We’re All In the Same Boat

“We’re all in the same boat.” It’s one of those adages that gets “floated” out there from time to time (sorry about the pun). It’s usually an acknowlegment of some foreboding circumstance that is about to befall the collective known as “us.” We all face a common problem.

[“Holy crap! We’ve lost the oars and I think I hear a waterfall!”]

Or perhaps we all share in some sort of group misery.

[“Oooohhh…that really hurt! Next time can someone remember to bring some extra oars and plenty of bandages!]

Sometime the statement, “We’re all in the same boat” can be quite literal in that, we are all actually in a boat together.

[“Ahoy mateys, why be you scrubbin yon decks? Hoist the sails and damn the torpedos! Full speed ahead!”]

It is with that rather asinine backdrop that I would like to introduce you to “The Sultana.”

The Sultana was a 260 foot steam powered utility paddle boat constructed in 1863. It was built for the sole purpose of moving commercial traffic up and down the Mississippi River. It’s captain was a man named J. Cass Mason.

On April 23, 1865, the Sultana was docked in Vicksburg, Mississippi for some needed boiler repairs. While in port, Captain Mason was contacted by the United States Government to haul a large group of passengers north towards St. Louis. This left Captain Mason seeing dollar signs. Mason didn’t want to risk the loss of a lucrative contract due to his boat being out of commission for an extensive amount of time, so, Mason opted to have to have the much needed boiler repairs Jerry-rigged instead of doing a complete overhaul as needed.

George Williams was the government’s “passenger representative.” He and Captain Mason worked together to get more than two thousand people on the Sultana…a boat that was only made to hold less than four hundred passengers. The boat captain didn’t care, the U.S. Government didn’t care, and, as you will see in a few moments, society in general wouldn’t care too much either.

As the boat traveled northward, against the current, the overworked, under-repaired boiler gave way and exploded. Violently.

The people that were not killed by the initial explosion were consumed when the wooden boat quickly became an uncontrollable floating inferno.

The deadliest maritime disaster in United States history didn’t happen aboard a famous ocean liner on the high seas…it happened to a steamboat on the Mississippi River outside of Memphis on April 27, 1865.

Forty-seven years in the future the sinking of the Titanic would occur. Its death toll still would not come near the number of people claimed by the Sultana disaster.

The Titanic lives on in our national folklore and it has become romanticized in American culture, but the Sultana and its eighteen hundred plus souls that perished with her that day have been, largely, forgotten by history.

There’s a reason for that.

As someone who ended up in prison I can relate to people who have been forgotten about. When I got to prison I immediately re-encountered a rather unpleasant group of people that I MYSELF had been able to forget about long ago. It was a collection of standard issue nemeses I had left behind in high school: the dumb jock, the obese bully, the tough-guy-wanna-be, the brat, the brown-noser, the unmotivated slacker, and my personal favorite…the know-it-all.

In the years since graduation, I had been successful in removing these people from my life. I thought I would never have to deal with them again, but now…they’re back. Unfortunately, they hadn’t changed too much since “leaving” high school (notice I did not say “graduated” high school). Now, as adults (technically) they were still unmotivated and didn’t seem to know how to do anything even remotely productive for society. In the off chance they did possess some kind of hidden ability, they weren’t going to use it. Popular mantras with this group include:

“I ain’t doin’ nothin.’”

“That’s somebody else’s job.”

And the ever popular,

“Do I look like somebody who gives a damn?”

If you ask me, my own personal hell is being locked up “in the same boat” with this lot of slack-jawed losers who have been relegated to the bottom layer of society.

For me, the period of time leading up to my incarceration was a time of realization (to put it mildly). It quickly became apparent that God was calling me back to his fold. He wanted me to turn my life back over to the “care and custody” of Jesus Christ. In that decision (and subsequent action) I was able to begin to live a new life in the “joy-of-forgiveness” instead of being mired in the “guilt-of-selfishness” (2 Cor 5:17). With the forgiveness of Christ I was able to escape the bondage of sin that had tied me up for so long (Heb 12:1).

In an ironic backwards way, I was able to find a degree of freedom on the “wrong” side of the prison fences (PS 146:7c).

Depending on who you ask, society has locked me up to either punish me or to rehabilitate me. If you are in the camp that believes the goal of the criminal justice system is to punish instead of rehabilitate…then rest assured…your tax dollars are being WELL spent.

First, I was indicted by a prosecutor. He did not seem to see his job as “necessary-part of-maintaining-order-in-a-civil-society.” Instead, I’m pretty sure he saw his job as “fun.” Then I was judged….by, well, a “judge”…and not favorably, I might add. After that I was “tagged-and-bagged” and ushered away for commitment. From then on I would be in the “care and custody” of a government agency full of “trained professionals” who operated under a misguided notion that they knew how to “rehabilitate” [eye roll].

Thus begins my own personal journey on the road to “correctioning” (correctioning stolen from James “Chris” Crank). But first I have to wait two hours for “special agent” Jones to finish his lunch.

Me: “Excuse me, sir.”

Jones: “What do you want!”

Me: “I’d like to add some family to my visiting list.”

Jones: “Why would anyone want to come and visit you?”

Me: “Heh, heh, uh….yeah…well, they probably don’t, but seeing as how I’m related to them, they probably just feel obligated to come.”

Jones: “Oh yeah?”

Me: “Sooooo….can you get this paperwork processed for me?”

Jones: “I don’t know, can I?”

Me: “Well, my friends tell me this is the procedure.”

Jones: “They did, huh? Well, did your “friends” inform you that this form has to be filled out in triplicate…then signed by a manager in the department of bureaucracy…after that you need to have it notarized by the secretary of paperwork?”

Me: “Uh…well…no…they didn’t tell me that.”

Jones: “Of course your friends didn’t tell you that because you don’t have any “friends” here. Now run along and do as I say then bring this back to me tomorrow.”

Me: “Isn’t tomorrow your day off?”

Jones: “What’s your point?”

The real reason that I don’t know the “correct procedure” is because the “correct procedure” changes every six minutes. It’s dependent on: who’s working, what their mood is, and blind chance. Written staff policy, spoken staff words and actual staff behavior are three VERY different things.

Prison staffers who ask questions like, “Who would want to come and see you?”…then spin you until you’re dizzy, work for the same organization which boldly believes, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” The same government that didn’t care about the would-be victims of the Sultana is now the same government that doesn’t care about me.

After using up twelve plus years in a school system somewhere, these people I re-encountered in prison had evidently learned just enough to be hired by a hapless government agency that was made up of people just like them.

This brings me to a notion you may have gathered by this point. When I talk of being locked up with the “unmotivated-slack-jawed-standard-issue-nemesis” as being “my-own-personal-hell”…I’m not talking about my fellow inmates. I’m talking about the staff.

It seems to me as though the prison officers have become my enemy.

Jesus tells us that the manner in which we treat the “least” of [people] is, in reality, the way in which we treat Christ himself (MT 25:40). The Bible and its authors teach us repeatedly about caring for the poor, the widows and the oppressed (PS 146:5–7 and ZEC 7:10). However, also conspicuously on this list are “those in prison” and our “enemies” (Philemon 1:1–25). In fact, Jesus tells us to NOT just tolerate our enemies, but to LOVE them (MT 5:44). The Bible tells us we are also to remember people in prison as though WE are locked away with them! (Heb 13:3)

In short, God’s word states that his people are to be actively ministering to those that society doesn’t want and has otherwise forgotten.

So, how does The Sultana disaster play into this?

The boat wasn’t extravagant. There wasn’t anybody famous onboard. The people that perished that day were generally rather unremarkable…except for one thing.

The Sultana was loaded with Union P.O.W.’s that the Confederacy was getting rid of by sending them “up-the-river” (quite literally) back into Northern territory.

I think it’s safe to say that “prisoners-on-a-boat” are generally considered enemies of society and, as such, are unwanted. As a result, The Sultana disaster hasn’t been romanticized and does not live on in our collective national memory.

Now that I’m locked up and have plenty of time to ponder my own “place-in-this-world,” I find myself asking this question: How would I feel if I found out that hundreds of my own personal, not-yet-forgotten, enemies were suddenly vaporized in a spectacular boiler explosion?

If I’m being honest, I have to answer, “I’m okay with that; however, the “problem” remains, Christ is NOT okay with that. As I linger here in prison, all of those unwanted, standard-issue nemeses of mine have abruptly resurfaced in my life. Their return presence has become a, not so gentle, reminder that I too, no matter where I am (literally or figuratively), need to pray for my “enemies.”

However, now that “we’re-all-in-the-same-boat” again; I have become haunted by another stark reality. People that I don’t respect, or don’t value or simply don’t like are not necessarily my “enemies.” The reality is, my only true enemy is a person working against God (PS 143:12)…and for a good deal of my life, I was THAT person.

I am thankful to faithful believers who loved their enemy and fervently prayed for someone that hated them. Because of their selfless action I was pulled onto the lifeboat and saved from my own sinking inferno.

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Convicted sex offender living in Federal prison finds Jesus; retains sense of humor while under misguided notion that he’s still relevant to society