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Transforming Love: Behind Prison Walls

A Sermon by Randall Newcomb

October 30, 2016


White Hawk was the angriest person I have ever encountered. 

I met White Hawk at 8AM on Christmas Eve morning. 

He had shackles on his hands and feet that were connected to a chain around his waist. The guard sat him down and padlocked the handcuffs to a metal loop on the table. With his hands held together by the handcuffs he picked up the telephone receiver. 

On the other side of the glass I picked up my receiver and greeted him. I was his first visitor he’d ever had since he’d started his sentence more than half a decade earlier.

White Hawk was being held in Administrative Segregation. That is prison speak for “does not work and play well with others.” In administrative segregation or Ad Seg an inmate is locked in their cell for 23 hours a day. They are allowed out of the cell 1 hour a day for shower and recreation. In this case recreation meant walking in a circle in a 10x20 room. 

If an inmate has committed a major breach of the rules such as fighting, striking a guard, or making weapons, they may land in Ad Seg. The regulations state that the maximum stay in Ad Seg is 60 days. White Hawk had been in Ad Seg for 6 years. 

Every time he would near the end of his 60 days he would intentionally violate a rule in order to get thrown back in for another 60 days.

We met through a program called M2 or Man-to-Man. The idea is to pair up a person in prison with someone on the outside.

White Hawk was in his 30s when I met him. He had already served 5 years in a state prison and 7 years in a federal prison before this stretch which was 16 years for aggravated assault. 

He was born on the Standing Rock Reservation into the Hunkpapa tribe of the Lakota people among rampant alcoholism, poverty, and despair. 

He was 9 years old when his mother died. After that he began getting into more and more trouble. At 12 years of age the juvenile system sent him off to a boarding school operated by a church. 

There he was physically beaten.

I was white, and I was a Christian. Therefore, I embodied everything he hated. 

We would meet for an hour each week and I’d listen to the stories of his life. Each visit his anger became more and more palpable. Had his anger been flames I would have died in the fire.

I questioned God, “How can I be a friend of someone so angry, particularly when I embody that which he hates so intensely?”

God’s still small voice whispered back across my heart, “Look for what I love about him”.

I learned to listen with openness as he told of his experiences.

After he was tired of the beatings at the school he ran away and stole a car. He ended up rolling the vehicle at a high rate of speed. Later he woke up in a hospital in a strange city, badly injured, and surrounded only by white people. He was hurting, terrified, and alone.

Our Old Testament scripture reminds us of the words of the prophet:

For there is still a vision 
for the appointed time; 
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it; 

it will surely come, 
it will not delay.

How have I seen that scripture play out?

After two years and 100 visits the emotional walls began to come down. 

As a white man and a Christian I was able to say to White Hawk, “How you were treated was wrong, and I apologize for how my people, and those who call themselves Christian have treated the Lakota people, the people of Standing Rock, and for how they have treated you.”

White Hawk taught me what the world looks like through the eyes of someone who is seen as “the other”, where justice and opportunity were distorted or denied.

White Hawk and I became friends. 

The Lakota people teach that there are 7 directions: up, down, left, right, forward, backward, and the seventh direction is the inner path for your life.

The psalmist wrote: “You show me the path for my life.”

White Hawk and I were able to talk about where life had taken each of us so far and how the Creator was revealing the seventh direction – the path for his life, and for mine.

He no longer felt the need to violate the rules that kept him in Ad Seg. He was eventually released into the general prison population. 

It turns out that he had a marvelous sense of humor. 

Time passes slowly in prison. Someone who can help you laugh makes the time more bearable. White Hawk, that once angry man, could bring joy and laughter to a group of inmates.

Isaiah wrote, “To all who mourn he will give: beauty for ashes; joy instead of mourning; praise instead of heaviness.”

He was sent to a minimum security facility several hours away from where I lived so I was no longer able to visit him. But we kept in touch through letters until I moved out of state 6 years ago. Last I knew he was still sharing his humor helping the time pass easier for those behind the walls. 

Both White Hawk and I have been forever changed by those Saturday morning visits that we shared.

Tax collector vs. gang member

Our New Testament scripture tells of a tax collector. Nowadays IRS agents are not ostentatiously wealthy and held in low regard as were the tax collectors at the time of Jesus. 

So what would be the modern day equivalent of a person who held power and profited at the expense of his own community and is feared and despised by his neighbors? 

Residents of gang controlled neighborhoods may say that the gang members terrorize, profit from, and enslave their neighbors through violence, drugs, and human trafficking. 

Our scripture in Luke describes a chief tax collector. What is the equivalent of a chief in gang culture? 

You may hear the term “shot caller.” As the name implies, this is the person who calls the shots, sometimes literally, within the group of gang members. What I mean by “literally” is that the shot caller actually controls who does the shooting, and who gets shot.

Perhaps this story will illustrate the power of the shot caller. 

A friend of mine was working as a counselor in one of the county jails. An inmate who was due to be released in 30 dayswanted to know what he could do to keep from being released. Since most people want to get out of jail she asked him to explain. 

He was a gang member and he had just received instructions from his shot caller that he must go and terrorize a particular family when he got out. The man did not want to do this, but if he didn’t then the shot caller would send someone else to attack his family. He felt he was in a no-win situation: either he had to attack a family, or do nothing and see his own family members get attacked.

When we moved down to San Jose I volunteered to facilitate a Bible study in the maximum security unit. 

After a decade of prison volunteer work, I knew that not everyone coming to a Bible Study was there for noble purposes. Group activities such as Bible Studies can be used as times to communicate and coordinate gang activities such as attacks on rivals, or giving instructions to gang members who are scheduled for release. Sometimes they are even used as an occasion to physically attack another inmate or a guard. Often this communication is done using hand signals that are specific to a particular gang. 

I clearly recall one of the first Bible studies that I led solo in max. There were a lot of hand signals flowing back and forth, but one man, I’ll call him Carlos, seemed to be the center of everyone’s attention. He was older, barrel-chested, and more heavily tattooed than most of the men. He was the shot caller.

I did two things after that evening:

  1. I got some coaching from the main jail chaplain on how to curtail the gang communication during Bible studies
  2. I asked two dozen friends for prayer each week specifically for these guys in the maximum security unit

Prayer is so very important. Immediately I saw a change. I was able to shut down the hand signals during the study. And over the next few months I saw something else happen.

Carlos kept coming to Bible Study even though he couldn’t use hand signals to control the group. 

You see, while he was waiting in jail for his trial Carlos has become a grandfather for the first time. He was taking stock of his life. He began asking serious questions about faith, and the possibility of someone changing their life. 

There was a price to pay for Carlos to stop being a shot caller and to leave the gang life. The role of shot caller is only taken, never given. Carlos couldn’t just stop being the shot caller. Someone had to take it from him through violence. Someone else attacked and beat Carlos in order to establish themselves as the new shot caller.

The tax collector’s faith called him to give up money as a sign of repentance.

For Carlos his faith called him to give up power and submit himself to a beating. 

The transforming power of the cross gives Carlos hope that he can change from a man of violence, to the man who one day can gently bounce his grandchild on his knee.

I still see Carlos each week and he continues to walk in peace. He is a changed man from the shot caller I met two years ago. I pray that God’s love will continue to transform him in the 18 months he has remaining on his sentence.


I understand that not everyone can, or even should, go behind the walls to meet with the staff and incarcerated men that I do. So how can each person here be part of God’s transforming love?

Praying for those in jail or prison is so powerful. Pray for those who live in cages of pain that hold people captive even after their release. Pray for God’s transforming love to be revealed to them. 

Pray for the staff that works every day: for the guards, for the health workers, for the chaplains, and for the administration.

Pray for the Church behind the walls, that members of the prison church would be beacons of hope and grace in an otherwise bleak landscape. 

Pray for the families of the incarcerated, that they would find support and peace during this time of waiting. Pray that they would not be victimized. Some prisons and jails across the country are ending in-person visits and forcing families to pay for glitchy, expensive video calls.

Some of you may be gifted in the areas of the law or politics. Be an advocate for justice that restores people. In Santa Clara county the number of juveniles behind bars has fallen by 75% when the courts began using better alternatives to incarceration. Look into issues of prison reform. Your voice can make a difference.

In Hebrews 13:3 we read:

Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them

On numerous occasions I’ve had a chance to sing with those behind the walls. In the maximum security unit I’m not allowed to bring in a guitar, or a CD player. Any song sheets have to be approved by the administration well in advance. All we have for worship are voices, hands, and hearts. Yet singing behind the walls is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. 

A song that most of the men are familiar with, even if they’ve never been to church, is Amazing Grace. I’d like us to sing it now in the same way we do in max. 

We will sing it with no accompaniment. 

We will sing the first verse twice. 

As we sing, remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them. 

You can read Randall's blog at God In The Max.


The Congregational Church of Almaden Valley,
United Church of Christ
6581 Camden Avenue
San Jose, CA 95120-1908
(408) 268-0243, Fax (408) 268-4207
© 2017 The Congregational Church of Almaden Valley,
San Jose, California



Congregational Church of Almaden Valley, UCC - located in San Jose, CA

The Congregational Church of Almaden Valley, UCC (United Church of Christ) is located in San Jose, CA.


Congregational Church of Almaden Valley, San Jose, California

We're located at 6581 Camden Avenue near the Almaden Expressway and 3 miles South of Blossom Hill Shopping area.

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