On the outskirts of town, at the end of the Gaborone neighborhood known as The Village, past a large sign reading ‘YOU ARE ENTERING A SECURITY CONTROLLED AREA – PHOTOGRAPHY IS PROHIBITED’, a sandbag gun nest with a semi-automatic rifle armed guard, and a security gate, a red-brick building sits lowly outside of the looming white walls of First Offenders Prison. The building is not as fortified as the nearby prison itself, though the prison guards and officers striding up and down the halls between their offices lend an air of security.
In a crowded room within, the windows crisscrossed with the simple burglar bars found in every house across the city, a group of twenty prison inmates, a number of them former inhabitants of death row*, recently gathered. They focused on the teaching coming from the front, as part of a reconciliation program beginning the process of seeking healing for the victims of their crimes, as far reaching as those might be.
Had they not been watched by their current keepers they still had no intention of going anywhere. Some stared intently at the desk in front of them, or vacantly, if introspectively, above the heads of the others. The rest focused on the speaker at the front, absorbing his words.
“Your healing has started,” Pastor Dintsi reminded the group, “because crime harms the offender as well.”
He spoke of a well-known occurrence among inmates anticipating their release:
With decades of imprisonment before him, Thabo clings tightly to the hope provided by his scheduled release date. Though the system has trouble sticking to schedules and such dates are generally a rough guideline whose target may be missed by weeks or even months, it still provides a much needed point of focus and direction amidst the weariness of an imposed existence. After time, Thabo will regularly comment with relief that he is left with a mere five years on his sentence. And at the one year mark, it’s like the night before Christmas for Thabo.
Within the ballpark of the scheduled Christmas morning, Thabo’s every moment is lived with the anticipation of his impending liberation. No longer fully present in the prison, he is already occupying mental space beyond the towering brick walls. Finally, an officer seeks out the expectant Thabo and gives the news he has been waiting for: tomorrow is your day.
But that’s when something interesting happens. The moment that has been imagined and strived for during the most difficult of circumstances for an unimaginable period has finally arrived. The jubilation of the one-year-remaining mark is incomparable to what Thabo is feeling right now. Because what he experiences now is a deep sense of dread, anxiety, and uncertainty.
The last time that Thabo lived in his community he was removed for having caused it destruction and pain. His memories of this place sustained him for years as he dwelt on his most wonderful, comforting, and joy-filled moments. He has been preparing to leave his place of misery and reclaim the best of what has been put on hold. But on the night before his release, the reality that invades Thabo’s thoughts is that the lasting memory of his community is of him at his worst. How will he now be received? Often, this last night becomes one of the darkest he will have spent in prison.
“Do you love yourself?” Pastor Dintsi asked the group.
Pastor Dintsi taught that the uncertainties of release back into society will always remain uncertainties. But, he said, as we seek forgiveness, healing, reconciliation, and love we need not find our self-worth in the uncertain perceptions of others. Rather, we may live in the certainty of our own inherent value, and love ourselves accordingly. A changed person, seeking to bring love and healing rather than pain and discord, who has served their prescribed time should be free, in body as well as mind.
One of the letters by the Hebrew writer John suggests to us how such freedom is possible. It states, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”**
Pastor Dintsi quoted from an even older writing to explain from where this fearless, perfect love comes: “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing. Blessed are those whose help is in the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God.”***
Relying on other people to help shape self-perception and self-love is putting trust in the wrong place. But looking to the one who knows us more intimately than we know ourselves, who understands where we have been and what we have done, we no longer have to fear. As the letter continues, “We love because he first loved us.”
As Thabo is released, equipped with the knowledge that he is fully loved, it is up to him to accept this love and be liberated to love himself as well. And this can allow him to come back into his community and, regardless of how he is perceived, express that same accepting, healing, and transforming love within the place that he harmed.
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We are eyewitnesses to God’s creative, redemptive majesty: thieves, rapists, and murderers are repentant and looking to bring healing and love, even as they are accepting the truth that they are loved. God is not waiting for perfection to express this. If we are open to him, God will show this to us right where we are, no matter where that is.
As one inmate stated from experience amid knowing nods, “Death row is where you can really find God.”
*In Botswana, where capital punishment is still in effect, death sentences are occasionally commuted into life sentences, or long-term sentences.
**1 John 4:18-19