I do not remember her name but I will never forget her. She was both the most impressive and most tragic person I have ever met. I met her in jail. It was a county jail in a rural town. I was there to conduct a Sunday service of sorts. It was basically a handful of men sitting around a table in the "library." The room couldn't have been more than 20 feet by 20 feet. After the men, the women came in for their service. On this Sunday there were only two parishioners at the female service. Actually, there were only two female inmates in the whole facility. This wasn't prison; this was jail. Everybody there was in a holding pattern. Most of them were waiting for the workweek to begin so they could meet their lawyers to discuss whatever charge they were arrested for over the weekend. Drugs, bar fights, or domestic disputes were the usual offenses.
The first woman to enter the room was young, twenty-six years old I would find out later. Well-spoken, educated, nice-looking, someone who, by her outward appearance (besides the gray county-issued sweatpants) looked like she had it together. The second woman was older, maybe early sixties. She was from Mexico. I do not know why she was in jail. I don't think she did either. Waiting for a deportation hearing was my guess. She spoke no English and my Spanish is all but non-existent. I read to her from a Santa Biblia that was in the library/chapel. She nodded as if she understood what I was saying. I do not know if she did. I felt pretty ashamed that I hadn't taken more Spanish in my formative years. The younger woman could translate a little bit. We had a nice service, I guess. We all left, one scared, one in control, and one a bit ashamed (me).
I came back the next Sunday. The men were a bit rowdy that day. I had a huge crowd, fifteen or so men, basically the whole jail. I was excited until I found out why such a large crowd attended. They were being disciplined. All their privileges were taken away including television. I do not know why; a fight maybe? They couldn't be barred from "church" so they all decided to attend my service just to get out of the bunk room/cell for forty-five minutes. After they shuffled out the women entered. Actually, a single woman, the twenty-six-year-old. The woman's side of the jail housed the same two females since the last time I visited. I asked her about her cellmate, the elderly immigrant. She said the old lady was frightened.
"Can you communicate with her?" I asked.
"Yes," was the reply.
"You speak Spanish then, right?"
"No, but I know Italian."
I was a bit stunned. This was rural America. This younger woman was Lakota. I am not sure if she even finished high school.
"I went away to a boarding school. A Lakota school. We learned Lakota and Italian."
I asked her to teach me a Lakota word. I didn't think learning Italian would serve me much in my situation. She told me the word for love. "Thečhíȟila." It means "I love you." I will confess that I did not remember the word. I looked it up as I wrote this. It literally means "I suffer for you."
Anyway, we started to talk about language. There would be no service that day. This lady blew me away. She was a savant. Absolutely brilliant. I asked her if she dreamed in different languages. She did. I was fascinated. We talked for a long time. We talked about how the English language doesn't have the depth of other languages especially when it comes to expressing a concept like love. She regaled me with the Lakota concept of love. Soon she opened up.
"I have been running for twenty years." She meant using. First marijuana then heroin. I didn't ask why such a brilliant woman was stuck in this pathetic room with me. I knew why even if I didn't know what charges she was facing.
I did the math. Twenty years? She was only twenty-six. I asked her about this. She admitted that smoking weed began at six years old, with her mother. I didn't question the veracity of the statement. Maybe it was an exaggeration but she wasn't bragging or looking for sympathy. It just was the way it was. She had a boyfriend. She loved him and he loved her. In fact, I had met him. He was one of the males who came to my little church service. He listened. He asked questions. I brought him a Bible. He was truly thankful. He even insisted that I sign it which I thought was weird. But I understood. I brought him the gospel. My card was in it. I hoped he would call someday. Over the weeks I passed verbal notes between the couple. I am sure I wasn't supposed to but it was a county jail and the rules were relaxed. The inmates all knew the guards both inside and outside of the county facility. The line between the two was thin. The couple had two boys, one autistic. They were currently staying with the woman's mother.
I do not remember the exact order of the next weeks but I do remember one Sunday when nobody came to the woman's service. I saw four women pass by the window of the library/chapel in which I was sitting and waiting. They had declined this Sunday's invitation to church. My new friend saw me but ignored me. Another week she came with some of her friends. She was cold. As if we hadn't made a connection. Maybe she didn't want to be vulnerable in front of her cellmates. Who knows?
Another time she came alone, the jail was fairly empty that weekend. Must have been a quiet weekend at the bars. En route to the library/chapel, she had been informed about her best friend. She committed suicide the night before. The emotion was raw as she walked into the makeshift chapel. I let her cry for a long time. Then we talked. We talked about Jesus, God, life, death, heaven, sins, and grace. She cried. I cried with her.
The time I remember the most was another Sunday in which she was my only congregant. We talked about language again and in particular, love. I wanted her to talk as much as I wanted to preach to her. We couldn't have been any different. Male and female. Caucasian and Native. Free and imprisoned. Sober and recovering. Materially blessed and poor. A normal guy and a savant. But here we were brought together by language. And in particular the language of love. More accurately, the language of Christ. We talked about the power of words. God's Word has creative power. "Let there be light,” and there was light. We talked about how God "babbeled" us when we tried to build a tower reaching into the heavens. He attacked our words! We talked about the dynamis of the Gospel (Rom. 1:16). The gospel Word is active and powerful. It moves and is dynamic. It is the power to save.
I did the C.S. Lewis "Four Loves" thing, well, my version of it. Many languages have multiple words for love. English speakers have access to many words for love too but we tend to stick with "love." We use it to describe both our favorite dessert and the love we have for spouses and children. That doesn't seem right, does it? I asked a professor of mine whether that was because we English speakers are so shallow that we do not vary our vocabulary when speaking of love. Or, was it that the English language was so poor that we English speakers are limited by the language and that affects how we love. He immediately said the latter. It is probably a little of both.
That tiny library/chapel was like a grad school classroom that Sunday afternoon. The teacher taught but the student happened to be smarter. We learned together. My Greek wasn't as impressive as her English, Italian, Lakota, and whatever other languages this prodigy picked up in her two and half decades so far. I told her about the Greek concept of philia. Philia is the love of friendship. It is a real and powerful love. It is the love you have with lifelong friends. While there can be a deep philia bond, philia love is generally the love of similars. We tend to choose our friends as opposed to our family or even our spouses (falling in love is something different than choosing to hang out with someone because you share similar interests). This love can be put down and picked up again. I cannot do that with my wife. She is a part of me. We are one flesh. Putting her down would be putting a part of me down.
But you can put philia down for years and pick it back up again. It is a beautiful thing. And we need this. We need friendships outside of the family. We need those people who have seen us at our worst and still want to be around us! They are good for the soul. She related to this. Her friends shared experiences and sufferings I could never know. They had a special bond. She loved them. She suffered for them in a Lakota way.
The second love is eros. The word "erotic" is derived from this Greek root. If philia is the love of similars, perhaps eros could be described as the love of opposites like a man and a woman. It is physical. It is not really chosen, it is on a different level. Eros can be passionate and physical like when two people fall in love and yet one can have an "eros" for war. It is not limited to sexual attraction. She lived this. There was no shortage of emotions in this young woman considering all she had endured.
The third love is storge. Empathy and affection are good translations of this word. It is the love of natural bonds. Friendship could be included in this category if we think of philia as a special kind of friendship love, the kind that forms groups and movements. Think of a special bond when a group of people come together and work together so brilliantly that they bond together. It might also describe the love of duty. Remembering ancestors was important for the Greeks. This is storge love. We might think of visiting a grandparent in a nursing home or perhaps the duty a soldier has for his country. My student knew this well too. She was a daughter. She was a mother.
Then there is agape. This is the unconditional love of Christ for us and the love Christ gives to the world through us as much as we might dilute it. It is the basis for all true love. This love always has the best interest of the object of love in mind. It is the love that is willing to be the "bad guy" when a parent needs to be firm with a child or a friend must speak harsh truth. It is the love Paul expounds in 1 Corinthians 13. It is the love of the cross of Christ. It is the love Christians have for others as sinfully tainted as it might be. My congregant that day knew this love too. She loved those who had harmed her. She loved those she harmed. She had been loved by Love.
Then she was gone. After a couple of Sundays of not seeing her, I asked her boyfriend about her whereabouts. She had been admitted to a rehabilitation center in another part of the state. Good for her. The next week I found out that she had walked out of the facility. He didn't know where she was, the mother of his children. He was sad but not surprised. Then he was gone too. I do not know what happened to either of them. I had hopes for him. He was a father. I think he would do what needed to be done. I wasn't as optimistic about her. Maybe I am overly pessimistic but I figured there were only three options for her: prison, a rehabilitation center, or the grave. My time with her was sad but beautiful as only a gospel encounter can be. If I had met her in any other situation, I would have been so impressed with her that I would never forget her. She was that brilliant. I will never forget her for another reason though. I will never forget her because the gospel was preached to a tragic soul.
I am convinced that I will never again meet a person more fascinating than her. Nobody more brilliant and nobody more tragic. As I look back I choose to remember her not as a waste of talent or a walking tragedy or a symbol of what Native Americans have endured but as a soul redeemed by Christ. A beautiful and brilliant person living a full and flourishing life with her Lord. I hope to meet her again. I hope to meet her again at the Lamb's High Feast. I think I will.