Note: This is the second in a three-part series by Chris Caldwell about his work in Kentucky prisons.
When I was preparing to teach in prisons, I thought about a lot of things: bars, windows, cells, towers and fences, to name a few. But tables and food never came to mind.
Tables matter, however, because things happen when people eat together. This is why, in the Bible, a table is seldom just a table. It’s a symbol, a marker, a boundary or a demonstration; which is why, in the world of the Bible, much hinged on who was or wasn’t at the table.
When I was a pastor, as I stepped to The Table for Communion, I would say, “This is God’s table, not our table, and so all are welcome to share in this meal.” And even though I walked past the chapel heading to the prison educational building, it never occurred to me I’d see God’s table on “the inside.” But I did.
Here’s what happened. A couple of times, the correctional officers, “CO’s,” had brought lunch in to my students in Styrofoam boxes. My students chuckled at me as I nibbled around the edges of the sorts of food I hadn’t seen since my student years in public schools. The third time, however, the CO said, “You know, the food’s a lot better in the mess hall, and you can eat there with them if you want.” And so we all followed her to a room that looked like a large public school cafeteria, where my students, the CO, and I were the only patrons.
Twice we did this — sitting around round metal tables with round attached metal stools. We all used the big community salt shaker and pepper shaker at the end of the serving line, and then we ate and talked for 15 minutes.
We had lots of discussion in my classes, and I had good conversations with all four groups of my students. But I only shared time around the table with these guys, and while maybe they didn’t sense it, for me I knew the table time created a unique connection between me and them.
Jeremiah chapter 52 connects prison and table: “So Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes, and every day of his life he dined regularly at the king’s table.” Sometime within five years (an eligibility requirement in our program), all my students will “put aside (their) prison clothes” like Jehoiachin. Many can’t return to their home tables, either because their family relationships are broken, or because their drug convictions can lead to their family’s eviction from federally supported housing. Other doors and tables will be closed to them, as they walk through life branded as “felons.”
I don’t have solutions for all this. And so as I often do, when I see no solution, I pray. O God who knows the promise of our very first day, and who knows and forgives us the sins of our very worst days, may you guide my students toward open tables, and better, wiser days.
Chris Caldwell is a member of the faculty and administration at Simmons College of Kentucky, a historic Black college founded in 1879. He also is a member of the BNG board.