I sat in the back seat of the van, paralyzed with nerves, as we pulled up to the security checkpoint at the Jackson Maximum Security Prison in the winter of 1989, my freshman year of college
A bunch of suburban kids from the Free Methodist school outside of town, we were there to put on a church service for the inmates. I was in the praise band. After set up, they came in, shuffled down the rows of folding chairs and took their seats. I had no idea what to expect.
These guys were said to be hard cases, society’s most dangerous criminals. Little did I know that we were in front of what would prove to be one of the most generous, enthusiastic, participatory and grateful audiences we would play for that year. It was delightfully confounding.
The person that is left over
Having spent most of the 25 years since then working at food banks, homeless shelters and pantries serving the poor, I’ve been confounded in similar ways more times than I can count. When your mission is to assist people at the end of their ropes, on the other side of their addictions or failures (or even their crimes), you deal with the person that is left over. You don’t generally see what they did. But you see the impact it had on them, their families and the trail of brokenness on all sides.
People who work in the human service field aren’t blind to the mistakes and hurt people cause. And they aren’t above their share of judgment or condemnation at times. I’ve wrestled with it. But somehow, in the company of the people you’re trying to serve, a truth emerges that is undeniable. There is light and darkness in everyone. To nurture the light is not to deny the darkness; it is to acknowledge its presence in all of us.
Look upon the light
We live in a world where you’re either for us or against us; where you crossed us once and you’re garbage for life; where you failed marvelously in life’s lowest moment and got cast aside by the masses. Spend one night on Facebook and you will see it over and over again, people casting others aside as wholly unfit for existence, much less redemption.
In service to others, we look upon the light that remains and we are reminded that redemption is possible, for them and for us. We’re forced to recognize that we all live in the darkness and in the light, and to discard the dark is to extinguish what’s left of the light. This reality can’t stare you in the face in one area of your life and fade into vapor the next time you get into a political conversation with someone you don’t agree with. We could all use a little more of that kind of understanding these days.
Get out and serve someone. You’ll help heal the world and yourself at the same time.
Under Daniel Flowers’ leadership, the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank received Feeding America’s 2012 Food Bank of the Year award, the highest recognition achievable by food banks.