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I sat across the small visitation table from Richard. His hands had just gripped mine. This was before the no-touch policy. We were about to pray. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying as best he could. I remembered his story he’d told me in a past visit, about sitting in strangers’ living rooms where he’d broken into, sometimes not taking any valuables from the living rooms or bedrooms, stealing a sense of peace that never belonged to him.

So I invited him to just lay his head down, on the lawyer’s table there, and rest.

“Siiiiiick,” he smiled and made himself comfortable.

I said I just wanted to bless him, and that prayer sometimes might be just trying to sit still and let ourselves start to feel at home in a love we’re not used to.

Richard released my hands and left his lying open between mine.

I looked at the top of his head, new stubble once again sprouting through the dark ink on his scalp. The rain was so heavy outside that I could hear it through the facility’s chambers, in our cell’s silence now. I let one hand rest lightly on Richard’s head, and I barely whispered words of simple blessing.

My mind wandered.

I was back in the dirty greenhouse of the organic farm where I’d worked here in the Skagit Valley, four years earlier. That day in my memory, the heavy rain was pounding on the foggy greenhouse panes all around me, blurry with streams of water running vertically. It created a kind of watery cage. I’d spent the morning tipping two seeds at a time, tiny and insignificant as grains of sand, into the little pods of soft soil I’d prepared for them.

I had just recently begun spending time with the main jail chaplain Bob in the jail in the evenings, barely learning how to open my heart to both intimidating men and to ancient spiritual phenomena. And so, during my farm mornings, I stood vulnerable before my crazy farmer-boss, Harold, as he yelled at me in one greenhouse. And I stood with an open mind in this other greenhouse that afternoon, trying to follow his wife Julia’s quite serious instructions to make sure I took extra time to “bless the lettuce seeds”—in a New-Age-y kind of way—after tucking them into tiny cells of potting soil. I had no idea how to do this, but I was open to trying. I’d watched Bob rest his hands on the shoulders and forehead of that meth cook a week earlier. I wasn’t quite ready for that, at the time, but I could practice with the trays of warm certified organic soil there in the greenhouse, with nobody watching.

And so I began, carefully resting my white, dirty palms over the flats of lettuce seeds, whispering improvised prayers of blessing. Many seeds would not germinate in the days ahead, and many more would not survive the shock in months to come when they were transplanted into the real world, where cold and rain and wind punish the weak. This is why, I assumed, Julia had sent me in here to pray over them.

While doing so on this particular afternoon, several things happened.

First, the sun came out. The greenhouse became a womb of warmth and pure light.

Then I heard what was hushing from my own lips as I passed my hands from one bed of quiet seeds to another. God, bless my boy, I was saying, give him a good night’s sleep. This is what my dad said every night he tucked me in as a boy, his hands heavy on the comforter pulled up to my chin. Without thinking, I had been passing on the same blessing I’d received long ago. Apparently, it was the only one I knew. The words had taken root in me. I stood there among the long rows of assorted green seedlings, suddenly crying, transported to my childhood bedside beneath my father’s voice and hands. My own hands and tears now pressed into the dirt before me, blessing the hidden life to come, buried just beneath my fingertips.

Julia clattered in as this happened, to dump some empty compost tea buckets by the giant plastic teapot. She paused and stared at what I was doing before stepping back out. “Gee, Chris,” she said. “Now don’t you think you’re overdoing it?”

I snapped out of the memory, back in the cell with Richard.

The same words were right there in my mind, in the quiet, as my hand lay lightly on Richard’s resting, tattooed head: God bless my boy, give him a good night’s sleep. 

His eyes were still closed, and relaxed. I removed my hand and sat back. “How do you feel?”

“Weird.” He barely smiled, eyes still closed. “Light.”

He sat up, rubbed his eyes, looked at the same white cinderblock walls around us, focused on me.

“All the color . . . it’s lighter. Brighter. I mean, maybe it’s cuz I had my eyes closed so long! But I feel kinda giddy.” He stretched his arms back, thought for a second. “Hella weird. I feel happy. Like I said, lighter . . .” He looked down, taking this inventory of his self, his feelings. “I got this pain in my ribs, actually.” He wasn’t used to paying attention to his feelings. “I’m not sure what it’s from. Can we pray for that, too?”

We both rested a hand on where he said it hurt. We said a small prayer, words I don’t remember. And when he stretched, twisted his torso back and forth in the creaky chair, he laughed. “It’s fuckin’ gone, bro.”

I tried not to let my excitement show too obviously on my face, always afraid of encouraging guys to tell me what they think I want to hear. Because that’s not why I come to the jail, to hear right answers. So I just raised my eyebrows receptively.

“I’m serious, dawg, I’m feelin’ like the afterburn of heavy meds, or drugs. Like, off-the-charts good. My hands are all tingly an’ prickly, like . . . like, you know when your leg that’s asleep starts wakin’ up?” He said he wanted to go tell the guys in the pod about this.

I told him something I’d heard from some Pentecostal types, who describe a similar warm pressure in their hands at times. “They say it’s a sign that God’s Spirit is welling up in you, and you’re supposed to give it away, quickly. Like, actually lay your hands in prayer on someone nearby who really needs it. Like it wants to be shared.”

Richard slapped a fist into his other palm at this idea. He imagined aloud how to “handle fools that ‘need’ it,” and laughed. “I’d be like, ‘Man, you should get your ass kicked for that, cuz you disrespected me. But I tell you what, homie. I’m gonna lay hands of love on your sorry ass instead. Because that’s what God did to me: I done all sorts of shit deserving to get beat, but God touched me with love instead.’ ”

For a moment, as he said this, I was aware that this was possibly the most hated man in our valley, his face in the newspapers regularly, and how nobody would get to hear him talking like this. I thought of the charges, how Richard was headed off to prison. It was just a matter of time.

Then he got silent again.

“What happens when the feeling goes away, huh? I’m not gonna feel like this tomorrow.”

I went with the first thing that came to my mind: “It’s like a paintbrush that runs out. Maybe you just have to keep dipping your hands into God’s heart, you have to keep going back, again and again.” I imagined his restless hands splashing into an invisible substance and painting this uncommon art across the lockdown boneyards of America to which he’d soon be sent.

“How do I do that?”

“I dunno.”

We smiled across the table at the absurdity and obvious improvisation in all this.

“Maybe it doesn’t have to be that hard,” I said. “Maybe, before bed each night, just say Here are my hands, God”—and I held mine out in a gesture of use them, fill them, they’re yours—“and then . . .” I mocked letting my head drop suddenly, snoring loudly.

“That’s tiiiiiiiiiiight! Gangster. I’m gonna do that every night now. Watch.”

Maybe he was moved by how he didn’t have to hustle to get what he wanted. This was just asking and receiving.

“That’s tight,” Richard said again as we said good-bye for the night, and again as the guard escorted him down the hall. “I’ma give my hands to God like that every night!”

I looked for a trace of sarcasm. But I saw only sincere pleasure. His hands were wanted for good work.

The sound of the heavy rain outside still pounded overhead as Richard walked down the hall, a hush that weighed over the facility with an ominous drone.


Read the full story in Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders.