I just finished Neil White’s fantastic memoir In the Sanctuary of Outcasts. White spent 12 months — spring 1993 to spring 1994 — incarcerated at the minimum-security Federal Medical Center in Carville, Louisiana. What made this incarceration unique was the “convergence of cultures” at Carville as federal inmates and prison guards shared the Federal Medical Center campus with 130 leprosy patients at the nation’s last leprosarium. In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is White’s firsthand account of his transformative experience among society’s outsiders.
Convicted of bank fraud and check kiting, White recounts being immediately thrust into community with thieves and killers, far removed from his world of starched shirts and five-star dining. Moreover, White’s imprisonment entailed a year of separation from his young family. Although his marriage was an unfortunate casualty of his detention, White candidly writes about his intentional efforts to maintain his relationship with his children. For this reason alone, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is at once heartbreaking and stirring.
Faith emerges as a central theme in White’s “convergence of cultures.” In addition to the mingling of miscreants and Hansen’s disease patients (as White notes, the term “leper” carries a pejorative connotation and should not be used), Carville’s community also included an ancient order of nuns who ministered to the patients. One of the book’s central figures is Father Reynolds, the Catholic priest who oversees weekly mass and Bible studies for this hodgepodge congregation. Father Reynolds’ graciousness was integral as White comes to grips with his own pride and self-advancement.
Days after completing In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, it is White’s articulation of church that stands out most to me. Prior to his conviction, White’s church attendance was simply ornamental, one more feature of the upstanding image he desperately sought to maintain. Sure, he attended church, White admits, but only because doing so was good for business. But at Carville, seated among his fellow inmates and the disfigured, blind, and broken members of the leprosarium, White was free to take off the mask, to drop his pretensions, and to accept the reality of his humanity. Only in a place where everyone’s brokenness was on full display was White free to truly be himself — before others and before God.
One of the most meaningful relationships White formed was with an 80-year-old Hansen’s patient named Ella, a resident at Carville for nearly 70 years. Prior to his release, Ella implored White to find a church home and to continue along his newfound spiritual journey. White has this to say about the import of that conversation:
But at some point after I settled in Oxford, I would take Ella’s advice and find a church. Not just any church. A place like the church at Carville. Where the parishioners were broken and chipped and cracked. A place to go when I needed help. A place to ask forgiveness. A sacred place where people were not consumed with image or money.
I didn’t know if a church like this existed, but if it did I would go. And I would pray. Not the kind of prayers I used to say for miracles or money or advancement. I would ask for something more simple. I would pray for recollection — pray that I would never forget. (p. 303)
White’s desire for this kind of community — a community free of pretense, a place where brokenness is universally acknowledged and help is both asked for and freely given — especially resonates with me. I believe that most of us desire the same kind of community. We’re all looking for a place to belong. I frequently talk to people who tell me they’re longing for a place like the community White describes: a place to be known, a place to remember, a place to ask forgiveness.
And like White, many of these people question whether such a place — such a church — actually exists.
In the Sanctuary of Outcasts fires my imagination toward the kind of community God creates: the kind of community where strangers become family, where wolf lives with lamb, where criminals and pariahs take their seats alongside the pious and the faithful.
What if the church truly became a place of sanctuary for the outcasts?