It was a gorgeous summer afternoon in Nashville. I was perched on a stool in the midst of the empty chairs in my church’s sanctuary; one video camera angled at me, a couple of lights strategically hung, and a microphone clipped onto the collar of my shirt. We were in the final stages of filming a promotional video for a prison outreach I am a part of, called Timothy’s Gift. The director was prompting me for an “Ask” segment, and asked me a very appropriate question, “Ok, last thing. Melissa, tell us why should the viewer, the partner, or person that might donate and support Timothy’s Gift choose to do this? What is in it for them?”
I paused and thought about that question. My mind raced in searching for the right answer – what’s in it for them? I know the man that asked this question; he is a great man, and this is a question we must give an answer to. But I also thought this is a question we find ourselves asking all too often. We tend to qualify our gifts, our service, our efforts with that familiar thought, “what do I get out of this?” So before I looked back into the camera, I thought about my journey to visit the people behind those bars.
My thoughts went to my husband and his work for a humanitarian world relief organization. He works day in and day out to fund raise for communities, families, men, women and children in countries all over the world. They are in desperate need of food, water, clothing, education, and medical attention. He could show you a picture of a defenseless child and most of you, by the picture alone, would choose to respond. At countless artist concerts, they make a strong appeal, hand out packets with pictures and information of how you can sponsor this child and make a difference in their world, and you do it because you can’t help it. You know or realize in that moment it is our place as humans, even more so as believers, to not let the children, the helpless and the innocent suffer.
I am trying to raise money and support to continue to fund Timothy’s Gift because it is changing the culture of the prisons. But this outreach is for inmates, not for the innocent but for the convicted. These men and women have committed serious crimes that put them in maximum security prisons. These are people that are considered the lowest of the low in our society. This outreach is changing the culture of somebody’s world, but let’s be honest… that world is a prison.
It’s not an option for Timothy’s Gift to make inmate packets for tables. We can’t display their pictures and have folders, color-coded by offense, so that you get a glimpse into their world. Because for most of us, that just wouldn’t work.
But here’s the thing.
These men and women, these inmates, are humans too.
They are humans who have made mistakes. Life – altering mistakes.
But they are not defined by one mistake anymore than you and I are defined by any one of ours. They have a soul. They are a daughter or a son, a father or a mother. They were once a friend, a wife, or a husband. They are being punished for their crimes by being behind those bars for years, or even for life.
But I don’t believe they need to be treated any differently than I would treat you. I don’t believe they deserve less than what I can give. Because I’ve seen the beds, the clothes, the dorms, and the mess hall. I’ve tasted the food, worshiped in the chapel, and walked by the fields where they work or endlessly pace. Their world is already intensely less than ours, and that is understandably part of their consequence.
Traditionally inmates don’t get the best of anything. But my friends Ron Miller and John Starnes had a dream. They dreamed of taking in gifted teachers, singers, speakers, musicians, artists to serve both the inmates and the staff. They dreamed of being and bringing light into very dark places. They didn’t ask themselves, “what’s in it for me?”, and they have found others who are willing to do the same.
I felt going in that I was going to be the hands and feet of Jesus to these people. But I quickly realized that I, was serving the hands and feet of Jesus. Jesus looked broken, bruised, scarred. Jesus was tattooed and worn down. I was given a unique opportunity, to finally get it.
I realized I do get something in return. Every time I served an inmate communion, looked deep into their eyes and said, “YOU are loved“, something happened in me. I had an overwhelming sense of what love really is. I got what it means to be a human on this earth. I finally understood that call on all of our lives to love. To love God, love ourselves and love others. That in giving love, we receive love. It’s a circle of the unity and interconnection of this life that is always present, but that we are rarely aware of. I was repaid with the very fulfillment of love itself.
Real Love doesn’t have any qualifiers attached. Real Love doesn’t discriminate. Real Love gives, simply because it’s what it does.
So, to the original question for the video…to support or be a part of something like Timothy’s Gift, there are not a lot of tangible things in it for you.
But there is a wealth of life giving things in it for them.
I don’t do this for me. But in the midst of my doing, my soul has been fed with a clarity of love.
…”Whenever you did it for any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did it for me.” Matthew 25:14-40 CEV…
I looked back up into the camera, and after thanking the viewer and asking for their support, I gave the needed answer and the final qualifier,
“Because this is what Love does.”
photos courtesy of Jeff James.
www.timothysgift.com (the video spoken of in this blog post will be up within a week on the website and other social media outlets)