, Newburyport, MA


December 19, 2013

Hot chocolate and two pieces of advice


“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!


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.

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