And the doors clanged shut.
It is only grace that makes it be that I haven’t spent most of life in prison. The few times I have walked in, I have walked out.
A long time ago now, I was asked to spend a week of my 19 year-old summer with a group of juvenile delinquents, as they were called, in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. I did, and still remember some of those days, and nights. Hope and longing, anger and hurt, hikes up and down the trails, and a visit to the state prison nearby. It was meant to be an inoculation, I’m sure, taking these 15 year-olds into a place that no one would ever want to be, hoping that seeing and hearing would make them do everything they could to stay out.
The door clangs shut in places like that.
Years have passed, and last week I walked into another prison, spending an afternoon in the Kansas State Penitentiary in Hutchinson, a maximum security prison housing men who will be there for a long time, if not for life. I was with a friend, Pete Ochs of Wichita, someone I’ve known since we were ten year-olds spending summer weeks in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado at a camp. He was from Kansas, and I was from California, and so there wasn’t much of an opportunity to get to know each well, the summers being the only time we were together.
We lost touch after high school. I imagined him staying in Kansas, but didn’t really know. And then, surprise of surprises, most of life later, I was walking down a hallway in a hotel in Florida last fall, and heard a deeper, older voice, but one I recognized, “Hi. I’m Pete Ochs,” as he introduced himself to someone. I turned around, and it was.
We had a meal or two together the next couple of days, and hoped for more. When I knew I was going to be in Wichita last week, I wrote Pete, and he welcomed me, wondering if I would have “four hours or so” to go visit a prison with him. After my speaking at Friends University, he picked me up and we drove to Hutchinson. We had years to talk about, and only got started. But before too long, the high walls of the prison were visible, and we drove into the parking lot. He told me that he had imagined himself doing something “good” for the men, that he could use his business experience to bring change to their lives. But in his own very plainspoken way, he said, very simply, “They have changed me.”
We walked into the prison, through gate after gate, door after door, locks and more locks, guards and more guards. Finally we were through, walking along the razor-wire tunneled fence past the high stone wall, to a long, low blue building which houses Pete’s company, a business at-work within the prison.
About ten years ago he began thinking of another way to do business, one that would be within the walls, an honest business where prisoners could learn honest labor, earn honest money, and become honest men. He is no romantic, and the Kansas State Penitentiary has no romantics on its staff. But for the sake of trying something that might matter a lot, Pete persuaded the warden to allow “the best prisoners,” the ones who over time had earned trust, to become his employees.
As we walked around, Pete knew their names, and asked about their lives, sometimes about their kids. Every one was hard at work, which is the order of the day, and the prisoners seem to understand that good work well done is its own reward— and of course that they are paid an honest wage matters too. Some of the men are there for life, some are there for years to come, but each one we talked to seemed glad to be known, and respected. Like every one of us, they long for dignity, and in a fragile place on the plains, a frightening place in the middle of Kansas, they have found something that they had not known.
As I thought about it all, watching Pete walk through the prison, I wondered why? What is it that makes someone see himself implicated, for love’s sake, in the way the world is in all of its hurt, responsible for the way the world could be? Simply said, he sees with his heart, and knows that what he knows can be a gift to those who have lost their way. His business interests are far and wide, and don’t demand that he work with prisoners; in fact for most of his life he didn’t. But over the years he began to see himself as a steward of good gifts, in fact seeing his whole life as a stewardship before God in service to the world— and then begin to see himself responsible for folks that had been forgotten.
A book could be written, and maybe someday one will be. But for now, I kept thinking back to the mountains of Colorado, ten year-olds that we were, sitting beside each other, learning about the most important things in life in one of the most beautiful places on earth— right below the majesty and glory of Long’s Peak —having no idea that we would someday walk into an uglier place, for love’s sake, a place where most of us never want to be.
But it is also a place where Pete belongs, because of his own calling to care about things that matter to God and the world. His vocation has become a common grace for the common good, serving Kansas in and through his entrepreneurial imagination. In a strange calculus, while his hope was to bring change, the most surprising change is in his own heart, giving him eyes to see that good work matters for everyone everywhere— even in a place where the doors clang shut.
For more on Pete’s world and work, see this: https://vimeo.com/61562068