The Visit

Feb 9, 2013

Jermaine was running late. He had forgotten his wallet and had to backtrack. I sat in the prison parking lot and weighed my options. It was cold out, and I was nervous. Sitting in my car looking at my phone would be a poor way to kill time. I watched as yet another young woman ducked from her car with a toddler on her shoulder, still asleep from the trip, hurrying into the building.

The Lord is my shepherd….

What am I so afraid of? Well, it was a state prison, imposing in size, with a tall cement wall running around it, topped with barbed wire. It was obviously old. Small details, like a cupola on the main building, are never seen in modern design. I had just driven for several miles through undisturbed country. Rolling fields and thick woods, like out of Walden’s Pond, lined the road. Then, coming around a curve…Norfolk MCI, the state’s largest prison. But that’s not what I’m most afraid of.

I was invited to meet with Dave Myland, one of the three men convicted in my son’s murder, serving a second-degree murder sentence; life with a chance of parole after twenty years. It’s been eleven years since Spence died, and ten years since I saw David last. After two days of paneling a jury, a plea bargain was negotiated. They had been charged with first-degree murder, and had just watched their friend get sent away for life, without parole. Second degree looked like the better choice.

I had faced these two men that now lived inside this prison 10 years ago as I read a quickly written Victim Impact Statement. I was surprised then to look up and see that they were both staring at me, and listening. I said I forgave them. I said God loved them. Then I cried as they were led away in cuffs.

Now, exactly eleven years from the day I buried my son, I had agreed to a request from David to meet him. Having Jermaine with me was part of the deal. As it turns out, that part worked out well. Jermaine and Dave had been talking on the phone and two weeks ago, I got a call from Jermaine. David had prayed with him over the phone. He wanted what we had, complete forgiveness, to know the grace of a loving Savior. He surrendered.

Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…

I got out of the car and walked towards the main entrance, following a woman in front of me, with two little girls skipping behind her, about my granddaughters’ ages. Once inside, I stood in a large crowded room, feeling conspicuous, the white middle aged lady with the deer-in-the-headlights look. A kind woman handed me a bright yellow form to fill out, with a pen. Windows lined the opposite wall where I could see prison officials shuffling papers behind thick plexi-glass and bars.

Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.

Jermaine finally arrived and we still had a lot of time to talk as we waited to hear our number called. I’m not sure why everything that has to do with the government needs to take so long, but here there was no exception. As a large steel door slid open, we were quickly pushed through and I took my cues from a little girl before me who had thrust out her bare arm to an expressionless female guard with a big rubber stamp.

The Lord is my shepherd, I have all that I need.

After being searched and moved through two more steel doors, I was surprised to be outside again, cold without my coat, then led into another building, sort of octagonal shaped. Once inside I found myself in a huge open room that reminded me of a waiting room in a train station, loud and echo-y, with vending machines everywhere and kids with lots of energy. I was expecting something different, like a small smoky room with rigid chairs and tense guards, maybe speaking through phones like in the movies.

I shall fear no evil, for You are close beside me.

I watched Jermaine as he scanned the room, realizing I didn’t really remember much about how David looked that one day years before. Jermaine smiled and I turned to see a young man in jeans and a gray sweat-shirt walking towards us, first greeting Jermaine then turning to me. Dave was bigger than I remembered, and perhaps looking a bit older than thirty but his eyes were gentle and it was easy to take his hand. Then I realized I wanted to give him a hug because it just seemed like the right thing to do. We stood there smiling and a little awkward while David looked for seats.

Driving up there, I couldn’t imagine what I’d say. There were things I didn’t want to talk about and I wondered what any of us had to say. But sitting there with these two young men, our conversation flowed naturally into a depth and openness that is rare in life, a sharing of hearts and hopes that was understood, an unspoken link between us. Not one of us would ever be the same after January 26th 2002. A prisoner, a pastor and a mother somehow connecting lives in a way that can only be orchestrated through the power of a loving God. Three sinners, equally precious to Jesus; forgiven, redeemed, restored. I don’t think God separates us on this level. The world does, the law does and that’s how it has to be here. But from a heavenly perspective, we are all desperate; prisoners and guards, judges and junkies. As the setting sun turned the chaotic din of the visiting room into a soft sepia hue, a guard shouted , “Visiting time is up! Say goodbye!”

Daddies kissed their little ones goodbye, girlfriends promised things in low voices and a few brave mothers, weary looking, hugged their sons and slowly moved towards the door. I was glad it was so simple and easy to love David, to want to embrace him and really pray for him. Jermaine and I walked out together to our cars, smiling, knowing that we were on holy ground, that God was again moving in unsearchable ways, glorious and mysterious.

I can’t explain any of this very well, because God can do things in a human heart that are absolutely impossible left to our own, and I understand His ways less now than ever. But as I drove the long way home that day, I knew I had again glimpsed a bit of heaven on earth, right in the middle of that prison. If you know Jesus this shouldn’t surprise you. And I felt both privileged and in awe.

 He restores my soul.

The gray February sky stretched out before me over the highway, the clouds dark and almost obscuring the setting sun, allowing just a few rays to reach the frozen ground. I wasn’t sure whether I would sing or cry. I decided to sing.

Surely goodness and unfailing love shall follow me all the days of my life.

*All scripture from Psalm 23, NLT.