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My brother’s keeper

My brother’s keeper

THE MAGAZINE

 

By Jennifer Brandlon

 

On April 6, 2015, a man walked out of a federal prison in Butner, North Carolina, and got a ride to the Raleigh-Durham airport. He flew to Portland, Oregon, and started a new life. His new residence: a fold-out couch in my home office.

 

This is the story of my brother. He had been in prison for close to 10 years. Although our relationship was never a close one, during his incarceration we kept in touch by mail along with occasional phone calls and visits. My heart went out to him as he endured his time. He did his best to stay positive, reading everything he could get his hands on, helping other prisoners when he could, doing a lot of running, and even joining a prison band for a while. But I know most of those years were friendless and comfortless for him.

 

Still, in the couple of years leading up to his release, I wavered when it came to how involved I wanted to be in his re-entry to society. I’m a writer who lives in a small apartment and who greatly values my quiet time alone. His life before prison was, to put it gently, anything but quiet. He has a long history of poor impulse control and shattered relationships. Emotional scars remain fresh within our family circle.

 

And he was going to need a lot. He lacked a stable work history and faced many parole-related restrictions on what he could do, including a permanent ban on computer use. His criminal record would follow him to every job interview. Barriers to becoming self-supporting towered over him as an ex-con. If I tried to help him, would his needs overwhelm me?

 

In the end, my parents and I agreed to give him time and space to try to start over – half a year at my home and half a year at theirs – as long as he was working or engaged in a full-time job search, as well as complying with the terms of his parole.

 

I wondered at the time – and still do now – whether something is broken inside my brother. To make a long story short, in many ways he hasn’t changed. He is still a likable, positive person who wants to help others, but who makes poor choices and gives into impulsive whims. As a consequence, he hasn’t made much progress financially. His access to rent-free shelter will come to an end in a few months, and then he may well become homeless.

 

As the one-year anniversary of my brother’s return approaches, I am faced with the bleak intersection of my limited compassion and his unmet – and maybe un-meet-able – needs. What do we do in the face of brokenness of a family member, someone who is forever connected to us? Where is the path to wholeness in our relationship?

 

Jesus cared about that question, and answered it with example after example from his encounters with people with overwhelming needs, people broken in spirit and health. He ignored their outcast status and stunned them with his gifts of healing and forgiveness. He fearlessly allowed them to become forever connected to him.

 

Was the lesson that we are supposed to do the same no matter what happens afterward? We don’t know if the people Jesus encountered went on to live their lives differently. We don’t know if they stayed healthy or free of demons. But I believe the connection sparked by His acts remained as an unbreakable link to His love.

 

My brother’s needs have, in fact, surpassed what my parents and I can provide. We’ve done what we can to help him start over, but we can’t take away his past mistakes. As much as I would like to, I can’t give him a new, undamaged life. What Christ offers him, as well as me, is simply this – a love that doesn’t fix everything, but bears all things, hopes all things and believes all things.

 

Soon my brother will have to walk out the door and start a new life, again. I’m not sure what will happen afterward for him. All I know is that trying to help patch things up for him was inherently healing, and the connection that came from it feels like one of those gifts only God can give. I can’t go back to not knowing what brokenness is, and that has brought me closer to understanding why Jesus made the least and the lost his priority. Although my circumstances are very different from my brother’s, I have made a new start, too.

 

image: Healing of Peter’s Mother by Rembrandt

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Tracey Henley

My mother-in-law, and consequently the rest of the family, had to deal with a similarly troubled son for much of her life. She never resolved the question posed by the writer here, because she wanted the answer to be, "help him endlessly until he improves." But he wasn't going to improve, because he didn't feel he'd lost his way. She got very out of sorts one day when she called a pastoral counseling service run by a church and the counselor wasn't a pastor, because she wanted a theological answer. Eventually a pastor called her back, heard her story, and advised her to show her son "tough love," the same advice we in the family had been giving her. She decided the pastor wasn't compassionate enough, and ignored his advice.

I don't know what the answer is, but I do know that we as a family struggled for years over the question of what kind of support to provide my brother-in-law, and how much. It ruptured family relationships, which are still broken. It undermined my mother-in-law's health, assisted by her own preoccupation with her son's problems. I can't believe that Jesus wants that kind of sacrifice from us, but perhaps he does, given that he gave his life for our sins. I only know that I could not give any more than I did, and I will have to live with that.

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