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Heart-to-Hearts with Inmates in Houston, Texas

Southern  |  August 27, 2020
Tzu Chi volunteers continue to serve the Harris County Sheriff’s Office in Houston, TX with a donation of 10,000 procedural masks on July 27, 2020. Photo/Penny Liu

Written by Julienne Chi
Edited by Dilber Shatursun

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, visitations to inmates in cities across the country came to a swift halt. That included the Harris County Sheriff’s Office nestled in Houston, Texas, where Tzu Chi volunteers had been making monthly visits since June 2018. During these visits, they’d have the chance to gather inmates for discussions on spirituality, struggle, and self-improvement from the Buddhist perspective. January 2020 was their last visit before the COVID-19 pandemic began. This is Tzu Chi volunteer Julienne Chi’s account of it.

Before the pandemic, Tzu Chi volunteers pose with staff at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. Photo/Tzu Chi Southern Region

The morning after the Lunar New Year [on January 25, 2020], we checked in as usual with the officers in the lobby [of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office]. We put all our personal belongings in the lockers and passed through the metal detectors without much trouble.

It has been more than a year and a half since we started making our monthly visits to the Harris County Jail. Even though four is the lowest number of volunteers yet to make the visit since we started, I am so grateful for the commitment and dedication of this team of volunteers. Each of us fell into a role that suits him or her, leading the various sessions or adding knowledge and life experience to the discussions.

A photo taken at Tzu Chi Southern volunteers’ first visit to inmates at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office in June 2018. Photo/Tzu Chi Southern Region

With five inmates attending today, we had wonderful exchanges on beliefs and ideology. As we introduced Tzu Chi USA’s background and its founder Master Cheng Yen, one inmate, who is Christian and brought a Bible with him, asked what would become of Tzu Chi after Master passes away.

One of our sisters replied that, certainly, our Master will pass one day, but her teachings will live on. Her disciples, followers, and volunteers will continue as bodhisattvas on the path she has paved. Another inmate then asked: what in the world is a bodhisattva?

We explained that anyone that directs his attention to practicing the way of the Buddha is a bodhisattva. He replied that he believes in God, but he is interested and agrees with much of the ideology of Buddhism for the commonality he sees between the two religions.

We also shared a song called the “Spirit of Great Love.” Some of its lyrics go:

There’s no one in the world that I don’t love
There’s no one in the world that I don’t trust
There’s no one in the world that I can’t forgive

The inmates sang along attentively, their voices resonating in the brick enclosed classroom. At the end of the song, one inmate looked puzzled and said that he cannot see how he can agree with the line that says “there’s no one in the world that I can’t trust.”

He explained that in his life there are people that he knows that he cannot trust due to their past actions, so how could you trust someone that you expect will very well do you wrong? One of our brothers made a suggestion that since you do expect to be done wrong, you can create a mindset of forgiveness for his actions and resolve to not be hurt if the outcome is negative.

Another suggestion was to communicate with the person and let him or her know that you are aware of his wrongdoings, and that you want to understand why it was done and try to influence him or her not to do it again. It takes many small steps to begin to trust someone that you had a bias against. Opening communications and your heart to understand others and to forgive will move us toward trusting one another.

Tzu Chi volunteers receive training prior to their first interaction with inmates in May 2018. Photo/Tzu Chi Southern Region

At one point, one of the inmates that had been quietly listening stood up and took a few steps towards the door. We thought he was wanting to leave the classroom, but then he walked back to his seat and sat down, rubbing his legs. He began talking and explained that his legs were hurting and that he was feeling cold. He had been recently diagnosed with cancer.

With tears in his eyes, he admitted to having committed many wrongs. He would take advantage of people when the opportunity presented itself, like entering an open garage door and stealing valuable equipment or tools to sell and get money for drugs. He had been in and out of jail many times. However, he had always opened his home to people that needed a place to stay, even if he knew that they couldn’t be trusted and had stolen from him.

He also believed that he was getting back what he had done to others – karma, as he described it. As he wiped away a tear, he shared that he had been trying to make amends to those he had done wrong to, although some had already passed away. He also wants to face the ones that have stolen from him and forgive them, accepting that they must have needed it more than he did.

He said this was his first time to attend our class and he was so glad he came. He thanked us for taking time out of our day to come talk to them, show them that we care, and share a deep conversation with them. His moving revelation brought us to tears as well.

With a few minutes left of the class, we handed each of them a red envelope with a bookmark inside. Printed on it was a Jing Si Aphorism:

“If we always face all relationships and matters with a grateful heart, we will be happy and at peace everyday.”

As we said goodbye, I reminded them to let go of the past and work towards a better path for the future; to treat each day of your life as a gift, otherwise known as the present.

Tzu Chi Southern Region volunteers have continued to serve the Harris County Sheriff’s Office despite not being able to visit with inmates. Instead, they have provided personal protective equipment (PPE) and other supplies that better ensure the safety of staff and inmates as the pandemic continues.

Tzu Chi volunteer Julienne Chi with Dr. Don Savell, Harris County Sheriff’s Office Director of Chaplaincy. Photo/Roger Lin

Help us distribute and donate more PPE to vulnerable populations, including inmates, using the button below.

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