John 13: A Story from the Prison Study

Over the summer I shared with you the story of my attempt to teach the Beatitudes in the prison bible class I help lead on Monday nights.

You'll recall from that post that the inmates struggled with living out Jesus' call to be "meek" and "poor in spirit." As they said to me that night, "Kindness in here is mistaken for weakness." And the weak get hurt in prison.

We left that class on an ambivalent note. I encouraged them to try to find moments when they could embrace their humanity, and the humanity of those around them. But many still seemed skeptical. The way of Jesus, we all concluded, is a difficult path to follow. Both inside and outside the prison walls.

Since that class I'd not revisited this subject. Until last Monday when I was in John 13 and discussing Jesus washing the disciples' feet.

After reading the story I returned to our prior conversation. I asked, "Can you serve people like Jesus did here in the prison?"

As before, there was general skepticism. The comment "kindness in prison is mistaken for weakness" was repeated. But I pushed a little harder this time and waited a little longer.

"How can you find moments to serve in this place?"

There was a long silence.

Then one man, Norberto (not his real name), raised his hand.

I was intrigued by what Norberto would say. He is a big, intimidating man. He could snap me like a twig. You can tell he commands a lot of respect from the other men.

I called on him and, given his intimidating presence, figured he'd stay with the "you can't do that kind of stuff in here" consensus.

He began, speaking softly.

"Well," he started with his heavy Hispanic accent, "I don't know if this is what you are looking for but I help my celly [i.e., cell mate]."

"How?" I ask.

"Well, my celly isn't too bright. Something is wrong with his head. He was in an accident so he's not too smart." Guys who know Norberto's cellmate nod in agreement and elaborate. Apparently he's borderline mentally retarded and needs a lot of help taking care of himself and navigating prison life.

Norberto continues. "Well, when my celly first got put in with me I noticed that he never took off his shoes. He always left them on. So one day I finally asked him, 'Why don't you ever take off your shoes?' He wouldn't tell me. Finally I got him to tell me. He was embarrassed. He didn't know how to take care of his feet. So his toenails were all overgrown, smelly and ugly looking. So I asked him to take off his shoes and socks. And his nails were awful. But he didn't know how to cut them.

So I sat him down and had him put his feet in water. Then I took his foot in my lap and cut his toenails for him. I don't know what people would have thought if they walked by, his foot in my lap. And I would never have thought I'd be doing something like that."

There was now a deep silence in the room. The image before us was so unexpected. Here was this huge, intimidating man taking the time, almost like a mother, to gently wash the feet and trim the nails of his mentally retarded cell mate.

Breaking the silence Norberto looked up at me and asked, "Is that an example of what you were talking about?"

"Yes," I said. "Yes, that is an example of what I was talking about."

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19 thoughts on “John 13: A Story from the Prison Study”

  1. Beautiful story. It's funny how people can be emulating Christ and not even know it. Makes you wonder about those who think only Christians have the "truth."

  2. "For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves..." (Romans 2:14)

  3. Dr Beck, do you by any chance hold your Bible study at the Robertson Unit? I understand if you won't or can't say, but I'm curious. My wife has a nephew there who's been going to a bible study.

  4. Makes me feel like I'm missing the boat, somehow. If a prisoner can do this w/o even understanding what it is, who am I to complain about helping others??? Thanks for reminder, friend!

  5. The kingdom is catching us unawares. I'm at a loss for words at how beautiful and deeply moving this is. It gives me hope.

  6. I was almost in tears too. It came upon me so quickly I was shocked. Not only very touching, but very convicting. I know all about true religion - about caring for widows and orphans (and prisoners) - but when I think about what I haven't done for so many of these overlooked people - that's when I really want to cry.

  7. I've been coming back to this post several times over the past few weeks, Richard. It's even more powerful to me tonight after our Maundy Thursday service. This is a story that bids us to bow before the King, offering tears of repentance and contrite hearts. Thank you very much for sharing this blessing with us.

  8. I've read this post repeatedly since I first read it. I've shared it with many people, especially on this day. In this story is the spirit of Christ made flesh in our day.

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