Wednesday, August 31, 2011

At the Supermarket: Encountering a Old Friend Soon To Be A Prisoner

This afternoon in the tea aisle at an HMart, I spotted an old colleague from behind, wearing his yarmulke. I called him by name "Isaac?" (not his real name) He turned around and we smiled at one another and chatted for several minutes. He said he was looking for a certain kind of tea, but he only knew its name in Korean. I found a Korean-speaking employee for him and we figured out it was barley tea he was looking for.

I hadn't seen Isaac, a married father of three, in months. We stopped working together years ago. In March, he was charged with sexually assaulting two teenaged girls.

I started our conversation by talking about our recent family vacation and how our older son had become interested in cyclocross. There was a slight pause. I told him how sorry I was for the difficulties he was facing. He took a big breath, then told me he had decided to take a plea bargain, to avoid bankrupting his family emotionally and financially.

Years ago, when my faith was tenuous, I would not have initiated such a conversation.  I likely would have run into another aisle and prayed Isaac wouldn't see me. I would have been afraid of the reality before me. Also, I would have felt compelled to determine for myself his guilt or innocence.

Now that my faith is strong, I believe God puts people in our paths for a reason. I was supposed to run into Isaac and have a conversation with him. I am supposed to be praying for him now. I have no idea if the charges against him are true or not. I do not know the secrets of his heart. And I do not feel any burden to determine that. God knows.

When we were colleagues, Isaac and I often had conversations about our spirituality, about our mutual understanding that a Presence was overseeing our lives. So our conversation this afternoon was similar to many we have had.

Isaac and I chatted about the impact the charges have had on his life. I asked him what he was going to do with his life going forward. "Well first," he said. "I am going to prison." When he gets out, he told me, he will be listed a registered sex offender.

What moved me about the conversation is how Isaac's faith in God is sustaining him. He told me he is attending synagogue every day, and feels supported by his faith community and his rabbi. He told me the charges have drawn him deeper and deeper into his spiritual life.

As we headed to the cash register, Isaac told me he feels good that his relationships with his children, his wife, his faith community, with the people who matter to him, are all right. I asked him if he felt all right within himself. "I am okay because I am okay with HaShem (a Jewish word for God)" he said, pointing upward. "And that is what matters." He told me he believes that no matter what he is facing, HaShem is with him.

When it came time to say goodbye, Isaac told me, "I don't hug or shake hands with people any more." So I offered to give him a "virtual high five," (a high five without touching), something I give my students. I told him to please give my love to his wife. He offered his regards to my family.

Then Isaac walked out of HMart and into the rest of his life.


  1. Oh my gosh, this made me cry. What a moving piece of writing and what a gesture on your part. The Holy Spirit is clearly at work and you cooperate with grace and a willing heart. God bless you.

    I will pray for Isaac; very sad.

  2. Wow. What a post and what a prayer.

  3. Fran and Sandy C; Here is the prayer I meant to post.

    Prayer for Prisoners, by Pope Pius XII

    O Divine Prisoner of the sanctuary, Who for love of us and for our salvation not only enclosed Yourself within the narrow confines of human nature and then hid Yourself under the veils of the Sacramental Species, but also continually live in the tabernacle! Hear our prayer which rises to You from within these walls and which longs to express to You our affection, our sorrow, and the great need we have of You in our tribulations - above all, in the loss of freedom which so distresses us.

    For some of us, there is probably a voice in the depths of conscience which says we are not guilty; that only a tragic judicial error has led us to this prison. In this case, we will draw comfort from remembering that You, the most August of all victims, were also condemned despite Your innocence.

    Or perhaps, instead, we must lower our eyes to conceal our blush of shame, and beat our breast. But, even so, we also have the remedy of throwing ourselves into Your arms, certain that You understand all errors, forgive all sins, and generously restore Your grace to him who turns to You in repentance.

    And finally, there are those among us who have succumbed to sin so often through the course of our earthly lives that even the best among men mistrust us, and we ourselves hardly know how to set out on the new road of regeneration. But despite all this, in the most hidden corner of our soul a voice of trust and comfort whispers Your words, promising us the help of Your light and Your grace if we want to return to what is good.

    May we, 0 Lord, never forget that the day of trial is an opportune time for purifying the spirit, practicing the highest virtues, and acquiring the greatest merits. Let not our afflicted hearts be affected by that disgust which dries up everything, or by that distrust which leaves no room for brotherly sentiments and which prepared the road for bad counsel. May we always remember that, in depriving us of the freedom of our bodies, no one has been able to deprive us of freedom of the soul, which during the long hours of our solitude can rise to You to know You better and love You more each day.

    Grant, 0 Divine Savior, help and resignation to the dear ones who mourn our absence. Grant peace and quiet to this world which has rejected us but which we love and to which we promise our co-operation as good citizens for the future.

    Grant that our sorrows may be a salutary example to many souls and that they may thus be protected against the dangers of following our path. But above all, grant us the grace of believing firmly in You, of filially hoping in You, and of loving You: Who, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, live and reign forever and ever.


    Here is one we can pray:

    Father of Mercy, the secrets of all hearts are known to you alone. You know who is just and you forgive the unjust. You alone are the Almighty Judge. We are not worthy of judging anyone. Your mercy is enough for sinners. Hear our prayers for those in prison. Give them repentance and let them believe in you. Give them patience and hope in their sufferings, and bring them home again soon. Comfort their near and dear ones. Let them trust in Jesus Christ and live with hope. Amen

  4. Those encounters are the ones we can name as grace. How we cooperate with that grace remains to be seen.

  5. You are so brave! I don't think I would have confronted a sex offender, but you did it so perfectly. This is an inspiring post that I will keep in my heart.

  6. Allison - you are a better woman than I. I'm a survivor of clergy sexual abuse and knowing that our former pastor (not my abuser, but a child molestor) is moving back to our town and that I will eventually run into him at the grocery store makes me sick to my stomach.

    I am grateful that you are able to be so open and accepting of your former colleague.

  7. Paula: I am so very sorry to hear of your abuse. I never had such an experience, so I have a different perspective. Also, I do not have teenaged daughters, or any daughters for that matter. So my calm might come, in part, thanks to these factors. Clearly, the holy spirit is at work, too.

    Overall, however, I am struck by the understanding that God ultimately will judge each of us and that His mercy is beyond our comprehension. I do not have to "take on" the judgment of God; this is a real liberation.

  8. This is lovely, Allison. While I'm not a religious person, I am glad to know his faith is sustaining him and giving him hope.

  9. This is a beautiful post. I love the idea that we don't have to "know" the "truth". It is enough for God to know. Prayers for Isaac and his family.

  10. update: The day after I ran into him, he pleaded guilty in court. It was all over the news. His sentencing (up to three years in state prison and lifetime parole supervision) will be in December. Prayers continue.