NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

December 19, 2013

Hot chocolate and two pieces of advice

As I See It
Bob Gallagher

---- — It was Christmas Eve at Macomb County Jail.

The entire jail was in a 24/7 lockdown due to a recent riot.

Lockdown can drive the strongest of men and women to insanity.

A sympathetic corrections officer, above and beyond the call of duty, was distributing hot chocolate and cake to each individual cell.

While the officer was performing this act of kindness, the 19-year-old inmate in Cell 301 was screaming a barrage of abusive expletives at the officer:

“Take that … cake … and … your wife and daughter and the sheriff’s wife and his daughter too.”

The diarrhea of the mouth with its bad language was endless.

The officer smiled good-naturedly and continued to distribute the goodies at each individual cell.

As the guard approached the loud-mouthed youth, the lad stopped screaming his chain of smut.

Would this officer penalize this lad for personal comments about wife and daughter?

The officer smiled warmly and said:

“You’re a cute lad. Anyone with your dimples deserves the best of desserts!”

There was no sarcasm in his voice, rather an affectionate tease that a dad might give his son.

“I’m going to give you not one kind of cake but two. Here’s a large slice of cherry cake and a healthy slice of chocolate cake.”

The teenager whispered: “Sweeeeet! Last time we had cake, some maggot stole mine. Know what I’m saying, man? Awesome! Thank you!”

“You’re welcome, son! And, you’re kind of awesome yourself.”

As the officer began to depart, the teen called him back and said:

“Guard, you know that as soon as you get a few feet away, I’m going to start screaming more names at you. It’s the name of the game for new guys. Don’t take it personal, man! OK?”

“I understand. You have to live with these guys and I don’t. By the way, my wife and my daughter forgive you too.”

He handed the youth a napkin:

“Wipe the frosting off your dimples before you start bad-mouthing me again, will you?”

The lad gleamed!

The outside gate to the tiers opened and closed as the officer exited.

“Take that … cake … and … your wife and daughter and the sheriff’s wife and his daughter too.”

The lad’s chorus lasted several more minutes and then subsided. The lad in 301 continued to stare at the outside gate where the officer had exited, a napkin in one hand and the grill of the bars in the other.

He was quietly sobbing!

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I later addressed the officer who had distributed not only hot chocolate and cake but also a Christmas Eve gift of fatherly tenderness.

“How do you do it? How do you successfully combine the firmness of a secure lockup with the quality of compassion in such a harsh environment?”

He shared two mouthfuls of advice:

“Inmates feel powerless! And so, they use sexual and excretory terms as power language to compensate for their impotency. I understand that and decided long ago not to take it personally.”

Then he added:

“I’m a God-fearing man. According to Sacred Scripture, the only person we know for sure who made it to heaven was a thief on death row who died — next to Jesus — after being told: ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’ So, who am I to judge?”

Pope Francis said the same thing recently: “Who am I to judge?” (I like this new pope; I like him a lot!)

Christian tradition has given the name of St. Dismas to the penitent thief who was never officially canonized by the universal church but is, nevertheless, venerated by the faithful on March 25. There is sometimes a wisdom and spirituality among folks in the pews that is absent at the administrative top.

The ways of God are not the ways of men and women!

For some of us, death row inmates tend to settle at the very bottom of the human pile.

For the Messiah King — Himself on death row — Dismas becomes the symbol of God’s continuing invitation to “last-minute conversions” and to the promise of front-row seats at the final world series.

The Episcopal, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic Bishops of New Hampshire are calling for a Preach-in on the Feast of Christ the King to support the repeal of New Hampshire’s Death Penalty law.

Personally, I used to argue capital punishment as deterrence to crime and as a means to “even the score.” I no longer see death sentences as statistically deterring crime; as for evening the score, I hope that God does not score us in the same way that we score others. The older I get, the more assured I am that my most creative bookkeeping can never put my balance sheet in the positive column. Salvation is pure gift!

Will you join the bishops in their religious response to the current bill filed by NH Republican Mark Warden (mark@markwarden.com) and NH Democrat Renny Cushing (renny.cushing@leg.state.nh.us) to repeal the death penalty?

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Bob lives in Salisbury and can be contacted at RevDrBob@aol.com