Bearing Witness

I volunteer in prison in two capacities: leading a secular mindfulness meditation group and holding one-on-one visits with prisoners. The sharing in group is powerful: courage, wisdom, and vulnerability. Yet the sharing in pastoral visits goes deeper. In that safe, confidential space, prisoners open their hearts and share their stories. I bear witness to the cycles of violence, neglect, and abuse. Men in prison for violence were beaten up as kids. Men in prison for drug use were surrounded by drugs and neglect as kids. It’s a harsh, heartbreaking reality, but these are the vicious cycles of humanity. And still, some prisoners choose to transform this cycle, which is an inspiring process to witness.

Research shows that kids who experience trauma(s) are more resilient if at least one solid, caring adult is in their life. I ask prisoners, “Growing up, was there anyone in your life who was dependable, supportive, and kind?” Often, the answer is a hesitant “no”: “Well, I guess my mom is that, but she’s still pretty mean,” “Maybe my grandma, but she never writes,” “Not my dad, I never knew him.”

Another harsh reality: I may be the first kind, caring person a prisoner interacts with. This is what keeps me going inside, through metal detectors and big steel doors. I hope to be a dependable, compassionate person to these men (and the little kids within them).

But I’m not writing this as a story of “me.” It could be anyone going into prison, supporting the inmates. It could be anyone serving people in need. It could be anyone showing up for friends in grief, transition, or difficulty.

I’m writing this as a story of compassion, care, and presence. A story of listening: letting people be seen and heard. A story of how we impact each other—not just our loved ones but people we don’t know very well. We have daily opportunities to be kind. They may seem small and unimportant, but they’re the place we create change. In a fearful world, kindness matters. Curiosity, love, and understanding matter. Listening matters.

We never know the exact moment when we’re the person who positively and significantly impacts another person's life.