I sat alone. I slipped in with the echo of the bell and walked out the side entrance at the end of the day. My table for lunch was at the far left corner. I sat there alone each day, contemplating everything and nothing.
This day is different. He and I, we both sit alone... on opposite sides of a glass in a room secured from both sides. Our divergent paths collide. There is no looking away.
I had sat in the folding steel chair while he was brought into the space on the other side. He wasn't the person I remembered, but then again... as he sized me up I realized he didn't recognize me either.
As most things in life, simplicity did not provide me passage to this place. I was met at the main dispatch wall of Middletown City Police, and turned away. The friendly but overly assertive lady told me a line I'm sure she repeats over and over to folks who just won't listen. "Visitation is gained by appointment. You must call at 7 a.m. and request a time. Next visitation block is Saturday at 6 p.m.
I took the slip and walked away disappointed. He was so close. I am usually so far away. I was sure that it was right for me to see him today. Too many chance encounters had aligned for me to meet his mother sitting behind me at church on Sunday... to learn we were both from Preble County, that I had graduated with her son, and that he was incarcerated.
I walked away feeling dejected. I had been sure this was a God thing. Why do I have so much trouble discerning the voice of God?
Suddenly an obvious realization stopped me. I stood still and smiled as I remembered the card in my wallet. I am a licensed clergy member... I am Rev. Chad P. Shepherd. I've never had cause to use it. I've never claimed the credential. I wondered if it would work? I wasn't sure, but I thought it was worth a try.
I walked back up to the window with purpose. I picked up the phone and buzzed Ms. Power back to the window. Or so I thought. Without glancing up she answered the line using her headset and answered with her normal official greeting. I said, "Do you make different visitation allowances for members of clergy?" She looked up at me... with a doubtful look.
I stood in torn blue jeans, a v-neck white t-shirt, tattoos visible on each arm, and silver hoops in each ear.
"Are you here as his friend or as clergy?" This was a critical question that I knew I needed to get right. I needed to be honest and also advocate my right to see him. "I was his friend 20 years ago in high school. Today I am here as his pastor. I am requesting that you grant his right to see clergy." Is that even a right? I'm really not sure!
She said, "do you have your credentials?" I said "yes" as I pressed it up against the glass. She looked at it, and looked back skeptically at me. "Do you have a secondary photo id?" I showed my freshly renewed Ohio Driver License.
With a half smile she handed me a form. "Fill this out and wait while we call him to the visitation room."
I gave what I hoped was a confident nod of approval and a "thank-you" while inwardly I was shocked that it worked. I stood to the side and waited while the door buzzed and I entered in. I walked about 20 feet into the corridor where I was intercepted by a guard. I was told that I had "no authorization to be here" and I had to immediately leave.
I turned and walked back through the secure door. The official who had granted me access seemed surprised. She asked, "have you already seen him?" I told her about being denied access. She picked up the phone and I heard her assuring someone on the other end that indeed, "he is a credentialed clergy member." I laughed as I realized their confusion... I simply don't look the part!
All this played through my head as my friend sat down across from me. He hadn't been given my name, he was only asked if he would meet with a clergy... and he got me. Without giving him my name I told him that we graduated together. He looked at me intensely, but still there was no recognition. While fearing that he wouldn't remember me at all, I told him my name, "this is Chad."
"CHAD SHEPHERD?" His face broke with a smile and a laugh..."but you look nothing like you used to!" He accused me of dying my hair. I told him he sounded like my mother.
And so our conversation began. We talked about our children, he has one on the way! I shared our story of Sterling and how it is to be a 40 year old father of a toddler. We talked about relationships, hilarious shared classroom memories, and even good local places to eat.
I smiled and told him, "don't worry, I'm not here to preach at you." He said, "no worries man."
I don't like telling people that Jesus loves them. I don't like telling people that they're living wrong. I think I'm pretty messed up too sometimes. I have no stones to throw.
What I love to do is just to press my life into someone else for a few minutes and to share stories. He asked about me and I told him our story. I listened to his questions and I just told our story. I shared my faith. I shared my struggles.
I listened to his story. I remember a time not so long ago that he and I sat together in history class. I thought of the convergence that brought us together in this small space. Somehow I know that time will not stretch to 22 years before I encounter him again.
I can't even begin to grasp the purpose of our meeting, but I have no doubt that it was a meeting that came from God. There was purpose in our encounter. I don't know if it was for him, but I do know that it was for me. I am thankful to have had this moment with him. I am thankful for the entire experience. I am thankful to just exchange stories with an unlikely friend from my past.
Wherever you are. Whatever you are doing. Listen and watch for moments. I am a believer in God. I have no doubt that the lives we brush against... are moments of design. Don't miss out. Keep your eyes open, your feet willing, and guard your heart.