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Making a Difference
Thomas C. Willadsen

I did not recognize the name on the phone message. The chaplain at the county jail called because an inmate wanted to talk to the manager of the local Presbyterian Church franchise location; that would be me. I called back.

“What can you tell me about him?” I asked.

“Twenty-seven years old. Grew up in the area….looks like he’s gonna be here a while. That’s about all I can tell you.”

It’s pretty easy to visit someone in the county jail. Aside from a few times each day when shifts change, visitors can drop in at any hour.

I stopped late one Wednesday afternoon. After locking up my coat and clipping the badge to my shirt, I walked down the long, echoing hall to Pod B. The guard said it might take a while for the inmate I was visiting to get to the station. There were three meeting areas, each with a plastic chair facing a similar arrangement on the other side of thick glass. I waited.

“Sorry it took me so long. I was in seg. Thanks for coming, Pastor John.”

“Actually, my name’s Tom, just call me Tom. What’s going on?”

“Nothin’. I’m in seg.”

Silence.

“This is all new to me, what’s ‘seg’?”

“Segregation. I had an…incident…with another inmate. So I’ve been in seg for six days, four more to go.”

“Then what?”

“I get out, and back into the regular part. For the rest of my sentence…I hope.”

“How is seg different? Is regular better?”

“They only let you out for one hour a day in seg.”

“Wait. So I’d call this ‘solitary confinement,’ wouldn’t I?”

“They just call it seg in here.”

“But they let you out to see a visitor, obviously. Seg sounds boring. I think I’d go crazy.”

“Yeah it’s pretty rough.”

“What do you think about in there?”

“Nothing. Everything. I can’t describe it.”

“Does anyone else come and see you?”

“Nah. I got a brother in town, but he’s got his own shit. I wish my girlfriend would come, but they picked her up. She’s on the women’s side now.”

Silence.

“How’s the food in here?”

“It’s food, I guess. I’ve lost twenty pounds since I been in.”

Silence.

“What’s your connection with the Presbyterians? I’ll visit you no matter what, but there’s forty-four other churches in Oshkosh, how’d you choose us?”

“You’re the one downtown by the bus station aren’t you?”

“Couple blocks away. There’s two churches that are closer.”

“Don’t you have the breakfast?”

“Yeah, that’s us. Fourth Saturday of every month, serving eight to ten. Pancakes without preaching.”

“I been to that once.”

“I don’t remember you. Was I there?”

“I was the guy with the big scar across my face.”

I looked more closely. There had been a guest months before who had a wide, dark bruise from his left jaw to his right ear. The exact size of the baseball bat that broke his jaw and nearly caused him to lose sight in one eye. I imagined looking under the bruise, at the face across the glass from me. “I remember now! I didn’t recognize your name because I never knew your last name. Now I’m with you.”

He smiled sheepishly, boyishly. “That was me with the scar.”

“I remember, it was impressive, distinctive even. How long are you in for?”

“Dunno. They say I might could be out by spring, but I don’t know.”

Silence.

“What do you do every day? How do you pass the time?”

“Like I said, in seg all you can do is think. That gets pretty old.”

Silence.

“Would you say the breakfast at church is better than breakfast here?”

A wide smile dawned across his face. “Oh, man, there’s no comparison!”

“Excellent!” I say, taking out my pen and paper to make a note. “I can’t wait to tell the congregation that the food we serve is better than the Winnebago County jail’s! They’ll love hearing that!”

“Yeah, the food was all right. But there were flowers on the table.”

“That was Diana’s idea. She thought it would be more welcoming if we put flowers on the tables. She takes a lot of pride in that.”

“And the scrambled eggs; they were just right. They’re always either runny or rock hard here.”

“That’s Jimmy; he’s our egg man. He brings his own pan from home. Last month he forgot his spatula and had to use one we had at the kitchen. We teased him about how attached he was to it. He’ll be thrilled to hear what you said about the eggs.”

“Pastor John? Tell them, tell the whole church, they’re doin’ a good thing. A lot of good things. It’s not just the food. It’s…everything you people do.”

“I’ll tell them. I can’t wait to tell them. Thank you.”

 

Thomas C. Willadsen has been a Presbyterian minister for more than twenty-five years. He has been a Cresset contributor for nearly as long. He has served congregations in Minnesota, Maryland, and Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where he currently lives. His book OMG! LOL! Faith and Laughter was published by Gemma Open Door in 2012.

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