My friend Kevin Spencer knows what it is to face the daily dreariness, and sometimes horror, of a life behind bars. Beginning in 1987, he spent seven years in the Florida Department of Corrections. From that dark time he has many stories to share, but one sticks out to me as a beautiful example of the profound simplicity of God’s presence in one man’s place of pain. Here is Kevin’s story…
I stood in a long shuffling line of inmates that slowly approached the prison mail room. The mail room was actually a separate building on the grounds of the Florida Department of Corrections. We were lined up in front of a small window where the officer assigned to handle our mail read, censored, and dispensed our contacts with the outside the world.
I was in prison, a victim of my own stupidity. It was Fall, the season which throughout my life had been my favorite time of year. Now, my spirits were at rock bottom. I had been here a little over a year, and despite my Lord’s promise to me that I would go home, I could see no end to my incarceration. I was stuck here. I missed home. I missed the changing of the seasons.
In central Florida, the seasons don’t change. Okay, that’s unkind. There actually are two seasons in Florida: The brutally hot green leaf season, and the not so warm brown leaf season. Here at the prison, we were currently in the transition between the two. I so missed seeing the leaves change color. It was bad enough seeing the outside world through a double chain-link fence topped with barbed razor wire, but to watch the distant Ocala National Forest just slowly turn from green to olive to brown was even more depressing.
My heart was empty. I didn’t think God was listening to me anymore, but as I stood in the line, I silently prayed again: “Please Father, I just want to go home. Please.”
Finally, I got to the mail window. I was fortunate in that my dad wrote to me almost every day. Sometimes just a couple of lines. Usually some clippings from the local paper about life at home in Raleigh, and later Lincolnton, North Carolina. Dad was great at writing. And the result was that I was in the mail line every day, and the mail officer knew me perhaps better than she knew some of the other inmates.
She looked up as I approached, and I saw something in her face as she saw me. She motioned me to step to the side door. This had never happened before, but I did as I was told.
She opened the side door, and told me: “I can’t let you have this, but I’m going to let you see it.” She handed me a large manila envelope. It was from my dad. When I opened it, out slid a handful of red, yellow, and orange leaves that Dad had evidently picked up in the yard. Knowing how much I missed the seasons, he had decided to send them to me. My eyes welled up as I fingered the leaves for a second, and I smiled at the thought of my dad walking through the yard picking them up like a little boy.
“I’m sorry I can’t let you have them,” the officer said. I struggled to keep back the tears and mumbled something about it being okay. And fingering the leaves one last time, I handed them back.
“Thank you,” I told her.
“You’re welcome,” she replied. And then, as she shut the door, she said, “Watch your feet.”
Glancing down automatically as the door clicked shut, I saw at my feet a bright scarlet Sugar Maple leaf. She had dropped it there for me. A small kindness. I scooped it up and stashed it in my Bible. I didn’t get to go home that day, but God had brought a small piece of home to me. I carried that leaf in my Bible until the day I was finally released. It served as a reminder that God’s love was with me even there in prison, and that He was listening to my prayers always.