Ruminating on “do-overs”, losing myself in fantasies of going back and saying something different, going left instead of right, listening more with wisdom and compassion instead of responding out of fear, finding my voice and trusting others when I most desperately needed help, all just day dreams that do not change any outcomes or build any bridges. Introspection though seems to drive my current reactions, when I realize I am in the midst of a potential disaster and the choices are once again before me, I like to think I listen to the nudges to avoid adding to my mental list of life-changing blunders. What would I say instead, say that now. Rather than leave a moment of confusion to fester and grow into discontent, I check in, clear up, try again right in the moment. I move forward and into relationship, trying not to add more fodder for wishful-thinking fix-it sessions. Yes, I have regrets and baggage but I am not adding weight and worries to the load I already carry. But what happens if I am given the chance to re-visit, to close a circle, to display the person I am trying hard to be? I quite unexpectedly (really, would I have taken this opportunity if I had more time, if it had been planned out?) found out this week.
My church has delved into social justice ministry over the course of the last year, plus. Slowly, carefully, we have been exposed to authors and issues as they intersect with our faith and gently lead into a journey of restoration for our brothers and sisters within the criminal justice system and those who are living within addiction. A partnership with our local probation department provided the bridge into the community, into relationships that seek more for those who are marginalized, those outside of our predominately white, upper-middle class, highly educated congregation. I have been all in with this ministry, actively pursuing ways to have meaningful impact on the lives of those who visit the probation office and on those who wish to know more and be better. As the partnership solidified, I knew I had to tell me story, own up to my history with the folks behind the desks in the courthouse. I could no longer merely appear as a well meaning white lady, I couldn’t try to pass as someone with no insider information on the process and the experience.
Anxiously, fearing that all I had helped to build would denied me, that I would be judged and sentenced to life outside of the very ministry that was calling me forward, I took off the mask and bared my identity. The immediate reactions from the probation department contacts was overwhelming, they thanked me, they said I was brave, they saw no need to exclude me and thought my history even brought a richness. Then we moved on. I wasn’t prepared for the acceptance, I had all my evidence to convince them that I was still worthy and they needed none. So simple and yet life changing. I did not know I was being prepared for a larger revisiting, a closing of a circle.
Our ministry team dreamed up a crazy idea, we wanted to make a quick video interviewing the probation officers to show to our larger church. Something that could take months of planning was conceived, completed and delivered within a 2 weeks, most of the time spent coordinating schedules. Sitting in my pastor’s office as the vision for the project was forming before us, some voice that must belong to my braver self, volunteered to do the interview. Leaping out of my comfortable back seat where tasks can be completed and no one sees me, I agreed to be on camera… inside the probation department, without the support and buffer of my pastor. Another member offered up her teenaged daughter to do the filming, someone I had never met. We were going way out on the limb but still, my established relationship with the two probation officers surely would allow for safety.
The project unfolded quickly, dates were volleyed back and forth and then finally a phone call from our main contact, “We can do it because JH, a longtime probation officer has agreed to be interviewed tomorrow.” My brave voice said yes, I hit the red button to disconnect the call and then the magnitude of what I had just set up hit me. Questions flooded my mind, should I call back and say no? Should I contact the pastor and seek someone else to go? Should I say quiet with this man, keep my mask on? I had 24 hours to wrestle and worry and wring my hands. Ultimately I listened to the nudge that said move forward, that said you can do hard things, you can be who you are today with those who once knew you. You see, JH was MY probation officer almost 30 years ago.
I was given the chance for a do-over, an opportunity to say thank you to the man who could have been harsh and judgmental and terrible but chose to be kind and helpful and support my efforts to reintegrate after prison. As the greetings and chair arranging and camera adjusting came to an end and the real interview began, I asked him how long he had been with the department. After he shared his history, I shared mine. I told him I actually knew he had been there a long time, because he was my probation office. Did his attitude change, did he put me into a different category than church lady with a mission? He broke out in a huge smile, he said I looked familiar but my name didn’t ring a bell. Mask fully demolished, I told him my name when he knew me, he remembered me, pertinent details, and said he recognized the smile if not the hair. He allowed me to sit before him, the person I am today, offering respect and dignity to a woman so shamed by the past that years and years of life have been wasted. He honored my wholeness by not giving too much weight to the broken parts. He participated in my healing.
Daring to be authentic, striving to own our mistakes and each day seeking restoration is risky stuff. I will never be able to undo all the bad or unsay all the hurtful words, despite my day dreams and wishful thinking. Exhausting and scary as the journey may be, as contrary as it may seem to find the space in a probation office to be holy ground, the truth is that I was never alone or abandoned in that room, it was not a solitary wandering on the path to reconciling different parts of my life. God desires to restore me into right relationships and wants me to shed shame and self-incrimination and I know He wants that for you too. I pray we all can find moments to revisit who we were and offer a view of who we are and allow God to continue to bring our best selves forward into the world. I pray that when someone around trusts us with their true selves, we commit to showing compassion and offering a cold drink. Let us take off our masks and celebrate who we are today, who we are becoming. Let us abandon our day dreams and do the work before us, finding pieces of grace that heal and patches of light that warm us and lead us on.