Walking into the courthouse brings a mighty rush of emotions. Over two decades since I was there to listen to testimony, awaiting my sentence, later to meet with probation officers, I have since watched my own child experience this process. Even the celebration of a wedding on the premises cannot ease the tension that begins as I park the car and cross the street, as I climb the steps and pass courtrooms. This beautiful building, erected in 1882, is filled with historical significance but it also carries my history. Whispers and murmurs seek space in my mind as I notice fellow criminal justice system travelers walk the halls, seek appointments, check in and appear checked out. Like me, they don’t notice the ornate hinges on every solid oak door as shame casts our gazes downward, away. I say silent prayers that they find success and distance from this building, that someday they come back as a visitor offered a tour and a friendly greeting, that their history is so forgotten by the inhabitants that only the ghosts in their minds can recall the mistakes and missteps that brought them there originally.
Reading The New Jim Crow, watching the documentary 13th, and discussions with our children’s ministry director “S” who spends her minimal spare time teaching our congregation about the intersection of social justice and Jesus all resulted in my return to the courthouse. On this day “S” and I were meeting with the deputy and chief deputy of probation in our county to seek any areas of partnership, to scope out nuggets of interest they might have in working with an outside group. I cannot speak for my partner but I came in with prejudices and misgivings, wearing a full armor of defensiveness ready to protect the rights and dignity of the clients that also walked through those doors. While on probation, I never was treated poorly, I didn’t suffer injustice, I also am an outlier. A white middle-class highly educated woman, I knew how to navigate the system, my distrust of it was minimal when I entered into the rolls. Since, though, mass incarceration has swelled the numbers in jails and probation offices, people of color are targeted in a system designed to revolve rather than resolve, poverty is exacerbated by fees that increase with the inability to pay. Thus, I crossed the street, walked up the steps, entered through the heavy wooden doors prepared for battle. Little did I know I was fighting my own demons.
Expecting a closed system, one that fails to recognize the struggles of those they serve, I was unprepared when they welcomed our involvement and began to list the needs of their clients. Transportation, mentoring, job search assistance, job placement for those who with more difficult histories, and almost hesitantly, they mentioned a program other counties are trying, one they don’t have the funds for but dream of enacting. Rewards. They wish they could reward those who pass several consecutive drug screens, maybe with a $5 gift card. We know fully the benefits of a reward system, rather than relying solely on punishment, we needed no convincing. When asked how many each month they might want, their ask was really the shocker. As if the dream of having something this precious in their hands felt out of reach, was almost too painful to dare hope for, they tentatively replied maybe 5 a month. Three hundred dollars a year would impact lives and fund this program, putting rewards in the hands of those who mostly only have sanctions. The electricity between my partner and I was almost visible. We could feel partnership taking place, a home for those in our congregation who desire to affect change within the system, a means of accessing those on the front lines. We met with open doors and tangible needs.
As our conversation progressed, it became clear that we were engaging with officers of the court who practiced closer to a social work perspective. On the front lines, they recognized the people the met each day as humans with stories and addictions and children. They shared of their own boundaries and hitting the wall, the need for long walks and foul words to shake off the brutality they experience non-stop. The growing opioid epidemic is not only impacting the jail census and then their own client list, but the safety of the officers as they do home checks. The deputy chief officer offered that their bullet-proof vests are out of date, who knew they expired, but the officers are finding more and more that they need to wear them as they check on clients. Further they are expressing the desire for a narcan program, not just for clients who they discover might be in the midst of an overdose, but for themselves as they come into incidental contact with substances in the homes they visit. Yet, when pushed for dollar amounts, for a number on this need, they backed up, talked more about bus passes and gift cards, they wanted their clients covered first. Listening to this, right here, this is when my judgement and armor fully fell away and my respect rose up. These too are humans, doing a job that receives little thanks and requires much of their soul and more and more, puts them at risk.
Ultimately, we found a place that feels open and accepting, ready for our little group at church to bring our desire to become involved and active. This joining can go somewhere, I can feel it in my soul. Personally though, I found a circle closing, healing up more of my scars with balm from facing ghosts and knowing the echoes that I hear are just more footsteps on the marble stairway, another busy lawyer or secretary or citizen, not someone seeking to take my picture or stalk me as I watch one phase of my life end. Our meeting completed, the Chief offered us the “3 cent tour” which lasted about 30 minutes. He took us to each floor of the courthouse, showed us rooms and stairways and hinges all while sharing the history of the structure, love and respect evident with each word. His work is ugly everyday, he reads the local paper to see which of his clients has died from an overdose. He walks around the building and admires the craftsmanship of ironworkers a century ago. He tells of the restoration and likens the investment to preservation of European landmarks. He showed us where many years ago a truck crashed through the building, the driver attempted to detonate a bomb, damage that thankfully didn’t happen. His soul is nurtured through the architecture, it restores what is good in him. He looks at the 500 lb doors and sees that somethings are built to last, some things go on longer than we do, that beauty can be found anywhere, if only we look.
I didn’t want to tour that building, a structure that felt haunted by too many painful memories. With each step though, echoes of the past were replaced with beauty, tiny areas of craftsmanship and attention to detail. Whispers that I too am more, this building is more, we all are more replaced the shame and humiliation I have long felt as I considered walking into the courthouse. I went there to find a way to help out those currently in the system, what I found was an awakening to my own beauty, my own preservation, the lasting goodness of something bigger created within me that survives my owning life bombing and crashing. Further I came face to face with the enemy and found only people, who held no desire to hurt me. The building has been restored after that attack so long ago, the scars barely visible, changes made now to entryways and some restrictions added, still, the structure stands and the day to day work continues. Jesus was walking with me, showing me that I have survived, I have been made new, I am still standing as well.
As we walked, the Chief pointed out above each entryway that the ceiling had been carved out baring the ironwork of the steps as they rose atop the next floor. Rows of circles, each bringing light from the heavens onto the shoulders of all who entered this structure, at every entryway. My friend and I locked eyes and knew that we were in a sacred space, that God was bringing His Light into all that happened within these walls, that our efforts and hopes were being sanctified. I could have dropped to my knees right there, such was the power of knowing peace and love where I expected fear and agrimony. When one walks into the building in handcuffs and leg shackles, or still free of those restrictions but sure they are coming, when one has suffered those indignities and is trying to piece together a life again, eyes fall to the marble floor, never noticing that God is shining down on every one of us anyway. I discovered anew through my tour that God always was with me, touched on me as I entered every single time. More than that, God’s light shone on the lawyers and judges and clearly on the probation officers as well.
My unique perspective of having walked those halls and climbed those steps as an insider will surely bring passion to my plea for resources, the point of the visit. I pray anew that our church will rise up to bring more of the Light into this system, that others can find healing in the courthouse, a building not haunted but full of God, if one takes the opportunity to seek Him out. “S” reminded me of this Heraclitus quote : “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” A man who seeks out intricate hinges and hidden windows and rushes to show them to visitors, who craves beauty while facing brutal realities exorcised my ghosts, drowned out the whispers and forced my eyes heavenward. More than that, though, I found an unexpected connection with my Maker. Two decades later, God surely is celebrating with me that I realized He never let me walk in there alone. I am different, the building is different. We are ready to begin a partnership anew.