Whose dignity anyway?

Picture of Doug Sandvig

Doug Sandvig

Prison Ministry Committee of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta. 

My 96-year-old father-in-law is at a point in life where he has little time or use for things that do not matter. Every month he faithfully writes a letter to Dave, his pen pal in prison. Dave writes back four or five times a year. They have been exchanging letters for several years and Dave has shared large parts of his life story.

His father, was in his 90’s when he passed away about a year ago. Now, Dave’s only real connection to the free world is his sister and my father-in-law. Dave holds on to the notion that his ex-wife will take him back, but she shows no similar interest. 

In one letter, Dave laid out his life story. What was notable was the detail and attention he gave to telling the story of his high school basketball team’s championship season. He was not the star, but he was a contributor and that experience left an indelible mark on his identity and self-esteem. Perhaps his participation in the Christian community in prison is trying to recapture the sense of community that he had in high school sports.

Why should we write to those in prison? What does it matter? We profess to believe in the dignity of all human beings, but what does that look like? In a practical way, how do we show respect for the life of those who sit in prison cells?

Our hearts are changed when we offer sincere prayers for those in prison and when we know they do the same for us. That is when our recognition of their dignity starts to take shape and form. Transformation sounds like a big momentous thing, but it is as simple as caring about each other.

A year ago, I sent letters to 10 men I know in prison, asking them to compose a prayer for my friend, Fr. Luke Millette.  The prayers would be offered as a “spiritual bouquet” to help Fr. Luke celebrate his 10th anniversary as a priest.

All 10 men responded with a prayer they composed. As you can imagine, there was a great variety in style and content, yet each shared an earnestness to add to the bouquet. Most of these men have been in prison for more than 10 years. It was only in hindsight that it occurred to me that the request to compose a prayer for a priest was probably the highest call on their dignity in all their time in prison. They were being given seats of honor at the banquet.

The most challenging call in all of scripture is not to love your neighbor, it is to love your enemy. Make no mistake, those who have been locked in prison cells for decades have been deemed enemies of the state. They have been deemed enemies of our communities. In a culture that celebrates being tough on crime, they have been deemed our enemies.

We hear words like, “encounter,” and, “accompaniment,” but let us be honest, most of us do not want to encounter those in prison. In fact, we strongly prefer the opposite. It is fair to ask ourselves, “Is my faith strong enough to love my enemy? Is my faith strong enough to visit Christ in prison? Is my faith strong enough to start a pen pal friendship with someone inside the walls?”

Be like my 96-year-old father-in-law- do something that matters. Dare to make a difference.

Whose dignity anyway? 1

Doug Sandvig is a retired attorney who had a general civil trial practice and was Board Certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in the field of Civil Trial Law. He currently serves on the North American Apostolate of the Order of Malta and on the Prison Ministry Committee of the Federal Association of the Order of Malta. 

The Federal Association of the Order of Malta is a Presenting Sponsor for Restored by Compassion: Given & Received, on December 1st, from 11am ET – 7pm ET.

You might also enjoy

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Nuestra Señora ~

Whose heart is full of a mother’s love ~ Whose mantel comforts and protects us ~
Gather and hold all who are forced to flee their homes ~
because of violence, poverty, or oppression

Breaking the Cycle

Join CPMC for a conversation with Cyril Prabhu, founder of Proverbs 22:6, about the organization’s work of healing families affected by the incarceration of a parent.