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Growing up in West Chicago amidst extreme poverty and an ever-shifting cultural landscape, young people often witnessed horrible things happening to the people around them. Eddie was no exception, only fourteen-years-old the first time he witnessed someone shot dead right in front of him. Violence was seemingly inescapable. “I felt this all around me,” he says. “There was a need for me to find ways to protect and care for my siblings. And so one of [these ways] was joining the street gang.”
But he soon learned the security his gang seemed to offer wouldn’t keep him away from the suffering around them. After two of Eddie’s friends were shot, one being paralyzed, Eddie went back and retaliated. “And next thing you know, I’m in front of a judge being sentenced to twenty years in prison in the state of Illinois.”
Eddie ended up serving fourteen years before his release, “and those years weren’t light,” he says. “It’s a lot of challenges. But part of those challenges is trying to rediscover who you are.”
Entering the prison chapel one day, he found a table with “beautiful images…what I thought back then were postcards, and what I would consider today as being icons…This was my introduction to Orthodox Christianity.” On the front of the icon was St. Dismas the Good Thief; on the back was the mailing address to OCPM.
Through Eddie’s encounter with Orthodox Christianity, prison became an opportunity for real change. “I am so grateful that God allowed me to experience prison. I regret the things that I did that led me to prison, but I am so grateful that God allowed me to experience prison,” he says. For Eddie, prison allowed him the opportunity “to humanize people around me who were cast aside.”
Now a national voice for violence prevention, Eddie turns his experience back onto other Orthodox Christians. What does his experience have to say for others in the Church? “In many ways, people in prison are trying to find ways to heal in the best way they can.” If the Church is a spiritual hospital, prison can be a similarly healing environment. Unfortunately, those of us in the Church can still feel a divide between us and those in prison, particularly if our parish is preparing to welcome someone after his or her release.
“I think [prison ministry] is really important. As Orthodox Christians, we take a step forward and push our comfort zone to meet people where they’re at.” Those in prison or released from prison may not be like people we know, people already in our parish, people next door to us. “We have to challenge ourselves and our perceptions to truly find Christ and every person that we come across. When we think about when Christ was walking on this earth, where we’re required to go, He was walking with those that needed healing, those that needed hope. There are so many stories across Scripture that that highlight that. And so as Christians, and especially as Orthodox Christians, we are called to work with those in the margins.”