my name.” They nudged each other, “He knows my name.” The implication was earth-shattering. In a bleak, forgotten place, they were called by name. And it painted the bigger picture, God the Father knows my name. A truth that these men had learned and taken to heart. Despite the past. Or maybe because of it.
One inmate stood to share his testimony, “I am in prison, but for the first time I am free.”
We stood around afterwards and shared cake made by the prison kitchen. We listened to their stories and were encouraged in heart. And then we prepared to leave and watched as the men took off cap and gown and were once again simply prisoners. We watched them escorted back to their units as we made our way through checkpoints and gates. But we left changed, carrying the picture of those men hearing their names and whispering, “He knows mine too.”