Thursday, June 28, 2012

His Strength is Made Perfect

Questions asked at Write Canada 2012 drew old stories from half-buried memory banks. The questions brought me to tears more than once. “Those stories need to be shared,” she said, while I struggled to maintain my masculine dignity. I had told her, half laughing, that when men first learn how to cry, they have no idea where to find the “off” switch. Twenty-two years later the “off” switch remains uncooperative.

Jail time had never been on my radar. I grew up in a strong Christian home. I knew my Bible well. I respected the law. I respected the police. As a husband and father of three young daughters (I have grandchildren as old now) I had good reasons to stay on the right side of the law. This isn’t the place to argue the strengths and weaknesses of the Pro-Life Movement. But I think it fair to point out that my time in jail suggests more than a half-hearted belief.

My first several arrests felt like triumphs. We were doing what was going to change the world. We sang, we prayed, we celebrated. Then the police released us and we returned home. They were great days.

A reality check had to happen sooner or later. You only deliberately put yourself in the place of arrest so many times until charges are laid.

I thought I had the strength. I thought I could face anything you could throw at me. I deliberately moved myself into the place of the toughest opposition. We were committed to non-violence, but our opponents had a different agenda. I took as much of the kicking and elbows on myself as possible, protecting those around me.

I’ll spare you most of the details of my first three days behind bars. But a high tolerance for physical pain is not sufficient preparation.

Clang of bars.
Great gates of steel.
Metallic crunch of massive locks.

The movies play it well
but . . .

Different . . . the sound falls on the ears
from the inside,
from the wrong side,
when the keys
by other hands are guarded.

Different . . . the eyes search
old, heavy steel,
pitted and painted,
drab and cold,
hard and cruel.
Steel that forms the cell
or outer range.
Still barred.

Different . . . the nose tastes stale air,
sour bodies,
hatred breathed,
innocence damned,
The curse more natural than breathing.

Clang of bars.
Great gates of steel.
Metallic crunch of massive locks.

(An excerpt from an unpublished poem titled “Not This Christmas” by the author.)

To this day, if I was asked to describe Hell, the holding cells beneath the courtrooms of Old City Hall in Toronto would be my starting place. Ten hours. It feels like a life-time. The toilet, out where everybody can see it, is smeared with excrement. The only tissue in sight is in a puddle of urine on the floor. Endless hours later a mattress on the floor makes me the 3rd body in a two-man cell. Hand-cuffs, leg-irons, court appearances and strip-searches.

We knew the strip-searches were coming. We tried to prepare mentally, but the experience defies preparation. Six strip-searches in three days. . . It somehow becomes cumulative, a toxic build-up. In one of those searches a 76 year old Roman Catholic Priest stood naked beside me. His nakedness brought pain beyond anything of my own, and my own humiliation was more than I knew how to bear. Crying was foreign to me, but I cried for most of the last 24 hours.

I went back. I felt I had to, though I knew what waited me this time. About half-way through a 31 day stint behind bars I came back from court to Remand 2C in the Mimico Correctional Centre of Toronto. I’d expected physical and emotional exhaustion. I’d watched others coming back from court head direct to their bunks. Only three of us from the last “Rescue” remained in jail at the time, two of us in Mimico.

We’d let it slip that we only had to sign conditions to walk away. That painted us as religious nut-cases, too stupid to use the “Get-Out-Of-Jail-FREE” card we held.

It was a weekend and the TV stayed on late. I slept, but woke about 1:00 A.M. Most of the time I was spiritually and emotionally armed. More than 1,000 people across Canada were praying daily for the three of us still behind bars – but my mind was sluggish with sleep.

The TV seared my brain with a rape and a murder-suicide. I couldn’t keep it on the screen. It became real. All these years later I can still see the blood pooling on the bed and dripping on the floor.

I spent much of the night sitting on a ledge in the bathroom, Bible in my hands, trying to flush those images from my mind.

Jail’s a world of steel, concrete and glass. Everything echoes. Mid-morning, the TV and radio were both blaring. Men shouted over the din. Several calls to “turn it down,” were ignored. I turned it down, then yanked the cord when it was immediately turned up again.

Most fights I saw in jail followed brief moments of shouting and cursing. The guards got inside quickly, before I faced blows – or gave any. My “non-violence” commitment had been pushed to the recesses of my mind. Then I added a second violation by pleading with them to put a limit on the noise. You DON’T ask guards for favours in front of other inmates.

I knew I’d blown it. I didn’t know at the time that people in jail die for less.
Fifteen minutes later I asked permission to speak. The prisoners astonished me by giving me the opportunity to apologize.

I climbed to my bunk then—and cried. Did I say something earlier about men not knowing where to find the “off” switch? The tears simply refused to stop. I used my towel to mop them for more than an hour.

Everyone knew I was there as a “Christian.” I had tried so hard to be strong. I had tried so hard to watch every word and action.

I stayed in my bunk and refused to come down for lunch. By the evening I had cried myself out. Convinced I was failure personified, I forced myself to choke down a bit of the meal.

I’ve spent my whole life in the church. I’ve read through my entire Bible many times. Yet I’ve always found some verses hard to understand. His strength is made perfect in our weakness, is one of those verses.

A good night’s sleep gave me a bit of emotional balance, but didn’t ease the sense of failure. I knew my apology couldn’t undo the damage. I’d failed myself. I’d failed them. I’d failed the Pro-Life movement. I’d failed the people who consistently prayed for me. And mostly, I’d failed God.

Yet a subtle change had somehow happened.

They had seen that I hurt like they hurt in this place of incessant noise and no privacy—where somebody else held the keys.

My failure made me one of them.

I hadn’t seen a Bible in that range, other than my own, a Gideon New Testament. But they began appearing. Men began cornering me to ask questions, sparking small, brief Bible studies. My failure—my weakness—allowed a door to open in that maximum security section of a minimum security jail—that I could never have forced open in my strength. My breaking in front of those men, and the raw pain of that breaking, opened lines of communication.

To this day I find no possible explanation except, “Look what God did!”

Clang of bars.
Great gates of steel.
Metallic crunch of massive locks.

BUT – GOD. . !


Peter Black said...

Brian, who knows what others of us would have done if found in those same circumstances.
And who, but God Himself, knows just how much was accomplished through your commitment to the cause of providing protection for the most innocent and vulnerable, and in your moment of weakness and vulnerability when in the jail.
Captivating and challenging. Thank you.

Linda Hall said...

I read every word of your blog with rapt attention. Yes, Brian, you need to tell this story.

Brian Austin said...


It's a strange feeling ro read some of my writing from that time. It's also interesting that the stories I feel most drawn to share now are rarely about Pro-Life verses Abortion issue themselves. They are primarily about the people behind bars -- men who had made poor choices, but who still longed for and dreamed of a home where love and trust were realities.

Linda Hall said...

God gave you that experience for a reason. I think of the late Chuck Colson. He was put in prison for his part in the Watergate scandal, yet when he came out God gave him a new ministry - of working with prisoners.

Janet Sketchley said...

What a powerful story, Brian. Definitely one to share: "Look what God did!"

Kathleen Gibson said...

Brian, my friend, I believe the stapled-together book you published about your prison experience, and gave Rick and me, is still on my shelf. I could be wrong. There have been many weedings in the last few decades. Nevertheless, your story resonates freshly today.

As you know, the issue of abortion is once again a vital talking point. The challenge poised is for a debate deeper than personal opinion (this, much to the chagrin of many in government).

Please, my friend, if God gives opportunity, tell your story, for the sake of the little ones and the Christ who loves them.

Thank you for this, Brian, and go well.

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