Monday, September 25, 2017

Making it Home

Not long ago, I sat on my back patio eating sloppy joes and watermelon with Cory, our kids, and four adult friends. Two are currently incarcerated at the county work release center in our neighborhood. One has been "on the outs" for almost three years. And one had just been released from prison a few days earlier. It was the first time I'd met him, and he was the one who worried me most.

We drew in under whatever shade our one janky umbrella offered, chewing the fat while we chewed on seconds. All the while, the newbie, kept awkwardly thanking me. I'll call him Joe. To my untrained eye, his demeanor would have seemed almost suspicious or over-the-top. But what I know now is that he's just terrified of his freedom. He's scared to death that he doesn't deserve to be out, doesn't deserve the company of people eager to love him, doesn't deserve a plateful of homemade sloppy joes and damn well doesn't deserve seconds.

For years, he has been told he is worthless. Scum.
He's been told enough that it slipped beneath his skin, his pores inked with shame and stamped with a DOC number. You are less than human. You don't get to have a name. 

After I repeated myself for the third time, "Joe, we're so happy you're here. It's our pleasure. I love cooking for you guys and I'm so glad you joined us." He went in for another plate.

The minute he stepped away, I asked the others if he was okay.

"Prison's no joke," Bobby replied. Jason nodded along, adding, "Prison sucks, but the scariest time of anyone's life is getting out of prison."

In the weeks that followed, we tracked closely with Joe as he navigated life without options and tried not to lose himself in despair. I passed him almost every morning as I walked the kids to school, those early weeks when the air turned unseasonably cool. He gave daily updates on his living situation, his desperate search for things like a bed and food, and his quest for employment.

We loaded him up with frozen pizzas and granola bars. We bought him minutes for his cell phone because probation requires an active number where you can be reached at any time. One morning he told me he could start at a factory the next morning, but he needed steel-toed boots. He stood smiling in the morning light wearing a coat that hung loosely around his torso in nylon shreds. I added "coat" to the list.

He couldn't find a decent place to live without a job.
Finding a job was hard without transportation.

He settled, for a while, on renting a sketchy apartment from our local slumlord for $800 per month. One bedroom. Squalid. Questionable heat and utilities. Of course, he didn't have money to pay for this place, so he entered the realm of modern-day indentured servitude, working a sub-minimum wage "job" for the slumlord in exchange for a place to live. Finding cash for food would have to wait. We have seen this hundreds of times.

It didn't take long for us to realize the crisis situation men and women who have served their time face upon their re-entry to society.

They often emerge with their self-worth only ankle-high. They're overwhelmed with responsibilities yet typically don't have the resources to set about achieving them. After living in a precarious yet tightly-woven community setting, they're suddenly aware of just how alone they are.

Maybe they're also fending off addiction. Maybe they're trying to break free of past relationships and realizing how impossible that will be, since probation keeps them tied to the community of their offense, not readily allowing the fresh start of a new city. They ache to rebuild trust with family and children but as they look out at the light of the world, what bounces back at them is the prevailing sense that we're all waiting for them to prove their unworthiness. You aren't better. You didn't learn.

Jesus tells us that caring for those in prison is caring for him (Matthew 25:36), and I'm here to tell you, the shackles endure far beyond the cinder-block and razor wire. It takes time to truly break free. It takes close companionship, an enduring commitment to walk together for as long as it takes.

Three years ago, Cory and I began to wake up to the immediate need for clean, affordable housing. It was something we hadn't considered until we journeyed into this phase of our life. (I wrote about it here.) Like most everything we've learned and continue to learn, it shifts the landscape of our hearts. It cannot be un-learned. It changes everything.

A few months ago, after returning to this conversation again and again in search of solutions, the Jail Ministry of Elkhart County bought a little fixer-upper in our neighborhood.

Cory has spent almost every spare moment down the street, scraping and painting, returning home many nights drenched in sweat from this early-Fall heatwave after our kids have long been asleep.

In just one week, a family of three will move in and call this place home. They are some of our favorite people, in our home and around our table often. Soon, we will be actual neighbors again. I can't describe for you how elated they are. The house is humble, but to them, it's a palace.

They'll live there for the next couple of years as they heal from the trauma and set-back of incarceration. They'll continue working hard at their jobs. They'll continue to sit with us at church. They'll continue to join us often for lunch.

But now, sometimes, we'll join them at their table.

My friend Bri McKoy writes in Come and Eat, “The table breaks down the walls of social class and backgrounds and race. We are all one at the table, human beings receiving the necessary act of eating a meal. We are all citizens with one another. No other act of coming together so powerfully proclaims this.”

I have tasted the truth of her words.

I asked Bri if she would be willing to help put together a list of items a well-stocked kitchen should have and she jumped at the chance. We had so much fun brainstorming. This will be a surprise to the family. In the past, they, and so many like them, have slowly chipped away at finding what they need, searching thrift stores each weekend for some forks, then a skillet, then a toaster.

This time, they will enter a kitchen that begs to be cooked in. As I told Bri, though the list is quite basic, to them it will feel positively lavish. After years of "staying" here or there, now they'll get to live in a home.

If you would like to purchase something for the kitchen, you can do so by clicking on this Amazon affiliate link. The item will be shipped directly to us (be sure to click "Cory Martin's registry address") and all kitchen items will stay with the house. (Meaning, once this family moves on, the kitchen will remained stocked for the next family.)

Right now, Cory is one block away, sweaty and paint-splattered, doing everything he can to have the house ready. Tomorrow, he'll drive from place to place picking up donated furniture. There's so much that has already been done and plenty to do, but we are so excited.

Thank you for partnering with us in giving the gift of home. Please continue to pray for our friend Joe, for the family getting ready to move into the Jail Ministry House, and for so many others who are trying to find their way. Look for them. Pay attention to their needs. Do whatever you can to show them you are a trusted ally, fiercely with them as they saw through the chains.

Jail Ministry House Kitchen Wish List
(Update! In less than one hour after posting this blog, the list has been entirely fulfilled. YOU GUYS ARE AMAZING! I can't even begin to thank you enough. We are going to regroup later today and add some more to the list. Feel free to check back this evening!)

Thanks also to those who have donated their time and services, including:
Moyer Electric
Miller Brother Builders
Baldwin Paint and Decorating
Goshen Floor Mart

Come and Eat by Bri McKoy

** If you have trouble with shipping info once you're in Amazon (some have had trouble, others not) feel free to email me at shannandmartin @ and I'll give you the shipping address directly!

(*Because I'm using an affiliate link, I receive a very small commission from Amazon, which will go toward our Sunday Lunch fund.)