When the Lights Go Out


Going to jail was not on the itinerary. I have managed to avoid that fate pretty consistently thus far, except for a few games of Monopoly. My previous trip behind bars had been part of a project to visit vital Quaker meetings. A group from Sing Sing prison participated in the study, which prompted my journey there. I used to joke that it was the only meeting I knew where committing a crime was a criterion for membership. Honestly, that visit proved to be memorable and transformational in various ways.

This second opportunity was a surprise addition to a two-week class designed to introduce matters that arise in ministry across cultural boundaries. Mexico was the chosen location.  We formed many friendships in the Quaker church that hosted us there, some of which endure to this day. An alumnus in the area helped coordinate several details, one of which was a visit to a local prison. He thought it would be useful to observe some of the differences between their system and ones in the U.S. Among the things I remember was more availability for time with family, including some children. Relatives provided more necessities there than I think occurs here. They also had an amazing cottage industry making largish solid wood rocking chairs. I have no doubt that I broke a commandment by coveting one of them. Supposedly, they were sold somewhere in Texas, but nobody seemed to know where. Unfortunately, the prison didn’t have a gift shop where visitors could purchase them. Neither could I convince anyone to transport one to Indiana on their next trip to the U.S. I could imagine a Beverly Hillbillies sort of look, with a rocker strapped to the top of the vehicle as it passed through the border patrol but there were no takers for that idea. But the thing I remember most about the experience was the moment the lights went out.

We received wrist stamps upon entry to the facility so that we could be identified as visitors. The ink made it appear as though we were all about to go clubbing. It is doubtful that anyone would have actually confused us with the general population, but those stamps were our “Get Out of Jail Free” card.  

A couple of helpful officers provided a brief introduction to the operations. Our group of seven or so folks had been invited into a small, windowless, empty room to be searched before we were allowed to enter the next section.  It felt to me like it would be an ideal location for solitary confinement. The door was closed so that we could talk without distractions from the outer yard. We visitors lined around the walls of the room, listening intently. Suddenly, without so much as a flicker of a warning, the lights went out. With no window, total darkness made us its hostages. I don’t recall even seeing the light around the cracks of the door. There was no escaping the collective gasps from the group as our eyes adjusted and we processed the confusion of what was happening. Was it a trap? Were we going to need to extend the class a few weeks while we served our terms? Almost immediately, my mind’s jukebox whipped out an edition of Vicky Lawrence singing “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” only the location was updated to Mexico. The song tells the story of hanging an innocent man – which appeared nowhere on the learning objectives for this class. None of us, including the employees, were certain of what was happening. One of them had the presence of mind to flip on his flashlight and survey the room. Turns out, I was the culprit. In leaning back against the wall, I had inadvertently pressed the light switch and turned them off. Whew! Crisis averted. We all laughed, including the officers. Fortunately, no handcuffs were required to resolve the incident that day.

The man with the light was a wise employee. It reminds me of a number of technology repair visits or calls when the first question is a simple one: Is the unit plugged in? Perhaps it is the repair person’s version of Ockham’s Razor to start with the simplest solution and work from there.

In the moment, I confess there was a flash of fear and dread. Maybe my mind has been invaded by too many Hollywood images about Mexican prisons. Or perhaps it was a remnant from an earlier trip to Mexico where our vehicle was stopped at a state line, luggage was unloaded, and random searches were conducted. The seriousness etched in the faces of those officers made the TSA look like Walmart greeters. I felt relief on that 90+ degree day when it became apparent they were more interested in “searching” the refrigerated cargo area of a truck they’d pulled aside than rifling through tourists’ dirty clothes. That would not be our fate that day. The wise officer whose comments had been interrupted by the power outage calmly instructed me to turn on the lights. The conversation continued. More importantly, we avoided a long-term stay that day.

The visit reminds me that sometimes the answers to life’s problems are not complex at all. Let’s spare ourselves the drama and the angst. Not every hand needs to be played as though it is a matter of life and death. Often, we merely need the presence of mind to start with the simplest solution, even if we’re certain that it couldn’t possibly be the cause.

That day also reminds me of the benefit and power of venturing outside one’s comfort zone. It may be uncomfortable on occasion. It could occasionally overwhelm us. Venturing into a contained space with strangers who hold all the guns, cuffs, and keys (or authority in whatever form) can feel risky. But it helps us see what others experience, or how they see the world. We may even learn how they view us, which could well surprise you. In opening our eyes to their point of view, our ability to converse or relate to them improves.

Sometimes our little excursions across the border to a new culture or experience go smoothly enough. But every now and again, we stumble. We trip on a custom we did not know existed. Or we ignore an essential practice that seems like a no-brainer to all the locals. Or, we merely rest against a wall and throw the group into darkness. In moments like those, the words from a humorous safety briefing on a riverboat come to mind. “Should this vessel sink or should you fall overboard, simply stand up.” Or a post card that was placed in my study carrel in grad school: “Warning: I am a Quaker. In case of emergency, please be quiet.” Or the lesson learned that day in a Mexican prison: When you wind up in an unsuspected place and darkness threatens to consume you, simply turn on the Light.

By the way, I’d still like one of those rocking chairs if you know somebody with connections!

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