After being away from the L.A. County jail for a couple of weeks this past summer, I returned to reconnect with inmates. Passing through the massive security gates and onto the floors, I requested to meet with a young man whom I regularly visited before my break. I had forgotten his booking number, so the deputy called Shannon out by name. He soon appeared with a big smile on his face. I had expected that he'd be glad to see me, but his huge smile said something more which he soon explained.
“I haven’t heard my name called for a long time,” he said, “it felt great!” Shannon’s response reminded me how important it is for every person to be recognized and known by name—especially those experiencing the dehumanizing effects of institutions like rest homes, hospitals, jails and prisons. Shannon and I had a good discussion followed by prayer that day, but what stood out for him was that someone remembered him and came to see him (see Matthew 25:36). I believe the Lord used that simple act to renew Shannon’s hope.
In so many ways, visiting the jail weekly has transformed my approach to ministry. For example, my professional training focused on careful scheduling and lesson planning, but these things are often frustrated in the jail. I’ve been ready to give up many times when my ministry agenda was derailed for one reason or another. But those times turn out to be fruitful when I set aside my agenda and recognize unplanned opportunities in the moment. I am aware, moreover, of a subtle mindset that drives me to work and busyness. On more than a few occasions, the Lord graciously cancelled my class so I could learn through a conversation with another chaplain.
In the city, we are often reminded that ministry can happen in the moments when we are waiting for something else to take place!