Letters from 940: A Universal Religion

I’m not dead . . . quite yet. My body lies motionless with the exception of a long overdue blink of the eye. I can feel myself locked into a long-distance stare, an impenetrable stare that you may see on a highly focused athlete or a soldier preparing for an undeniable battle. My arms are folded perfectly across my chest; to any passersby I would certainly look the part.

In time, later than sooner, my stare collapses and my eyes close for what must be a full 20 seconds. A highlight reel of the past 34 years flashes in sequence. As my eyes open, they refocus on the scripture engraved on the wall. The modern-day hieroglyphics make me wonder if the tapered 6′ x 8′ tomb may eventually become home . . . or worse. The wall reads like an epitaph: Carlos 3/2/05 – 6/5/07, Ja 5/2/06 – 2/3/08, and so on. There’s no shortage to the list of names that have been inscribed here, and should there ever be such a drought, it would simply be for lack of space.

These walls, this tomb, hold no bias. Race, gender, height, weight, religion all mean nothing. There remains no shortage of testament to those who have come to rest in this very spot, this very position, in this very same state of existence that I am in today. Perhaps their life (and I can only hope), the life that they have so chosen after this one, has led them to a much better place—a place where sherbet is free, a place where marshmallows never burn to the point that they melt off the stick, a place where you can pass “Go” and still collect your $200.

As the day winds down, familiar sounds from my youth can be heard coming from down the hall. The canticle takes me back to another time, another place. I hear every word as it thunders from behind the makeshift altar. “Pray to Jesus,” the preacher commands, and the congregation fires back, “Amen.” On this particular day, I am not in attendance, nor will I be on the next . . . to thine own self be true.

“Rise to your feet children of God,” he retaliates, and the legs of 40 plastic lawn chairs echo in scattered cadence, as they scrape against the ungiving concrete floor. The occupants come to their feet shouting words frequently found throughout the Good Book, regardless of the edition, version or chapter. Words such as “Rejoice,” “Repent,” “Forgive,” the list goes on. The congregations’ voice is strong. The conviction in these men is nothing less then admirable. They are the sons of their mother, and if she could only see them at this moment, this particular moment in time, she would be nothing less than proud.

Their religion is strong; it’s not a new religion, nor is it some off-the-wall evangelist attempting to brainwash his flock. In fact, it is a religion as old as man himself—a religion that can be felt through the entire human body and breathed with every breath. And yet here I am hoping, wishing, on my knees praying that you never get the same feeling that they do, that you never rejoice in the same light, that you never experience this particular religion, our religion.

It’s a religion found in every city of every country in the world, and if you happen to walk by the right cell, in the right jail, at the right time, you just might hear the congregation shouting words found throughout every book in the land . . . “Forgive! Repent! Rejoice!”

Editor’s note: Jerry Fleming is currently incarcerated at the Rutherford County Jail, Cell 4-C2, 940 New Salem Hwy., Murfreesboro, TN 37130. I’m sure he’d appreciate any correspondence and feedback.


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