For the first time in my life, I went to prison this past week — not once, but twice.
During two days of interviews, I visited migrants who had fled religious and ethnic persecution, and who had been detained by immigration officers after living and working quietly in the area for several years. Through tears, they shared their stories with me: the deadly attacks that had driven them here, the failed attempts to attain asylum, the fears for their remaining family members, the indescribable longing for freedom.
Devoutly Catholic, they stressed how their faith sustained them behind bars, enabling them to battle the depression and hopelessness that overwhelmed many of their fellow inmates.
When I asked them what specific prayers and Scriptures gave them the most comfort, I was stunned.
“I give thanks,” one gentleman simply said. “I know God has a greater plan, and I trust him.”
On the long drive home from the correctional facilities, I pondered those words for miles. How could anyone who had been through so much look through the bars of a jail cell with grateful eyes?
A few days later, I came across an article profiling Ikoli Harcourt Whyte, a 20th-century Nigerian composer who wrote some 200 hymns — with what was left of his hands, which had been eaten away by leprosy. Each page of music was, for Whyte, the effort of a full day or more as he slowly penned his creations with a mutilated thumb and index finger.
For the last 45 years of his life, Whyte lived in a leper colony, even choosing to remain there after he was declared free of the disease in 1949. Rather than mourn the loss of his limbs, he assembled a choir of fellow patients, raised his children (after being deserted by his first wife, who had also suffered from leprosy) and taught music at a nearby Methodist high school.
In a 2017 interview with BBC News, Whyte’s oldest child, 85-year-old Godwin Harcourt, recalled that his father’s songs offered “solace, advice, things that would awaken your hope in God.”
Whyte and the imprisoned migrants lived out the ancient words from the book of Tobit: “In the land of my captivity I give thanks, and declare his power and majesty to a sinful nation” (Tobit 13:6).
How effortless it is to laud God when we are well-fed and unfettered; how excruciating it is to lift hands and voices in thanksgiving when we are bound by circumstances that thwart and threaten us.
Bitter and undeserved as such hardships may be, they can — by the grace of God — miraculously transform us: “In the land of their exile they shall have a change of heart,” declares the Lord in the book of Baruch. “They shall know that I, the Lord, am their God. I will give them a heart and ears that listen, and they shall praise me in the land of their exile, and shall remember my name” (Baruch 2:30-32).
Our captivity can be anything from terminal cancer to a troubled marriage to traffic delays, and everything in between. Our sentences can be momentary, or can span decades. And even when our term has been reduced, our full deliverance will never take place until we have passed through the gates of death, since earthly life is itself exile from our native land.
We can hasten the homecoming by giving thanks to the One who shares our purifying incarceration and who, in his own person, provides the lasting freedom for which he created us.
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