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Ain't no such thing as a free lunch....

By Klym ~

As I was walking across the parking lot and into the jail lobby, I noticed some men at a table shouting, "Free hotdogs, chips, and water." I had not seen them before on my prior visits, so I continued on into the jail with my ten year old cousin (actually, she is my cousin twice-removed) and her mother (my cousin once-removed). We were there to visit her son (the ten year old's brother) who has been incarcerated for the past two months because of problems related to his drug addictions.

Twenty years prior to this I had been a caseworker at the nearby MHMR (mental health mental retardation) center and I had visited this jail occasionally to counsel inmates who had mental health issues. I thought that that long ago experience had prepared me to visit my relative, but I was wrong. It is one thing to serve a client and quite another to visit a child I had watched grow up from a wonderful, brilliant young boy to become a troubled teenager mixed up with drugs and the justice system. It is heartbreaking beyond words. I love this young man like a son and it pains me that the choices he has made have put him in this predicament.

He and I have a special bond. When he was 11 and his younger brother was 8, my husband and I took them to Cancun. The boys had never flown on a jet or seen the ocean before that. We had an amazing time together---one of many wonderful experiences we have shared through the years. I am childless by choice, but these kids are my pride and joy. I was 15 years old when their mother was born and she stayed with me during summers---she was like my child, and now her children are like grandchildren to me. I can't imagine life without them!

Anyway, back to the jail....During his last prolonged span of being sober (SIX whole weeks!), he began attending my church with me. I go to an extremely liberal and progressive Unitarian Universalist church in a city a few miles north of the community I live in. He and I had profound and thought-provoking conversations on the way to and from church each Sunday for several weeks at the beginning of this past summer. I was so happy because I finally had someone in my family to share my non-belief with. He was raised in the Christian church, but it never did ring true for him. He was always a skeptic like me and even though I am 40 years older than him, we related on a level that transcended generational differences.

So, that's how I came to be walking into the jail lobby. My ten year old cousin decided to go out to the parking lot to get a free hot dog. When she returned to the lobby, I went to get a bottle of water and some chips.There were two men manning the table and I thanked them for their generosity. One of the men asked me if I had a loved one in the jail. (I thought this was a strange question---why the heck would I be in the jail parking lot taking advantage of free food if I wasn't there to see someone? DUH!)

I am so damned naive---I'm 60 years old and still a sucker in so many ways. I should have known this was leading to another series of questions! About the time I answered yes to his question, I noticed a small embroidered cross on his T-shirt. Oh, shit, here it comes!!!

The next thing I know he is handing me a card and telling me that he is a minister at a local church and that he runs the "Celebrate Recovery" program there. Crap, crap, and double crap! I hastily replied that I don't live in that town and started to walk away. He followed me. He asked where I lived and when I told him, he said that the same program is offered at a church in my town. He told me that if my imprisoned loved one is an addict, I should start going to the meetings there and then get him involved when he gets out of jail. I told him I had checked out an Al-Anon program and that my relative had attended AA meetings sporadically in the past.

Then came the sales pitch---he replied, "Oh, WE follow an eight step program but WE are CHRISTIAN based. AA is NOT a Christian program. Are you familiar with Jesus' Beatitudes in the book of Matthew?" I told him that yes, I know the beatitudes. All the while I am wondering inside my head why I am continuing to talk to this guy? Why didn't I just tell him I was NOT interested and high-tail it away from him? I wanted to return the water and chips and complain that I didn't realize the "free" food was a trick used to lure unsuspecting people into being preached at. I wanted to tell him I'm a non-believer, and that my cousin in jail is also a non-believer, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I just stood there, shocked that a person feels no guilt whatsoever for offering food to people who are vulnerable and suffering because someone they care about is in jail and then forcing their beliefs onto these same people. Of course, I'm sure he viewed this as a ministry---give them food and then they will feel obligated to hear his spiel. And, maybe Celebrate Recovery is a wonderful program for addicts, but I don't appreciate the way it was presented to me.

The next thing I know he is handing me a card and telling me that he is a minister at a local church and that he runs the "Celebrate Recovery" program there. Crap, crap, and double crap! Finally, I got away from him and went back into the jail lobby. I asked my 10 year old cousin if he'd said anything to her when she got her hot dog. She said no. Whew---well, at least he wasn't preaching at young children! I sat down and looked at the "business" card he had given me. His name was Ernie. About an hour later "Ernie" came into the lobby and announced to everyone there that he had "three more hot dogs, sponsored by the Celebrate Recovery Program, and that if anyone was hungry, they could come out and get them." No one took the bait. I figure most of us had already been preached at and it just wasn't worth the "price" for more food. I'll just be hungry, thank you very much!

On the back of the card were the "eight steps to recovery" based on Matthew 5:3-10. (I'm sure Jesus told the people who listened to his Sermon on the Mount that this was a model for overcoming addiction--Ha Ha!) Among the steps are accepting that "God is God and I'm not" vs. 3; "I choose to pray, read the Bible, meditate on God and my actions daily" (no verse reference for that step); "Trust that God loves me in spite of my past behavior" vs. 4---gotta throw in the guilt and shame, of course; and so on.

When I got in to visit my cousin I showed him the card. That is, I held it up to the window between us so that he could read it. We laughed about it and he said they have the program at the jail on Monday nights. He said he would go to it for something to do except that he has to work in the kitchen on that night.

I figure when a person is in jail, they'll attend anything to break the monotony of their days. And, if this program would save my cousin from a life of prison and addiction, then I'm all for it. I just hate that it's a Christian program because I know that in addition to the help offered, there will be a price to pay. The help, like the food offered at the table in the parking lot, will not be free!

I googled the Beatitudes and reread them. And, of course, the actual words of Jesus' sermon (which we all know are a translation of a translation of a translation from a man who may or may not have existed) have been severely twisted into the eight steps. For example, Verse 3 states: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." How the hell did they get "God is God and I'm not" from that verse???!!! Sigh.....

The last of the eight steps listed is "to go forward in the world and tell others what I have learned." vs. 10. (The actual words from v.10 are "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.) Again, HOW does THAT become "telling others what I have learned??!!"

Well, I'll tell you what I have learned from this experience! I learned that I have moments of courage when I can tell others that I'm not a believer and moments (of cowardice?) when I just keep my mouth shut. I learned that there seem to be no limits to my gullibility. I learned that Christians use many different tactics to dupe/deceive people into hearing their message. And lastly, and most importantly, I learned that there is no such thing as a FREE hotdog!