As the prisoners file into the chapel, their eyes are scanning the congregation for possible friends and foes. Then, once deciding whether to go right or left, they rush off in their chosen direction to greet their associates from the other cell blocks Speaking in hushed tones, they pass on messages and news from loved ones in far away places. I’m standing in the heart of the chapel by the podium, greeting everyone as they come in.
“Come in brothers! You can sit anywhere you want. As-Salaamu ‘alaykum. Peace, Peace. Yeah maan, you can sit wherever you want. Don’t worry about it; we won’t get started until everybody finds a spot.”
In Prison, people come to religious service for different reasons. Sure, some come to pray and some come searching for the truth, but most come to see their people, or to get out of the cell for an hour or two.
It’s almost time. Everybody’s finally sitting down. Some half-facing each other, some leaning back and others on the edge of their seats: all whispering, smiling and enjoying each others company. Looking around I realize that I don’t know these guys from Aadam. I am a stranger here.
Out of the thirty or so men in this room, only about five of us are Muslims. And two of them are New Shahaadas. So where do I start with these men? They are quite aware of the nature of their crimes. But if you were to ask them, “How could you do such things?” They will explain that they have sold drugs to the most respected Preachers. And have seen too many “Church Ladies” turning tricks to pay their bills not to do such things. In their world, they are normal men trying to survive in a system that has little concern for them.
I recognize that they have seen a lot, but what I don’t know is what they understand about Islaam. Which leads me back to the question of: where do I start with these guys. Hmph, I’m getting a queasy feeling rolling about in my stomach. Steady, steady, it’s time to start, take a breath…
“My Lord give me the right inspiration,” whispers out of my mouth.
“wa Yas-sir-Lee amree”
“and make this easy for me…”
“waH-LuL ‘uQdataM MiL-Lisaanee…”
“and untie the knot in my tongue…”
“so that they can relate to what I’m talking about.”
Then, raising my voice just above the friendly commotion, I say:
“Bis-millahir RaH-maanir Ra-Heem. My name is Wahshee and I’m going to be teaching the class today.”
Nothing. Most are not paying attention, caught up in conversations much more interesting. When a scattered few give me the, “Go ahead, you’re not interrupting us” nod. I feel a smile growing uncontrolled on my face. I can’t help it. Class is in session… and I love it.
I begin, “AL-Hamdulillah, Getting locked up is almost like dying… only better.”
The low rumble ceases. “Every man in this room knows what it feels like to get locked up right?”
No answer, but they’re looking around and asking each other, “Who is he?” mouths one. “Is he serious?” whispers another. “Where did he come from?” Shrugged shoulders and ‘I don’t know’s’ criss-cross the room.
“C’mon, this ain’t no lecture, I’m asking.”
A grey haired old man yells out, “Of course, ain’t we all in jail?” That gets a few smiles and some light snickers.
“And we know about dying too.” I add in a serious tone. Then turning and focussing on the old man I say, “Most of us have been shot, or stabbed, or…“, pointing to the old man who knowingly adds, “Or we done the shooting and stabbing.”
Then slowly, to make sure it doesn’t sound like bragging, I say, “That, we have my friend, that we have.”
“Whacha mean, We, Us?” asks a linebacker of a man with dreds hanging down his back. “Ain’t you a Hemaam?”
“Even me, Dred,” I reply.
Upon hearing that, the Dred leaps to his feet, questioning the congregation, “Lordy Lord! What type of Hemaam we got ‘ere?” Then shaking a thick finger at me he adds,“He must’ve been stealin’ da Mosque money, or messin’ wit dem wife and they catch his blood clot!”
The Chapel erupts with laughter.
Putting my hands up in mock surrender, “No, no. Nothing like that. I never stole from GOD and I’ve never touched another man’s wife.”
“Yeah, but we wanna know,” insists the Dred, taking his seat and giving pounds to the Rastas sitting around him.
I pause until the room gets silent. “I haven’t always been an Imaam. So let’s just say that if my sins had a smell, no one would sit around me.”
More silence follows as they consider my reply. Finally the Dred says with a wave, “Go ahead Hemaam. You ain’t got to splain nonna dat to we.” And opening his huge arms to his right and left he adds, “We all got a closet full of dem bones, seen?”
Heads all around the room nod in agreement. For a few moments no one speaks. Each man reflecting on the bones that he keeps.
A young man named “Yellow” leans forward and says, “What about that thing you said? What’s up with that?”
“It’s true,” I say. “Getting locked up is almost like dying, just better. Think about it. Who knew they were going to get locked up the day they got locked? Nobody. You didn’t plan it. Likewise, who knows what day they gonna die? Nobody. Both happen all of a sudden.”
“Our Cells are just like graves: cold, dark and dank. And we are no longer in the outside world but placed in a transitional reality. Our families receive the news of our incarceration with the same anxiety and confusion that would be produced by our deaths.”
A dishevelled, long-haired biker, appropriately called “Scarecrow,” says, “So then why is getting locked up better? ‘Least if we die, we deprive these bastards the pleasure of torturing us.”
“Because Scarecrow, seeing our families losing their houses, our children traumatized by our absence, so-called friends abandoning us and underestimated friends supporting us; all give us a major hint of how things would have gone if we were dead right now.”
“We can look at our lives as they are, right now, and see: what did my life mean?; What did I do with it?; Did anybody benefit from my presence; or Is everybody glad that I am gone? These are questions you have to answer. The fact that we are not dead, gives us the opportunity to do everything and be everything we wish we could do and be– right now.”
To be continued….