by Doug Fencl
Special to The Leaven
The inmate walked into the office limping and hunched with an unhealthy pallor and a puffiness common to those living on a diet of fatty prison food augmented by sugary snacks purchased at the prison commissary.
He was a man in his late 60s, obviously in poor health, on borrowed time, in and out of prison his entire life, nearly 50 years in total. He had trouble looking me in the eye and spent most of the interview looking at his shoes or his wringing hands on his lap.
It was a pitiful sight — the manifestation of years of wrong choices, alcohol abuse, self-centeredness, and one crime after another — the personification of failure. He was scheduled for release within the next two years, and had no education, skills or contacts on the outside. He hadn’t had a visitor in years, and his only relative was a daughter who he hadn’t spoken to in 20 years. His entire life had been a series of broken commitments and reckless behavior. He now faced the end, alone.
The reason for our conversation was that he had enrolled in a difficult 18-month program, in which I assisted, that prepares inmates for re-entry into society after release from prison. He told me that he had decided to drop out, a decision that wasn’t a surprise to me — a consistent behavioral pattern of his entire life.
I asked for the reason for the change of mind, and he said that when he signed up, he didn’t realize that several speeches were required in the program, and he was terrified of speaking before a group. I noticed he was even visibly shaken by just the thought of it!
It was during this brief conversation that he began to tearfully tell me about his life, making no excuses and taking full responsibility for all the destructive behavior which had negatively affected himself, friends, family and victims throughout the years. He wanted to take the re-entry program to prove to himself that he could complete at least one positive thing in his life. But his terror of speaking in front of groups robbed him, in his view, of this one last possibility for his redemption.
It was the heartfelt confession of a broken man in the throes of regret and remorse. His last words before leaving were, “I don’t want to go out like this.” He then stood, apologized for taking so much of my time and shuffled out. Once gone, I never gave him a second thought.
By chance, a couple weeks later, I walked past a small prison classroom. I recognized the instructor, a volunteer who taught speech classes, and there was this same inmate, one of his five students. My instantaneous reaction took me totally by surprise. I can explain it only by saying I was flooded with an inexplicable joy that I have only ever rarely experienced.
I couldn’t move as I watched him taking notes, attentive, his eyes fixed on the instructor, completely oblivious to his stupefied observer. I saw him after class. He smiled, looked me in the eye and said, “I have never done anything like this before, but I am determined to get into the re-entry program, so the first thing I have to do is this speech class. I’m going to do this.”
That was the last time I ever saw him, for in just a couple weeks, I learned he was found dead in his cell from an apparent heart attack. He was just beginning the program he was so determined to finish. I asked if anyone had claimed his body and was informed that they were still trying to locate his daughter. But if they couldn’t find her, he would be buried in the graveyard for those who were unclaimed — a sad ending to a sad story. But was it?
In retrospect, I see it as a story about the hope engendered by Lent. For if Lent is a time of “repentance,” which requires “true brokenness” and “acknowledgment of sin” with “commitment” to change, then this man engaged that process just a few short weeks before he died. He might not have finished, but he began it, which I am sure a loving God will honor.
I like to think that the overwhelming joy I felt when I watched him in the speech class was the same joy shared by God who rejoices for every repentant sinner. He could have given up — most would have — for I’m sure he knew his health would prevent him from finishing what he had started.
Yet, he bravely engaged the process of repentance and followed through on his commitment.
He was a man, at first, to whom I never gave a second thought. . . . Yet now, several years later, he is a man I think about frequently with great admiration. I think, especially, on what he said to me during our first meeting:
“I don’t want to go out like this.”
And by God’s forgiving grace, he didn’t.
Doug Fencl worked in the field of law enforcement for more than 30 years, after which he worked for almost 10 years as a mentor/counselor in prison ministry at the U.S. Penitentiary, Leavenworth. Fencl is a parishioner of Church of the Ascension in Overland Park.