The Power of a Touch
This is a report from OSWM, a Watchman serving behind the walls of a west coast prison.
It has taken me a few months to process my feelings on what was, for me, a traumatic event. I pray my story communicates the importance and power of a touch.
I was escorted to a medical office on the north side of the prison grounds. I have a medical issue that requires monthly bloodwork and a physical exam. Awaiting one such exam, I sat in a small office, on a metal stool bolted to the floor, and gave a subconscious frown at the chipped paint on the stark cement walls while the doctor reviewed the medical history notes in her file.
I sat silent – afraid to speak. I was filled with anger, worry, shame, and questions and was on the verge of tears. Perhaps here would be an appropriate place to note that I thought I was a fairly tough and mentally strong individual – accustomed to bumps and bruises and being around difficult and disagreeable people. Despite those strengths, I have found that I was totally unprepared for prison life’s harsh reality.
The doctor began her exam – a simple balance and strength test, and somehow noticed I carried a burden. The exam continued in silence – me afraid to speak, and her not sure what to say. She worked her way up – checking my legs, then my lower back, then upper back, but when she reached my shoulders, she left one hand there for just a few seconds longer than expected. I glanced at her, and she gave a slight but compassionate nod, acknowledging my sadness and expressing care.
She quickly turned to her desk, fumbling through papers, to give me a moment as tears began to fall. The gentle touch triggered a release that refreshed my spirit. I knew I was not alone, that God remained faithful, but the day had been so long and hard; my faith was stretched to the breaking point. Like lancing an abscess, the doctor’s brief touch meaningfully helped there to be a release of the negative that lurked within and threatened to overwhelm.
Expertly, the doctor began to share the positive aspects of my medical exam. Keeping things light, she gently asked simple questions that required minimal responses. The difficulty of her medical questions corresponded to her perception of my ability to answer. Then, to my great surprise, she asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?” Such a question from a staff member at an overcrowded prison is incredibly rare. I sensed the Spirit’s leading and shared what my previous 24 hours had been like.
I told her that I had been chosen to serve as a “Porter,” tasked to assist with various cleaning and laundry needs. This position of trust allowed me to be “out of the cell” a few hours each day. I would be in contact with several hundred inmates on 4 different tiers in my cell block. Circulating about on my prescribed route, I overheard gang members expressing great anger over recent cell searches and concern that future searches would jeopardize a planned large shipment of incoming drugs.
Their anger was focused toward one female guard in particular, who happened to be the point person on several recent cell searches. The men discussed details of the fairly recent murder of a female guard at a sister prison located about 75 miles away. I became concerned about the guard’s safety and decided to warn her.
Understand, unless a matter concerns a specific work issue, most inmates who speak to guards, for any reason, are beaten by members of any of the four prominent gangs here. These gangs have a presence on every tier and in every prison, so escape from retribution is seldom possible. Knowing this, I quickly and subtly told the female guard there was a safety concern I wanted to share with her.
She knew openly speaking with me could put me in danger, so she said she’d arrange something. I took that to mean I would receive a special work assignment where officers would talk to me privately in a storeroom or other private area. So I went back to my cell and waited for dinner (and a possible, brief call-out to work later that evening).
About 30 minutes later, several large unfamiliar guards stood in front of my cell. They held up some papers and gruffly called out my last name. I stood and confirmed my identity. They opened the cell door and told me, “Get out!” They briskly walked me to the end of the corridor – in sight of everyone on my tier, searched me, spun me around, handcuffed me behind the back, and put me in what inmates call “The Cage.”
The cage is a harsh, medieval-looking, metal-barred, narrow cage that resembles an old, narrow phone booth. It is designed to isolate, intimidate, and humiliate. My recent surgery made my positioning uncomfortable. I could not move. There I sat for 45 minutes while inmates shouted an assortment of encouragement and curses.
When the lead Sargent arrived, I was led away by large officers, one on each side, each moving me swiftly along by grasping my biceps. I was told my meager belongings would be sent to me and that I would not be returning to my cell. I was then put in a transport vehicle and questioned by multiple officers for an hour, then taken to another cell block, given a blanket, sheet, and a 1.5” worn mattress. I was told to sleep on the cement floor in a small cell that already had 2 occupants. I had missed dinner but was not hungry.
The next morning I woke up cold. My arms and wrists hurt, and I still had no pillow or coat or any of my belongings. I felt alone – the few friends I had were in my old cell block. This cell block had many active gang members, and I was greatly concerned that somehow word of my being a kind of informant would get out.
Only later did I realize that my rough treatment by officers was for my benefit – a kind of show for the men on the tier – to indicate I was an enemy of the officers, not someone who cared for their welfare. An hour later, I received a call to go to medical and, surprisingly, found myself telling a patient, compassionate physician my story.
The doctor listened attentively, created a medical override order to have me moved off the floor. This was an act of compassion and also in response to concerns regarding a recent surgery. She gave a light touch on my knee and said she wished she could do more. I thanked her for letting me vent, and for her time and care. She put me in a waiting room, alone, with the freedom to wait there until I felt ready to return to my cell.
Was she an evangelist? No. But was she a powerful witness – did she share the love of Christ? Yes.
She offered the maximum level of support she could given the restraints of her job and my incarceration. She provided what I needed at the time to push through and keep-on for Christ. That physician provided a healing touch on many levels that day.
Jesus noticed. Jesus touched. He touched the leaper He healed in Mark 1. He touched a lame man in Mark 6. He touched the eyes of a blind man in Mark 8. In Luke 17, He touched the widow’s dead child’s coffin, an act forbidden by Jewish ceremonial law.
Certainly, Jesus could heal from afar. Jesus could have healed without ever touching people, and He did many times. Jesus proved this when He healed the Centurion’s servant in Matthew 8 when his child was in a different city.
But Jesus did touch. Why? It was an extra measure of grace. Jesus touched those wounded in both body and spirit. The touch of Jesus is mentioned in Scripture because it was meaningful to those who received it, and it links Jesus not just to power but also with compassion.
A touch does not always need to be physical. For example, Scripture notes that God touched David’s heart. A touch is a meaningful extra step we can take to help and encourage those whom Jesus called “poor in Spirit.”
It may take a few minutes. It may cost a few dollars. It may push us outside our comfort zone or knock us off our schedule. But in a world where apathy, narcissism, and selfishness abound, do not underestimate the power of a touch. A small act of compassion can open the door to big opportunities to witness.
“Preach the Gospel. Use words when necessary.” – Attributed to St. Francis of Assisi
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