I saw a little boy at the Alamo restaurant last night...and suddenly I was reminded of my brother Jim at that age. I almost started to cry. Today is his birthday (he's two years younger than me,) but times are bad for him.
My parents will drive an hour from their home to be with him today. But they will not be able to touch him or give him a hug. He will appear on a video camera, they will chat, and then after exactly 15 minutes he will disappear from the screen before them.
This Thursday a federal judge in Peoria will sentence him to a prison term, probably four years or so. He has pleaded guilty to mail fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering.
He did wrong, swindled people who trusted him, and now has a debt to pay to society...and restitution to make to his victims. But even so, I cannot forget all the
other things I know about him.
Good and evil don't ever cancel each other out. They keep popping into the psyche, back and forth. We are daily inspired by the good...and tempted by the evil. Our cognitive processes are disturbed as good and evil tumble willy-nilly over one another, blurring together in our thinking. Competitive, they each try to rid our personalities of the other. But neither good nor evil ever wins the day totally: not in this life. They both exist, fully, all the time, in each of us.
In the county jail, Jim is locked up with 20 other guys in a pod built for 12. Most of his cellmates are there for drugs or violent assault, but he has been there four times longer than anyone else...consequence of an incompetent defense attorney and a prosecutor who has gotten 'personal' about this case.
Each prisoner gets only two 15-minute video visits a week. They get to go outside for 15 minutes, twice each weekend. The food is malnourishing and families must supply money so prisoners can supplement their diet through vending machines. Families must also provide all incidentals and medicines. (The system pockets tons of money from prisoners' families.) Jim has been there a full year now. He was there for his 60
th birthday, his 40
th wedding anniversary, Thanksgiving, Christmas, the 1
st birthdays of three grandchildren, and his divorce.
I am angry: at the jail conditions, the testosterone of the state's attorney, and the incompetence and negligence of the defense attorney (who has done virtually nothing in a whole year.) But I also have plenty of anger at Jim. He spent a lifetime building trust. And then he poisoned it. For his career he sold insurance and other financial products. He felt proud about selling people something he thought would help them through hard times in life. He became a pillar of his church and community: lent his neighbors a helping hand, wasn't afraid of hard physical work, acted selflessly, and tried to live out the conservative beliefs he held in both religion and politics.
He was (and is) truly a good person. But he was also, simultaneously, a sinner: taking tens of thousands of dollars from various clients. He caused psychological as well as financial damage. He needs now to return every penny he took.
He also owes a debt to society, for by his actions he has made our society worse off...and even people who were not directly affected by him are more suspicious and negative because there are "people out there" just like him.
Jim also needs to come clean with all the relatives and friends who have loved him and encouraged him and believe in him. No excuses, no euphemisms to sugar coat what he did. Restitution and retribution demand his all right now.
But justice comes in three dimensions: restitution, retribution, and
restoration. And in Jim, there is more to restore than meets the prosecutor's eye. I know.
As kids we played games in our driveway. On rainy days we played school (I was the teacher since I was the oldest) or church (I was the preacher because I was the oldest) or a game we invented called "Town." With four brothers, one would be the sheriff, one would be the deputy, one would be the mayor, and one would have to make the "government" happy. (The two youngest, Steve or Jay usually got stuck in the last role.) We rode the same school bus, joined the same scout troop, and had the same friends in our high school youth group. His natural inclination was to be gentle, pleasing to people, helpful, and hard working.
He wanted to be a farmer. But the farm industry was collapsing in those years. And so Jim hired himself out to area farmers and raised a few animals at our country home. I still remember the night he brought home a baby calf, (his payment for one of the farmers her helped,) carrying it in his arms, his eyes bright with pride and excitement.
Our family had a station wagon (a Rambler) and on trips we four boys would sit in the back seat: Jim by the right window, me by the left, and Steve and Jay in between us. We teased each other about girls...or getting fat. We double dated a few times, and I introduced him to the girl who would be his wife for forty years.
I remember the night when his son Patrick was born: getting the phone call from Jim. He felt what all new fathers do: and I had never seen him so humbled or grateful to God.
Despite Jim's easy going nature (much more so than I have) he also has always had a sharp wit. He and I loved the repartee of making fun of all our older relatives. (Who knows what the next generation says now about us.) He took care of my grandmother when she had dementia. He was generous and sacrificial with his in-laws as they grew old and lived out their lives. He initiated and maintained connections with
all our cousins--a rarity. And we could count on him to fix things around our parents' house. He loved being a rock for the whole family, especially his wife, children, and grandchildren. None of that was ever a fraud...it was all genuine.
When he was first arrested a year ago, nothing prepared me to be as distraught as I have been this past year. It is said that sometimes twins will feel each other's presence even when they are apart. After Jim was first arrested, (even though we are not twins) I felt his presence repeatedly, something I could not understand or rationalize. I would wake up at night aware of him in the jail cell. In the daytime, every day...when something good was happening to me (a nice meal at a restaurant, a moment with
my grandson, an evening on the porch to watch a sunset) I would suddenly be ambushed with a sense of his presence, and feel an awful and sickening grief that he might not experience those things again for years and years.
Angry as I am with Jim, my love is not constrained. Due to some mystery beyond my comprehension, I am more than ever my brother's keeper.
My parents, who have felt pain beyond anything I can describe, have visited Jim every week. A year ago, when he was arrested and the story hit the news, I feared the situation would kill them. But it hasn't. It has made them stronger. They have opened up with friends and other family members. While never excusing what he has done wrong, they have insisted on loving him and remembering everything good about him that others have forgotten, including, sometimes, Jim himself. God's sacrament to me this past year has come in the form of my mom and dad. Watching their grace, toughness, openness, and generosity has kept me strong and hopeful. Whoever would have thought and independent cuss like me would need an 87 year old guy...or an 82 year old woman that much!
This week we are in fervent prayer, through many tears, for Jim, for his immediate family, for his victims...for all whose lives are blessed and cursed by his...that God's righteousness will be done, and that there may be renewal, restoration, and resurrection. Lord have mercy. --Mike