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Story of Gladness

From a School of Community in suburban Maryland to a prison in North Carolina, a transformative friendship with an inmate leads him to come to know a great love and a new sense of purpose in his life...
Melanie Danner

This is a story of gladness. I became involved because of the gladness evident in the women of my School of Community who were visitors to Joshua, a prisoner in North Carolina. It was obvious to all of us that they were changing through this friendship. So when Theresa took me aside in February of 2006 and proposed, "Joshua has a friend Rodney who is lonely, and he thought it would be good if someone would write to him," I readily said yes.

A flurry of letters was soon passing between Maryland and North Carolina. Within a few months, I rode down with the friends who were visiting Joshua to meet Rodney. It was a beautiful visit; ninety minutes felt like ten. We laughed a lot–to the amazement of the inmates at surrounding tables. On the ride home, our hearts were full of joy as if we had been at a feast because Christ initiated these friendships. He was at the table with us.

Five Years of Metamorphosis
During the period when Rodney and Joshua were at the same camp, they held countless discussions on faith, history, and other topics. Although Rodney was a Protestant Fundamentalist, he was moved by Joshua's explanations. Soon, he was poring over books and magazines, among them Traces. He began sharing articles which moved him with other inmates. Once he even shared a Traces cover article about Vicki of Uganda (No. 8, Vol. 9, 2007, p.33) with a group of black prisoners gathered in the recreation lounge, exclaiming, "Look, this is an amazing woman–you'll never believe what her man did to her and she forgave!" The article was passed from man to man. Later, when Vicki traveled to the U.S., we told her this story.

Across five years of corresponding, I have been moved by Rodney's curiosity. I have been struck by his position in front of his difficult circumstance: "Prison is by far the worst experience of my life. I realized that I'm no longer and never really was in control, but in this bad experience I've come face to face with Christ," he wrote in 2006.

Reflecting on Fr. Pino's words, read in­­­ Traces, about the cripple healed by Jesus, "The truth of Christ came to him tied to a fact: he went there on a stretcher and he came out of the house a free man," Rodney, in 2007, writes, "I came to prison bound with more than physical restraints, but will leave educated and rejuvenated. The encounter has done for me what it did for the cripple, and I wonder who the cripple went on to help."

In the early years of our friendship, Rodney was very given to dreaming about all the things he would do upon release. He often enclosed newspaper clippings from the travel section in his letters. Over and over, we discussed the challenge of living in the present which is the only possibility of freedom. Slowly, he became less obsessed with plotting every step until the moment when "real life" would resume. He became more and more engaged with the men and circumstances in front of him. He saw how God often opened unexpected doors, as he described in April 2008: "The initial weeks at this camp? I believe this is where the Lord has placed me, and I'm trying to follow His lead and not become diverted… You know my math is very bad, but when I came here I met this guy who is very smart and good in math. He's been helping me out every night for the last month. Mom and Dad sent a math book… I've had test after test and teachers on top of teachers and for 30 years have never been able to do even the basic math, until now when some tall black inmate gets it across clear as a bell. I call that God."

Sharing the Torch
Over time, I understood that I was called to conversion through this friendship and the phone calls, letters, visits, and prayers which sustain it. Often, speaking or writing to Rodney, I catch myself and laugh because the very thing I'm communicating to Rodney is what Christ is proposing to me in that moment. My life as a wife, mother, sister, daughter, and friend turns out to be relevant to his life in prison and vice versa. The human heart is the same, no matter how different circumstances appear. Last February, my husband Mark and I drove down to North Carolina after our region received 52 inches of snow. Rodney clapped his hands when we arrived and rejoiced, "I knew you would make it!" The very next day, he called with a request: "I have become friends with a man here who is lonely. We've had a lot of discussions about faith. I think it would be great if you would find someone to write to him…" I knew that Rodney was becoming a "father" as Joshua had before him.

This May, Mark, our son Thomas, our friend Maria, and I drove six hours down to the prison. Maria was meeting Rodney's friend for the first time after more than one year of corresponding. It was her turn to be amazed to hear an inmate say, "I have never been so free in my life as I have since I 'hit my knees' [began praying]." He gave this judgment very simply as they sat at a picnic table next to the ten-foot fence topped by razor wire. We departed the camp with a deep gladness.

Over the years, Rodney has been a man whose humanity has been kindled by meeting Christ through His people. Through Joshua, his intellectual curiosity was first awakened. Although high school was a challenge for him, Rodney was inspired to pursue further education as he saw Joshua studying for a number of college courses. At the last camp, Rodney finished a program of college and vocational courses with a 97 percent average, and he tutored many fellow inmates along the way.

His attitude toward work has also changed. While he always worked hard and took pride in his accomplishments, his motives are different today. Currently, he is doing four jobs: plumbing for the prison camps in the region, plumbing for the new solitary confinement compound behind his minimum security camp, raising vegetables in a huge garden for the 200+ inmates, and maintaining the grounds. "I am giving back, doing all these things as a service to others," he said quietly.

So Much More than the Sum
Last November, Rodney's mother died of cancer. During that period, he was given a number of graces. First, he was granted permission to see his mother in the hospital hours before her death. Second, he was able to attend her funeral, at which he received the support of two friends whom he had never met and who surprised him by coming down from Washington, D.C. Also, he was embraced warmly by all at the congregation of the church in which he was raised. He alternated between tears and laughter when we spoke the next day by telephone. He repeated over and over how he was completely carried by the presence of those around him and the prayers of those who were not able to be there.

We marvel at a new man who has been coming to birth right before our eyes. There is so much more at play here than the friendship with Joshua which launched this adventure. There is more than our letters and visits–which, over the past year, were much fewer due to my own risky pregnancy and a new baby that made the long drive impracticable. It is more than the correspondence of several others and the accompaniment of those two friends at his mother's funeral. It is more than the sum of all these gestures. It is the event that lies beneath all of them. We recognize with wonder that it is the Lord.