Transfiguration in a Prison Cell

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Reparations Task Force Did You Know?” Story from The Rev. Don Hamer

Scriptures: Exodus 34:29-35  and Luke 9:28-36

I love a good mountaintop experience, and in the Scripture passages appointed for last Sunday, we heard about two of them. Mountaintop experiences are moments when everything changes. You gain a sudden insight into something that up until then, was hidden. You see things for what they really are. And you’re never quite the same again.  

But “mountaintop experiences” don’t only happen on mountaintops. I had such an experience during the summer of 1973, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I was a 23-year old college graduate who, until my senior year, had been planning on becoming a Roman Catholic priest, but I abandoned that. After a year working at a national news magazine, I was accepted to begin Georgetown law school in Washington, D.C. in September. In order to save up money, I came home to Connecticut for work. Through a friend of a friend who had a high-ranking job in the Department of Corrections, I was able to land the unlikely job of being a summer correctional officer at the old Seyms Street jail in Hartford. At the time, I realized I was lucky to land this job, and how privileged I was to have this friend of a friend get me an interview that, with zero experience, I most assuredly didn’t deserve.

Now you might be wondering how this 23-year-old suburban White boy who until then had been preparing to be a Roman Catholic priest did as a correctional officer? What struck me immediately was a disparity: All but one of my colleagues was white, while the vast majority of the incarcerated residents were Black or Latino.

The first evening got off to a rocky start: At supper time, another officer asked to borrow my keys and I inadvertently locked myself up on the third floor cellblock. Everybody else was downstairs, laughing like crazy, and there I was, alone and locked up on the third tier. “Hey, somebody go up and let that officer out,” was the amused cry from down below.

Several weeks later, having settled into the routine of the job, another officer and I had recreation duty outside after supper. One resident came up to me complaining that a guy named Charlie had stolen his commissary card. Other residents confirmed that this had happened. When I approached Charlie and asked him to see the commissary card to confirm the owner, he refused. I reported it to my fellow officer, who said I had to “write him up” on a disciplinary report. Which I did. As it turned out, Charlie had in fact stolen the man’s commissary card.

What I DIDN’T know was that Charlie was considered to be one of the toughest and most combative residents in the jail. It took 8 men to forcibly bring him to the holding cell that was known as “deadlock.”

As I was doing the paperwork relating to Charlie, I reflected on the experience. Apparently having some pastoral gifts still at work within me, I reflected on how the incident might have gone differently and was moved to seek some sort of reconciliation with Charlie. Before I left for the night, I went down to the cell to see Charlie. I assured him that I was not there to taunt him, and told him that I was going to be off for a few days. I told him that I was sorry about the way things turned out that evening. I told him that I was going to do some praying & reflecting on how the events of the evening might have turned out differently. I asked him to do the same. It was pretty clear that Charlie was in no mood to deal with me, and I didn’t blame him.  

When I returned three days later, Charlie was out of deadlock and back in general population. At supper time, he approached me in the dining hall and said he appreciated my visit to him that night. He invited me up to his “house” and said he had something to show me. Now it occurred to me that this might be a trap, but, with my 23-year-old naivete and my Christian belief in the basic goodness of all people, I said, “Of course!” So after supper, he brought me up to his cell, and there he proudly showed me two walls literally covered with intricate, beautiful pencil drawings that, with more sophisticated materials, would have been considered of professional quality. He said, “I thought you would like to see what I can do.”

In that moment, Charlie was transfigured before me: No, he didn’t appear in glistening white robes with a radiant face like Jesus on the mountaintop or Moses when he comes down.  But just as Jesus was revealed on that mountaintop to the disciples for who he really was, Charlie was revealed to me in that moment, as the person he was in his essence. He wasn’t the angered, callous young man who challenged the world with bravado, but the talented young man who had a beautiful dream for his life to be an artist, one who had a beautiful vision of what the world could be. That dream, like the dreams of so many other young men whom I met that summer, never came true for a variety of reasons and massed situational layers, which collectively were so overwhelming as to snuff out his dreams at such an early age.

I don’t think that it is much of a stretch to say that in the confrontation and reconciliation that Charlie and I experienced, we were each transfigured in the eyes of the other, our relationship changed by seeing something in the other that had not been visible before. Were we going to be best friends forever? No. But we developed a respect and appreciation for the other that changed the both of us for the better. I truly believe that God was present in that moment of sharing.

When you think about them, the two mountaintop experiences we read about in Exodus 34:29-35 and Luke 9:28-36 actually worked on two levels. In the case of Moses, the encounter with God changed his own appearance before his people – his people saw and understood him in a new way. However, Moses’ experiences on the mountaintop also changed him — his understanding of God and of his relationship with God. Likewise, in the passage from Luke, the apostles are given the unique opportunity to see Jesus for who he is – the Son of God, in the angelic company of Moses and Elijah. In that appearance, they themselves were changed – they understood that this rabbi they were following was indeed connecting them to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in new and transformational ways. This understanding led them to a new understanding of themselves.

My friend and seminary colleague, Maryetta Anschutz, an Episcopal Priest and founder of The Episcopal School of Los Angeles, said that “We cannot escape God, Immanuel among us. God will find us in our homes and in our workplaces. God will find us when our hearts are broken and when we discover joy. God will find us when we run away from and when we are sitting in the middle of what seems like hell.“

As God has done since the Creation, God today is summoning us to a re-visioning of what God’s dominion is like in this present time. Who is God calling us to be in this time – as individuals, as public citizens, as the church? How does being a Christian make a difference in our day to day lives? How can the transformative relationship we have with God transform our relationships with one another? How can we see each other in that new light that only God can shine upon us? Even in the midst of distress, even in the midst of pain and suffering, even in the cold and lonely reaches of a prison cell – perhaps, even especially in those times and in those places – God is inviting us to open ourselves up to one another, in mutual vulnerability – to see in each other the light of Christ, the presence of God’s love.  

2 thoughts on “Transfiguration in a Prison Cell

  1. Reminds me of some great experiences I shared in worship and retreats at Somers with St Dismas Prayer Community.

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