The voice behind the blackened window told me to have a seat with my box of 10 books. She’d be out from behind the locked doors in a few minutes to retrieve it.
The only other person waiting on the hard metal mesh seats was a lady who struck up conversation about the nice mural painting on the wall. Since I didn’t say too much more, she again struck up conversation a minute later asking if I was a volunteer here. In retrospect, with so many people coming and going wanting to see their sons and daughters, I guess it was the box that said “Contents: 10 Books” that made her ask that. Maybe I just didn’t look like I was visiting anybody in jail.
She asked what sort of volunteering I did. “Trying to help the girls with critical thinking, being able to think for themselves. Basically, to give them some encouragement about their lives, that they were born beautiful and worthy.” She asked if I did this on the street. “No, I just come here. But there is a whole community out there who tries to do good for people all the time, who think this way.” She maintained her look right into my eyes, with a sweet need to talk. I finally added passively, “We’re atheists. We’re good people, despite what you hear about us.” She admitted shyly, but still looking right into my eyes that she didn’t know what that word really meant, and waited for me to explain. I did the “without a god” thing. That broke the dam. She began telling me, quietly, how she thinks churches really do damage to people. I tried to gently add a comment here or there, but she didn’t stop to let me. She had a few quiet comments about not really liking churches anymore and she had wondered what this atheist thing was. It was all in whispers.
At that point she was called to enter the metal detector area to go inside the locked doors for her visit. She kept looking back at me, saying one or two words with every turn. Finally, in such a polite demeanor said, “It was really nice meeting you” as she was escorted in. She stopped, turned again just before the door shut and added, “I’ll see you later.” She didn’t want the connection to end with a goodbye. It meant too much to her. I said I’d see her later, too.
Books Behind Bars Wish List – Pick the ones you care to purchase. They are delivered directly to me so I can get them to juvenile hall for their 5 libraries. Thanks. It means a lot. (Juvenile Hall Outreach is a project of AOF.)
First published in Sacramento Reason, available at sacramentoreason.org