Dinner of Sinners

January 10, 2011 | 31 comments

The prisoners hunch over plastic dining trays. They’re waiting for me to take the first bite. Even now, looking back, I don’t know if they were practicing good etiquette, during this rare opportunity to dine with a woman. Or maybe they were waiting because they wanted to see if I’d actually eat what was on my tray. I’m still not sure.

I use a plastic “spork” to slice through spongy, lukewarm meat I can’t identify. I smile, a weak smile with a closed mouth. I had picked Mystery Meat for my first bite, rather than the three sickly-pale peaches wading in a syrup pool. I second-guess my choice, but there’s no turning back now.

I chew deliberately. My mother used to call this “eating with long teeth.” I watch them watching me. Maybe my teeth are growing longer, like fangs.

A deep voice breaks the awkward quiet: “Ain’t quite like yer home-cookin’, is it?” The other men howl with laughter now, pick up their sporks. And in the echoing din of the state-prison gymnasium, I laugh, too, hearty and long.

No, I told him. No, it’s not home-cookin’.

And then I raise my spork, using it like a pointer, because I want him to hear this. I just want him to know this one thing: “I didn’t come for the food. I came for this,” and I wave my spork around a room filled with prisoners in blue jeans and gray sweatshirts.

The man to my right pats my back, says he’s glad I’m here — to dine with thugs and thieves.

And I think: Aren’t we all criminals?

I take another bite, tell him I’m no different from him. Not really. I’m the criminal on the cross, deserving of punishment but watching my sinless Savior die.

“You know what that man on the cross said? ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom,'” I recall the words in the Gospel of Luke. “I need a Savior, too, just like you.”

The only thing separating me and my dinner host is this: the razor-wire.

We’ve all been given a pardon to a death sentence.

Between mouthfuls, the man — barely a man, really — tells me about his mama, and how she used drugs most her life. How she’d had many men. And he tells me how he had been stealing and drinking and smoking since he was in elementary.

He pulls photographs from the front pages of his Bible. He wants me to see who matters most. He shows me two little girls in puffy dresses. He sees them once a month in the prison visiting room. They’re his, but they don’t know their Daddy, not really anyhow.

And at my left, another boy-man wants to show me the handwritten letter from his girl back home. He’s half-scared she’ll leave him for someone else before he gets out. He’ll be out in a year, maybe sooner, but who knows?

He says he was baptized earlier this day, and he has tears in his eyes when he tells me about it. He asks for my peaches, and I scoop them onto his plate. I wonder if he’ll stand up to the bullying in the prison yard when they call him a Jesus Freak. I wonder what he’ll do when his cellmates mock him.

Will he follow Jesus in the days ahead? Or will he fall?

But I can’t ask him those questions, without asking them of myself.
Wretch that I am, I stumble, too.

I sip water from a cream-colored cup, share stories with my hosts. They really are the most hospitable, gracious hosts. I memorize their faces and their scruffy beards and their names, and the way tears rolls down the cheeks of burly men when they talk about the redemptive work of Christ.

Some say I should be scared here, dining with criminals in a room that wears the fragrance of a prison weight room.

But fear subsides when you gather around a table. The jitters ebb.

In “The Spirit of Food,” Stephen and Karen Baldwin write that tables do that: make us feel secure. Every meal is a still life, they write, and God is at work when we pull up a chair to a feast — no matter how simple.

And maybe even this meal
with prisoners and
unidentified meat
is art?

“… our hospitality is a medium of grace that opens hearts to deeper things. It is a simple way of loving,” the Baldwins write.

***

One of the men — a black fellow, a bald tenor with a big belly — stands to sing opera. The prison gymnasium echoes with words of a Negro spiritual. And I cry.

Roll Jordan, roll
Roll Jordan, roll
I wanna go to heav’n when I die
To hear ol’ Jordan roll

I think about the Wedding Supper of the Lamb.

The first words I ever wrote in my Bible were these: “We’re all just a bunch of hungry beggars who want to know where the Feast is.”

We’ll gather at that Feast, these men and I — all hungry, all undeserving even of the table scraps.

The tenor closes his eyes, lifts his silken vibrato to fill the room — a voice that people used to pay to hear. I close my eyes, too. His voice transports me.

Behind closed eyes, I catch a rare glimpse of the banqueting table, a foretaste of the feast to come. If we could just cut away the ceiling and lift the roof off this place, we’d be there. I can almost see it.

All of us, free…

Oh, sinner you oughta been there
Yes my Lord
A-sittin’ in the Kingdom
To hear ol’ Jordan roll

***

“The table fellowship is a foretaste of full redemption when Christ’s finished work culminates in the wedding feast of the Lamb, at which we will sit and enjoy the finest of friends, good aged wine, and the best of foods.”

— Stephen and Karen Baldwin, in “The Spirit of Food”

Submitted as part of The High Calling’s “The Spirit of Food” book club discussion.

Photo: Prison-issue cup, which we were allowed to bring home.

by | January 10, 2011 | 31 comments

31 Comments

  1. Megan Willome

    As I started reading, I thought, "This wouldn't have anything to do with the book club, would it?" And it did! In a more moving way than I could have imagined. Love that man SINGING!

    Reply
  2. Dawn

    I love to cook, there is something instinctual and gutterally satifsfying when a mother prepares a meal for her family.

    I have loved everything I have seen about this book on various blogs and would love to read it myself. It's a luxurious expense right now, so I will await the time when our budge affords extras.

    Our church has a prison ministry, and more than one prisoner has come out and entered our local body to serve the Lord on the outside. True rehabilitation comes in Christ – for all of us criminally sinful.

    I wonder how you, a woman, gained access to the men's prison, and thier dinnertime. Two things that are not allowed in the prison where we minister. What a gift for them and you.

    Our ladies did cook a homemade Christmas dinner that our men took to our prisoners as a Christmas gift. They partook of Christmas dinner, homemade especially for them, from wives and mothers and sisters. And two that night partook of the other Bread, reserving their place at the Feast Table to come.

    Who would think that a prison issue plstic cup could be filled with such compassion and fellowship? Only Jesus.

    Reply
  3. Jeanne Damoff

    This is exquisite! Thank you so much.

    Reply
  4. Bina

    "We're all just a bunch of hungry beggars who want to know where the Feast is."

    amen…amen…and amen. so glad to get to feast with fellow brothers and sisters here while we wait for the main course to summon us to the grand table at His feet! (((hugs)))

    Reply
  5. Rose

    Amen, what a beautiful story.

    Reply
  6. Cherie

    I was transported there with you. I could see it, smell it, taste it and oh… so beautifully hear it! Thanks for sharing it with me! It was a wonderful experience.

    The words of Paul keep ringing in my ears "of whom I am cheif"

    Reply
  7. Cherie

    sorry .. chief …(yikes)

    Reply
  8. Joan Davis

    Thanks for sharing that inspirational post! You painted a vivid picture of God's banquet table – where all are invited.

    Living for Him, Joan

    Reply
  9. Laura

    Oh, Jennifer. This meal you shared with these men? More than a still life. This–this is a masterpiece.

    Reply
  10. Laura

    And,Jennifer! Your new dress looks good on you! I love it!

    Reply
  11. amy

    this is simply beautiful jennifer. thank you for sharing this story.

    Reply
  12. papa&nanaT

    And I love to share the fork with the message printed on it "The Best is Yet to Come" with some of my special guests. We truly are blessed to have been there. They are a blessing in return.

    Reply
  13. papa&nanaT

    And I love to share the fork with the message printed on it "The Best is Yet to Come" with some of my special guests. We truly are blessed to have been there. They are a blessing in return.

    Reply
  14. Stephie Goldfish

    You inspire, Jennifer! I felt the pain and, yet, the joy present at this dinner setting. I love how you made everyone feel comfortable to open their hearts and how you express that we are all sinners undeserving of even the table scraps. May God continue to bless your efforts.

    Reply
  15. L.L. Barkat

    The cup just kind of sums it all up for me. Somehow.

    Reply
  16. jasonS

    Wow, Jennifer. Powerful story and powerful point. Love it. Also love the new look of your blog. Blessings… and thank you!

    Reply
  17. RCUBEs

    Where there is the Spirit of the Lord, there is freedom!!! These men hunger for someone to reach out to them. I'm glad you did. You reached out the way the Savior did with you. Lots of nurses warned me that the prison would be a scary place to work in. They were wrong. It was the safest place to be.

    Aside from deputies, there are those inmates who want to change from inside out. When they respond with kindness, I often wondered if they were changed by the Savior's love.

    I'm sure that prison-issued cup didn't go home empty…It was filled with warm memories.

    Reply
  18. Denise

    Thank you for being there.

    Reply
  19. Lyla Lindquist

    What is that makes breaking bread, sharing a meal, passing the cup the thing that breaks down barriers the way it does? Even when the food you're sharing isn't really what anyone wants to be eating…

    Beautiful thing here.

    Reply
  20. Beth E.

    What a powerful post…I, too, felt as if I was right there with you. Thank you for sharing your meal with them AND with us.

    What a merciful, merciful, merciful God!

    Reply
  21. Jennifer @ Getting Down With Jesus

    Dawn — You asked a great question about prison access earlier in the comment box. … We are allowed to dine with the prisoners at the end of a three-day retreat. Prisoners who sign up for the program participate in communion, worship, talks and group discussion in the prison gymnasium, away from the general population. On the final night, many of us are allowed to join the group for the final meal of the retreat — plus communion.

    Reply
  22. Linda

    OH Jennifer – this is just exquisite. All I could think was that He gave you eyes to see and a heart like His. You have a precious heart.

    Reply
  23. Shaunie Friday--Up the Sunbeam

    Absolutely beautiful, Jennifer! Bless you for walking in to their midst wearing grace. What a breath of heaven you must have been to them!

    Reply
  24. Michelle

    Beautiful!!

    Reply
  25. growup318.com

    This is BEAUTIFUL!
    Thank you so much for sharing!

    Reply
  26. David Rupert

    Great story and an encouragment to all of us to not be so uptight about visiting the downtrodden. As you showed us, it will be alright!

    Reply
  27. S. Etole

    The cup of blessing … freely offered.

    Reply
  28. Debra

    Hi Jennifer,
    A most moving post,so beautifully written and straight-from-the-heart. The spirit of Christ so present in the words.

    Years ago I visited prisons. The first time I went to sing I recall looking out and seeing tears on the prisoners’ faces. It was during that song, “How Beautiful,” by Twila Paris. That tells you how long ago it was. Well over ten years ago – or was it closer to 20? – when it was hot off the charts.

    There’s nothing like visiting a prison that draws us closer to Christ. For when we visit the “least of these” we have truly visited Him. I don’t think I fully understood the parable in Matthew of the sheep and the goats until I went to that prison and sang to God.

    You have deeply blessed me with this story today. Now you inspire me to write my own story of that season in my life.
    Thank you Jennifer.

    Love and blessings.

    Reply
  29. Jackie

    Beautiful story…..really blessed my heart….felt like I was seated right there at the table!!

    BTW, Jennifer…..love the new look….awesome!!

    Blessings!
    Jackie

    Reply
  30. Warren Baldwin

    Great post. It is important to remember that our meals with others point to the redemptive meal we will have with the savior. I try to stress that about our church potlucks. Don't know how well it gets across. And a meal in a prison? Wow, more of us need to do that. Enjoyed this.

    Reply
  31. Duane Scott

    I was there with you…

    And I hope you don't mind me when I tell you what I've done. I've taken this post and saved it to my computer.

    Because I'm a sinner too.
    I should live in an imprisonment of the things I've done.
    But because of Him, I'm free.

    This was truly a precious post.

    Reply

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