The Word Among Us

Lent 2010 Issue

A Tattooed Blessing

He did his time, but he still wasn't free.

By: Laura Williams

A Tattooed Blessing: He did his time, but he still wasn't free. by Laura Williams

It was September 25, 2005, and my husband and I were returning home after having evacuated ahead of Hurricane Rita. The storm had not made a direct hit on Houston, and we felt weary but grateful to be back safe.

Our son Martin greeted us as we stepped into the hallway, where boxes were stacked two deep, almost to the ceiling. "Where in the world did these come from?" I asked him.

"Oh, they belong to Jesse. He moved in yesterday," Martin replied. A tall young man appeared. Every exposed part of his body was covered with tattoos. "Jesse, I want you to meet my mom and dad."

"Hi," said Jesse. "It is really great of you to let me move in here. I wouldn’t have been paroled if I didn’t have a place to live." In the pause that followed, I reflected on how we had arrived at this moment.

The Challenge. Several weeks before, Martin had asked if we might let Jesse live with us when he was paroled. Though the two were long-time friends, we had never met him—he was either dealing drugs in another city or serving time in prison.

"We’ll have to know a lot more about him," I said.

"His record looks pretty bad," Martin replied. "He’s thirty-three and has been in and out of jail since he was seventeen. But he joined Narcotics Anonymous a couple of years ago and began to change his lifestyle. He even turned himself in for violating his parole. He thought he’d get six months in prison, but instead, he was sentenced to eighteen."

"I don’t know," I said. "Sounds pretty risky."

"Jesse was angry when he got such a stiff sentence, but then he heard that two of his former pals were being tried for murder. Seems some drug deal went wrong, and someone ended up dead. Jesse suddenly realized that the Lord had actually protected him when he received the longer sentence. If he hadn’t been locked up when the murder happened, he’d have been suspected of the crime, too."

Jesse really had changed, our son assured us. "And I hope you’ll give him a chance to prove it."

A short silence. Then Martin added, "Oh, Jesse used to be in a prison gang. He got out of that a long time ago, but because of it, he served his sentence in segregation. Except for one hour a day, he’s been in his cell for eighteen months, so he will really appreciate living here."

A longer silence. "We’ll have to pray about this," my husband said.

"A lot," I added.

Praying and Deciding. We talked to our married son and daughter; they agreed it was our decision. We talked to our extended family, who were supportive but urged caution. We talked to our Bible sharing group. Their responses were varied.

"What if this guy backslides and robs you blind?"

"I think it is like the parable about the beat-up guy in the ditch. Go for it."

"We will support whatever you hear the Lord saying to you."

My husband and I continued to pray. We had seen the Lord turn Martin’s life around, so we knew it could happen with Jesse. We also knew that Jesse could decide to return to his old life and turn our life upside down. Eventually, sensing that the Lord was inviting us to trust him, we agreed to let Jesse move in. But honestly, I had hoped it would never come to that.

I was surveying the stack of boxes and the young man with all the arm tattoos when Martin said, "Oh, by the way. . . ." What now? I wondered. Anytime one of our kids began a sentence with those words, it wasn’t good news. "When Jesse was released, they put an ankle cuff on him."

"What does that mean, exactly?"

"Well, he can’t leave our house except to go to work. Also, the parole officer will have a special phone installed so they can call him 24/7 to make sure he’s here. Jesse will pay for the extra phone."

Believe me, at that moment, paying for the phone was the least of my concerns. "So except when Jesse is working, he’ll be here, in the house—all the time, for the next year?"

"That’s right," Martin said cheerfully.

Were we ready for this? And was Jesse ready to begin a new life with a family he had just met?

Not the Challenge We Expected. As it turned out, Jesse quickly became a part of our family. All of the gifts he had received from the Lord—his good nature, ready smile, generosity, and eagerness to help—blessed us tremendously.

He and I would have long conversations late in the evening, after Martin went to work. I shared experiences from years of following the Lord. Jesse shared some of his experiences from "the other side," which only increased my awe at the miracle of his redemption. Our whole family embraced and appreciated him; even our cat, Lady, indifferent to others, adored him. But as the weeks passed, Jesse became more and more frustrated—and we along with him.

The real challenge arose as we and Jesse all tried to figure out what was expected of him as a prisoner on parole. He was required to work, which he very much wanted to do. He even had a job waiting for him: He was a plumber’s helper, and his former boss was looking forward to having Jesse work for him again.

But the "system" had to okay the plan, and it appeared that, for his own convenience, Jesse’s parole officer wanted him at a minimum-wage job close to our house. I say "appeared," because the situation was unclear. Week after week, Jesse would talk to the parole officer and get his work situation straightened out, and then the officer would change the rules.

"Don’t Break My Heart." One night, Jesse and his boss returned from another discouraging session with the parole officer. We were all in the kitchen talking, when Jesse said, "I’m sorry, guys, but I am about ready to quit trying and take off. If the system wants me to fail, I guess I will just fail and quit fighting it."

Everyone fell silent. Finally, I walked over to this young stranger that God had blessed us with, put my arms around him, and told him, "Jesse, don’t break my heart."

I left the house and walked for an hour, praying.

Jesse didn’t run away. He hung in there, and a couple of weeks later, he told me why.

"When you hugged me that night and said, ‘Jesse, don’t break my heart’—something broke inside me. I realized someone really cared about me. I still had the ankle cuff on, but I was finally free. The Lord rescued me from the pit."

Eventually, things worked out. Jesse was allowed to return to his former job and drive the company truck to work and back. He worked six days a week. He reported once a week to his parole officer, and the officer came to check on him every weekend. Other than that, Jesse was confined to the house. Since he couldn’t go out to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings, friends in the group met weekly at our place.

This continued for a full year.

Taking Action. At the end of that time, Jesse was supposed to have his ankle cuff removed. The proper papers had been filed, he was assured, and the process would take four to six weeks. Since he had no parole violations, it seemed like smooth sailing.

Weeks passed, then months. October . . . November . . . December . . . January . . . February . . . March. And whenever Jesse asked what was going on, it was always the same excuse: "The papers have been filed. Don’t know what’s taking so long."

The last Sunday in March, coming home from church, I felt like the Lord was telling me something. Okay Laura, you have been praying and praying for Jesse. Now it is time to act. I have given you the gift of writing. Use it to move a mountain.

That afternoon, I wrote a letter about Jesse and his cuff to a columnist at a local paper. He passed the letter to a reporter, who called me. He talked with Jesse, too, and arranged for a photo crew to visit him on the job.

Two days later, the newspaper ran a half-page story about Jesse, along with a picture of him laying pipe in a trench. Headlined HE DID HIS TIME BUT ISN’T FREE, the story caught the attention of one of our state senators.

He surely intervened. The very next day, after a six-month delay and with no other credible explanation, the parole officer came and removed Jesse’s ankle cuff. To this day, I thank our Lord for the reporter and the senator.

His first time out of the house with no cuff, Jesse went to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. The next day he bought a truck. (You can save a great deal of money when you can never get out to spend it!) The day after that, he and Martin went fishing. n

Laura Williams lives in Houston, Texas. Jesse still lives with the Williams family, is active in his church—and goes fishing every chance he gets.

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Someone Who Cares

I realized someone really cared about me.” That’s what made the difference for Jesse. It’s what kept him from sliding back into a life of drugs and crime.

So many men and women who have run afoul of the law need to know that someone cares. And they can—even if they’re behind bars— because God, who loves them best, is right there with them. He hears the cry of the brokenhearted and reaches out to everyone who turns to him.

Sharing this message of hope and faith is what The Word Among Us Partners is all about. Thanks to generous readers like you, Partners works with prison chaplains, supplying them with The Word Among Us and other Catholic materials that reach some 48,000 inmates.

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By making The Word Among Us available to Catholics in prison and in the military, we hope to encourage ongoing conversion, a growing life of prayer and Scripture reading, and more active participation in the sacraments.

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