Johnny Cash played concerts in prison. When asked the reason, he replied, “Because I’m a Christian.”

“When I was in prison, you visited me.”

A metal door slams. I turn my back to the guard and stretch out my arms. After the pat-down, I surrender my ID at the sally port, cross the exercise yard and head to the mess hall.
A line of inmates files pass. Tattoos swirl down their arms: crosses, moons, stars, hearts and breasts. I catch a glimpse of other, more ominous designs: gang insignia that slither across shaved scalps and coil like snakes around their necks, poised to strike with venom and violence.

“By his stripes you were healed.”

Inside the mess hall, I grab a tray and take a seat. I offer a blessing for the wretched food, yet my thoughts stay fixed on tattoos. I think of last Sunday’s gospel reading but imagine St. Thomas examining ink on the skin of an inmate as opposed to scars on the hands of Christ:

“Three years in solitary,” mumbles the prisoner.

The image of a skull grins beneath the hair on his chest.

“Stabbed once. Raped three times.”

I take a deep breath and step into the scene. I kneel next to Thomas. It is not doubt that afflicts me, but the shame of having run from the Cross like a coward.

Memories of other sins well up from my soul. They appear in ink on my wrists, my arms. Public indictments of private shame.

“It was our sins that he carried, our wounds that he bore.”

Unlike Mr. Cash, I do not visit prisons because I am a Christian. Rather, I minister in cellblocks because I sin.

06 / 05 / 2024
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