Grilling at the Graybar Hotel

by the Night Writer

A little over a year ago I started going down to the Red Wing Correctional Facility a couple of times a month to host a chapel service for the men. Red Wing is primarily a youth facility, referred to by Bob Dylan in his song “The Walls of Red Wing”, but they do have one “cottage” (more like a dorm) that holds 42 men. As prisons go, I suppose it’s not too bad a place. For some of the inmates it is their first prison, but most of the men have come from heavier security facilities such as Stillwater or Oak Park where they have already done significant time. Red Wing is often a last stop for these men as they near their release date, spending several months here under lighter security and with the possibility of supervised visits outside the facility to go to church or serve on work crews.

Last fall some of the guys asked if I’d consider doing a Thursday night Bible Study instead of the Sunday chapel so they wouldn’t have to choose between the chapel service or going outside when they had the chance. That wasn’t a problem, and after working things out with the prison administration we started Thursday meetings in November. One of my scheduled visits even fell on Christmas Eve and I was pretty excited about the opportunity to do that but unfortunately the snow and ice storm that hit that day kept me from making the trip. I made it down there the Sunday after Christmas, though, and brought a package of microwave popcorn for every man in the cottage. The reaction that day, and the reports I had from the guys on Thursday nights got me thinking about what other out-of-the-ordinary thing we might do for the cottage, especially as the Thursday night bunch were showing a strong interest in serving others. Eventually the idea came to me to have the Bible Study put on a cook-out for the cottage. I jumped through a couple of hoops with the prison administration and was a little surprised to receive permission. I was aided by the woman who coordinates volunteer activities who also suggested inviting all the other volunteers to the cook-out as a thank you.

With that settled, the Thursday group got together and hatched our plan and set a date. My church would provide the angus burgers, chicken breasts, cheese, BBQ sauce and jalapeno peppers and the prison kitchen would provide the buns, beans, potato salad, onions, lettuce, watermelon and root beer floats for dessert. My guys were very enthusiastic about the plan, especially “T.” who entered the prison system in his teens and has very nearly spent half of his life in prison. He was also nervous about grilling. “I’ve never cooked out in my life,” he told me.

Last Thursday, June 10 was the date we settled on and we worked out all the details. We even prayed for good weather! You might, however, remember that it rained just about every day last week, including Thursday. In fact, a doozy of a thunderstorm hit Red Wing earlier that afternoon. I was unconcerned; to my mind, this was something God had inspired and He would make a way (in fact, probably had already made a way) for this to happen. Sure enough, even though it rained throughout my drive to Red Wing, it had become a light drizzle by the time I pulled into the parking lot. By the time I’d passed through security and was inside the walls of Red Wing it had stopped completely. The guys and I got the charcoal fired up for the burgers and we put the chicken breasts (which had been pre-smoked in mesquite) in the kitchen ovens to heat. One of the guys in my group, T., told me how concerned he’d been about the weather, especially during the storm earlier in the day. “T,” I said, “you have to walk by faith, not sight. This was something God planned, so you just have to trust in the end result, even if a few storms show up along the way.” He grasped the idea.

“You’re right,” he said. “I’m going to have to remember that.”

I had been told by the Volunteer Coordinator that we wouldn’t be able to say grace in front of the entire group before eating. (For that matter, brats weren’t allowed on the menu because we couldn’t have any pork products; in fact, if we put any pork on the grill the prison would have to throw the grill away). That didn’t mean, however, that the cooks couldn’t say grace before we carried the food to the cottage. Part of the prayer was that the men would feel God’s love through the evening. We had people already set up to serve the guys as they came through the buffet line, but I positioned myself behind the servers so I could see the faces of the men as they came through, much as I do on the Saturday morning Inside Outfitters breakfasts. I wasn’t disappointed … and neither were the men! If anything, I was amazed at how they conscientiously loaded their 10-inch foam plates with a chicken sandwich, a burger, beans, potato salad on top of the beans, watermelon on top of the potato salad and all the cheese, onions and jalapenos they could fit under a bun. They all carried their plates into the dining area and filled the tables there and began eating, talking, laughing and generally having a good time, which I assumed was pretty much typical for the dinner hour. One of the men who I hadn’t met before told me, however, that one of the best parts of the night was that guys were socializing with each other. Normally, he said, everyone stays pretty much to himself or with one or two friends.

Before dessert the coordinator thanked the various volunteers who had come for the evening (there was an older lady there who told me she teaches a crocheting class – “We call ourselves ‘the Chain Gang!'”) for the time they put in, and then introduced me as the head of the Thursday Bible Study and sponsor of the feast. There was some very satisfying applause, whistles and “whoop-whoops”. I had been told, of course, that I couldn’t preach or mention God if I spoke to the group, so I merely said that one of the men I was eating with that evening had already thanked me and said that something like this really helped the men feel as if they weren’t forgotten while they were inside. I then indicated the volunteers who were present and told the men that they were an indication that people outside were constantly thinking of them and planning things to do them good. “As proof of that,” I said, “a good friend of yours even asked me to do this cook-out so that you’d know he hasn’t forgotten you, even though you might not have talked for awhile, and I just want to say, ‘you’re welcome.'” And with that — along with more applause, a lot of smiles and nods…and a very relieved look on the face of one of the coordinators — I was done!

I spent some time mingling with the guys, congratulating T. and the Thursday night bunch, and getting a few stories from some new guys. It may have been overcast outside, but it was glowing in that dining hall and it was still going strong when I finally gathered up my things and got ready to leave. Something that T. had said to me a couple of weeks ago came back to me. “Listening to you,” he had said, “I’m beginning to believe that there are no such things as accidents. That everything happens for a reason, especially the people that you meet.”

In a reflective mood, I thought of Dylan’s song again as I checked out through Security, ready to pass once again through the “walls of Red Wing”. Some have assumed that young Bob had spent some time in that facility, but that’s not been proven. In fact, his lyrics don’t describe the facility that I’ve seen, but there is a verse that does seem to fit as I consider the choices I’d made in order to be there and the things that I’ve learned from the men I’ve met over the past 16 months

Oh, some of us’ll end up
In St. Cloud Prison,
And some of us’ll wind up
To be lawyers and things,
And some of us’ll stand up
To meet you on your crossroads,
From inside the walls,
The walls of Red Wing.

I stowed my gear in the car and headed back for the Cities. A couple of mile north of Red Wing it started to rain again.

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