Cynthia Weems: Basic kindness in jail
A trip to the detention center, expected to be arduous, turned out to be pleasant. Are our churches this friendly and helpful?
I recently accompanied one of the homeless men at our church to the county detention center. He had been detained there for three nights for shoplifting a box of granola bars from the grocery store. They took his few possessions when he entered. Upon his release they told him to return during business hours to reclaim them. He needed help getting there and making his way through the process, assuming it would be difficult.
As we walked through the maze of a parking lot and lines of security I found myself glad that I had brought a purse full of work with me. I imagined how long this might take and how many floors of this large building we would have to travel before finally reclaiming Alan’s possessions. “How do I get myself into these things?” I wondered, before remembering my call to ministry!
After filing past security we asked the information desk where we should go. The man quickly, and kindly, pointed out the floor we would need first. We traveled upstairs and into a room where we took a number and began to wait. I hadn’t yet opened my book when we were called to the window, asked about the details of our need, given a piece of paper and told where to go (outside, around the corner, toward the back but not all the way and finally to a little window). We did all these things and found the magic window in the corner of the back of the building. After waiting a mere three or four minutes it was our turn and we were told with surprising courtesy what was being returned and the process for retrieving the rest. Each item was shown to Alan and he signed that his possessions were returned to him. In less than 45 minutes our dreaded trip to the county detention center was over.
I found myself reflecting on the few important ingredients that turned our anxiety into a truly successful morning of ministry.
Alan has had his share of lines to wait in with bureaucracies to navigate. He has struggled to get food stamps and disability. He is creative and inventive and a delight to work with, most of the time. I did want to help him get his stuff back. However, he and I both knew to expect the worst at the detention center.
As we left the window that day, possessions in hand, we discussed the experience. One thing that came back to us over and over again was how kind and helpful each person had been. Alan is accustomed to people treating him coarsely. He says, “I’m a homeless man and I look and smell like it!” He certainly expected, as I did, a chilly reception from persons who knew he was a homeless petty criminal. Ultimately, each person “behind the window” or the information booth was kind, helpful, and patient.
We also noticed that each of them smiled.
Since that experience I have been patrolling (for lack of a better word) my own behavior and that of our church staff and volunteers. How often do I smile when I greet people? Do I smile when I greet everyone or only certain people? Was that a scowl I caught on my face one morning last week when I was late for a deadline and our office manager needed my attention for something?
This week our Vacation Bible School began for children and youth in our community. I found myself so pleased to see so many smiles on the faces of our volunteers. Many were stressed with last minute details and unexpected problems, but they all presented care and joy when they greeted the children and their families, most of whom were in need of a smile.
In our churches and organizations, do we have systems in place to ensure we are receiving people and seeking to meet their needs with joy? Is good humor an expectation we set for ourselves and our leaders? How do we foster that joy through training, support and fellowship? For Alan and me, that joy proved to be the most fundamental ingredient of all to a “successful” day together.
Cynthia Weems is senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Miami, Florida.