silent about things that matter."
Martin Luther King Jr.
On a bright summer day in 2006, I stood in the parking lot of a busy strip-mall comforting an ex-con named Pamela. She called me that morning to say her car was on empty and she was looking for a job, so I left work early to meet her at the gas station. Our second stop was the grocery store. The last twenty in my purse bought a bag of basics; eggs, canned vegetables, hot dogs, a pizza and fruit snacks for the children of her best friend with whom she was staying.
We hugged there in the glaring sunlight among the cars of other shoppers, two women, joined in an unlikely friendship, a union of opposite worlds.
Pamela admitted to a relapse. "Cocaine is my drug of choice," she said leaning against the side of her car. Her words tumbled out in hurried sentences that ran from one subject to the next. She used alcohol at 10, marijuana at 15, cocaine for the past 30 years. She explained that the problem with drugs is that people, like her, will do anything to get them. I sensed she was warning me to keep my distance, but I couldn't leave. For the moment, I was all she had and I felt the need to stay and put more band-aids on her gaping wounds.
Both dangerous and vulnerable, Pamela told me she hated herself for all the things she was and couldn't seem to change. She quoted scripture. Said she heard the call of God, felt it was her duty to prevent this from happening to others, but she didn't know how to start when she couldn't even help herself.
"I made the choices," she explained,"and I knew what was right."
Pamela traveled hard miles in her forty-plus years. Raised by a godly family, raped by a godly family and then raised by a sister who tried to make it right, she had come from the South, to the streets, to the gutter, to jail and prison, and back to the streets.
She held out her arms to say goodbye and pressed her smooth brown cheek against mine. "I feel like such a failure," she said.
"Don't ever call yourself a failure," I told her, "You're very brave." I couldn't find the words to make her feel better, because I knew my simple act of kindness brought her shame.
The US Department of Justice Statistics indicates that on any given day there are approximately 84,000 women in federal and state prisons and nearly 70,000 additional women incarcerated in county jails. Like Pamela, they return to their communities without food, shelter, employment, health care services, or the basic skills to survive.