"Hell is other people," wrote French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. He could've been writing about one of the most important meetings in Merced this year.
On Tuesday morning at Gateway Community Church, some 50 ex-cons and a dozen do-gooders -- serious do-gooders -- sat on gray-cushioned chairs around tables in the church auditorium.
The future of the ex-cons depends on the people they'll meet after this meeting. Their future depends on other people. If they go with people they met today who want to help them, they may make it. If they go with people who got them into this room in the first place ...
They didn't come for the free breakfast. They didn't come for the stand-up sermons 13 men and women delivered. They didn't come for any other reason than that they had to be there.
Mostly men, they'd all gotten out of prison or jail within the last month. Part of their parole required them to show up, sign in, sit through the speeches and decide whether they were going to go straight.
Or straight back to jail.
Why was this one of the county's most important meetings of the year? Even though it's held every month? Because it represented the county's best -- and in some cases, last -- effort to get these folks back into society. Back into their families, the work force, back into humanity.
Some of you will say the cons deserve no breaks -- they got what they deserve. Some will say the efforts should focus on decent folks who need help. But consider the alternative: If the county and Parolee and County Team don't try to help these men and women, they're almost certain to fall into the same old downward spiral.
And if what Jesus said -- whatever you do unto the least of my brothers and sisters you do unto me -- doesn't work for you, keep in mind that it costs taxpayers around $35K to warehouse an inmate for a year, according to the California Republican Party.
In other words, the more we keep out, the more we can spend on our other needs.
Tuesday's meeting was part tent revival, part job fair, part counseling session, part red-tape seminar, part AA and NA meeting.
The sum exceeded the parts.
Officially, it was called a Parole Orientation Meeting, part of the Parolee and County Team, or PACT program. It was held to "provide recently released parolees with a 'one-stop shopping' location, structured to educate parolees about county resources."
Think "Blue Collar Comedy Tour" with Oprah and "Intervention" thrown in for a full script.
Laughter, poetry, tears, prison yard kabuki, infomercials and a sense of ...
Hope, for sure. But also of destiny. A sense that, for all the information -- about food stamps, job prospects, college credits, family reconciliation, sobriety and faith -- there remained, hanging over the tables like the cigarette smoke they could exhale outside after the meeting. ...
A sense of despair.
You could call it a last shot at getting well again -- in both the psychological and druggie sense of that phrase.
Wayne Davison, an empathetic parole agent, spoke after a prayer. How many of you are here for the first time, he asked. Three or four folks raised their hands. How many are here after three or more (prison) terms? Half the hands in the room went up.
The first set of hands represented hope.
The second set represented despair.
That means many of these people have already attended these well-intentioned, acutely choreographed sessions to get them back on their feet. To help them rejoin the Mercedian community. To offer them another chance to leave The Thug Life.