Chautauqua Lake shares her famous name with the institution nestled along her southern shore deep into southwest New York. It is a Victorian-style village that for more than a century has been the epitome of inspiration, education and relaxation for summer visitors.
It was here, on a bright blue day two summers ago, that I picked up the phone and called Bill Wilcox in Lexington, Ky.
“Isaac is manic,” I said to the probation officer. “Better get him picked up before something bad happens.”
Isaac is my son, now 25 years old, and still as handsome, intelligent, artistic and kind as he has been every day of his life. He is also big and strong, good gifts to have considering where he is today.
Where he is today is a federal prison situated on the rolling hills of the SusquehannaValley in central Pennsylvania.
How he got there has been determined in large measure by the mysterious mixture of emotional, mental and moral confusion that seemed to control his ideas and actions.
We have walked with him down this strange and terrifying road. We looked desperately for some place blending medicine, prayer and therapy in a structured environment. It would be, we thought, his salvation.
His misdemeanors kept him out of the military; his non-violent disposition made him unfit for hospitals. Such people, we learned, live in jails and under bridges. The largest population, we read, is housed in the Los Angeles County Detention Center.
So it came to pass that, a mere six hours after my concerned call to the office of probation, Isaac walked into his own bank armed only with a piece of paper; he walked out with a wad of cash. They called us that night, much to our grief; they caught him a week later, much to our relief.
Like Jean Valjean, he is now a number 03348061.
Not all the news is bad. Isaac has an easel in the art room, a position on the basketball team, a place in a therapy group, a stool in the dental lab, and a steady supply of a medicine that has reshaped his spirit. Sunday morning he goes to church; Sunday night he calls home. We are thrilled when the phone rings.
What threatens our peace is something down the road.
In 2007, my son will join 700,000 men and women leaving life behind bars for a fresh start on life. He will walk out with the clothes on his back and a few dollars in his pocket. What will lie before him is seeking work, securing shelter, finding friends, making amends and, most of all, clutching hope.
It will not be easy. A few weeks ago Time magazine, in a story entitled “Outside the Gates,” featured one young adult man in “the throes of re-entry.”
Society does not make it easy, the article explained. After two decades of “lock ’em up and toss the key,” the support for such people has withered.
Rehabilitation has gone out of fashion; education programs have been cut; welfare and housing have been restricted; and there is a growing list of occupations no longer open to felons. In many states, the voting booth is closed and in all the states the passport is denied.
What to do.
To see a need, it has been said, is to hear a call.
I know about the call. Since my adolescence, I have treasured a call, a vocation: for 25 years I have been preacher and teacher, first in the congregation, now on the campus.
But the need I now confront with both personal and professional interest is this: how to help one young man especially, and perhaps others, to sleep in a safe place and work for steady pay and hope for a happy life.
Visions form in my mind. I see a building with personal living quarters clustered around a common space. I see a workshop where things of beauty and usefulness are shaped and sold. I see gardens and courts and a yard that opens to the horizon in all directions. I see men at work and play, learning the skills and earning the bucks that make re-entry a possible task.
I see all this but I don’t know what it means.
Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.