It was raining as I dropped off my son at the prison last Thursday.
A few minutes later, as the downpour tapered off, my daughter and I climbed from the car and bolted to the prison’s front gate, where my son and a cheerful Louisiana State Police trooper waited to usher us inside to the raucous sound of an inmate band playing a gospel tune.
Inside, we found my wife, along with several dozen inmates, numerous State Police officials, members of the Louisiana Prison Chapel Foundation board and many others who are involved in various prison ministries.
The festive occasion was the groundbreaking ceremonies for an interfaith chapel that will soon rise from a lot adjacent to the State Police Barracks, north of Baton Rouge, where about 200 male Louisiana prison inmates are housed.
My wife, you see, is the executive director of the Chapel Foundation and had planned this event. [Read about Foundation’s work in this recent Baton Rouge Advocate story.]
I wanted to attend the event because this chapel, long desired by the inmates at the barracks, was also a dream of mine. Eight years ago, when I worked for Gov. Kathleen Blanco, I often talked with the inmates who worked as the domestic staff at the Louisiana Governor’s Mansion.
One inmate, in particular, knew that Cindy was involved with the chapel foundation. Hardly a week went by that he didn’t whisper in my ear, “Tell your wife, we sure would like a chapel where we could worship at the barracks.” (After Thursday’s ceremony, I asked about my friend and was so pleased to learn that he’s been out of prison for a couple of years and now has a good job.)
Standing there, chatting and laughing so effortlessly with these inmates, introducing them to my twins, the thought crossed my mind that in their brief 12 years, my children have been bathed in prisons and politics.
What some might consider to among the most corrupting influences have shaped their young lives.
Talk of politics pervades our house.
At two, my kids were hanging out in U.S. Sen. John Breaux’s Washington office, or eating with him at a Baton Rouge Piccadilly, bouncing on his knee. At age five, they were hunting for Easter eggs at the Governor’s Mansion or, in my son’s case, accompanying me to work and working silently on a coloring book at a table in the Governor’s Office while I met with the governor.
Conversely, when our family’s not talking about politics, we’re talking about prisons and prisoners.
The kids have been to prison several times and have attended several Angola Prison Rodeos. They know the names of our inmate friends by heart. A prison chaplain helped officiate at their baptism. Art by inmates at the Louisiana state prison at Angola adorns the walls of our home.
If fact, it occurred to me that my children had actually been to prison before they were born, as Cindy was the leader of a Kairos Prison Ministry weekend at the women’s prison at St. Gabriel when she was about six months pregnant. Perhaps the first sounds their prenatal ears heard were the lovely voices of inmates praising God in song.
My children’s familiarity with prison is such that the idea of going to this prison on Thursday provoked not so much fear or dread, but the prospect of boredom. Afterwards, on the ride home, however, when I asked them if they were happy they had come, they both offered an enthusiastic yes.
All of this has me thinking about how it is that our children are learning the lessons of life, more specifically about the need for forgiveness and our desire that they treat everyone with kindness and generosity.
Certainly, we teach them about right and wrong. We take them to church each Sunday. They attend Sunday school and church youth group. We do our best to model good behavior, as people and as citizens of our state and nation. Far more than me, Cindy prays for them and with them in a deep, loving and passionate way that is, to me, nothing short of miraculous.
But, I wonder how all these spoken lessons — at church and home — stack up against their tangible experiences. In other words, if they gravitate toward politics or government someday, will they look at it with a little more optimism because their early positive experiences and their familiarity with it?
I don’t think they believe politics is an inherently dirty business and I’m happy for that. I’m certainly happy that they seem to know more about government than most of their peers.
More than with politics and government, however, I pray that their experiences in prison will shape their lives in a profoundly positive way.
I hope they see in their parents — their mom, especially — a passion for helping others — even those in narrow, dark prison cells — to find hope and redemption.
I hope they see that life is a series of new beginnings, that there’s always hope.
And, more than anything, I hope they grow up with this belief in the very fiber of their beings — that every person, no matter his or her crimes or mistakes, is a child of God, a precious soul, who has something to contribute to society.
When it comes to politics, I hope they approach it with reverence and respect.
And when it comes to people, I hope they approach every human with the same respect and reverence that their heroic mother reserves for those in prison whom society rejects and despises.
Martin Luther King, of course, once said it much better than I ever could, and it’s the outlook on life I pray for my children.
King wrote: “I said to my children, ‘I’m going to work and do everything that I can do to see that you get a good education. I don’t ever want you to forget that there are millions of God’s children who will not and cannot get a good education, and I don’t want you feeling that you are better than they are. For you will never be what you ought to be until they are what they ought to be.’”