Loving past labels lifts lives higher

This past weekend I spoke to a group of 100 inmates. It was the largest audience I had yet experienced in a prison setting. Prior to the event, I was told that a large number of the inmates at this prison were sex offenders. For me it was important to see past that label to the inherent worth and dignity of these gentlemen. I knew that if I stood in front of that crowd thinking of them as men who had committed terrible and disgusting crimes, the talk I was giving would not be helpful, and we would all miss the opportunity for a transformative experience together.

I had a simple choice. I could see these men as heinous criminals, or I could see them as children of a loving Creator. I could see them as people who deserved nothing but punishment and pain or as beings who were valuable in God's eyes and worthy of grace despite their past mistakes. I know those mistakes are serious and cannot be excused, but many of them may have experienced abuse themselves, and I believe everyone deserves healing and opportunities to improve. And I know that when I've made mistakes, I've been immeasurably grateful for people seeing past what I've done and recognizing my inherent worth.

So I went into the prison expecting to see these guys as God sees them. I did this because I am striving to be a Christian, and I believe this is what Jesus taught his followers to do. Jesus spent much of his ministry interacting with people labeled as prostitutes, lepers, maniacs, whores, and thieves. What enabled him to bring healing to their lives was his view of them. In Science and Health, Mary Baker Eddy says that Jesus "threw upon mortals the truer reflection of God and lifted their lives higher than their poor thought-models would allow" (p. 259). 

Now, when I've spent time among male inmates, they have generally been very respectful. But now and then there has been a glance here and there that lasted a little too long or fell on certain body parts in a way that made me a little uncomfortable. I recall one time when I worked as a teacher in a prison in Boston, on a very hot day, when I was wearing sandals. As I walked through the yard, some inmates were playing basketball. I heard one of them call out as he looked in my direction, "She got some sexy feet." I sort of laughed and sort of felt gross. I also remember once after speaking at a prison how an inmate shook my hand on the way out and gave me a look that made me feel like I should take a shower. These were isolated moments, but they were unsettling.

In this audience of men labeled as sex offenders, however, I felt a level of civility beyond anything I had experienced in these settings. Two of the guys had been assigned to make sure I had everything I needed: water, a good microphone, a table, etc.  They conducted themselves as true gentlemen in the deepest sense. If not for their beige jumpsuits, you would have thought we were at a presidential inauguration or something. 

Christian Science teaches that our thought tangibly affects our experience. That's not to say that we are ever responsible for someone hurting us. But I have found that how we view others has a direct correlation to how we experience interactions with them. In some cases it can feel very difficult or almost impossible to see certain individuals as worthy and beloved creations of the Divine. But even just the slightest effort in that direction is a beautiful and powerful step to take. 

May we all strive to see people in ways that "lift their lives higher".