What I Learned From My Visit to Alcatraz

This past week Paula and I were able to spend some time in San Francisco. It was our first visit there. And when time allowed, we took in all the touristy destinations like the Golden Gate Bridge, Napa Valley, and a must-trip down Lumbar Street, the curviest street in America that goes down at a 27 degree angle. But I must say the most impressive stop we made in the City by The Bay, was our visit to Alcatraz.

I’ve heard of it all my life, watched movies about it, and have been thrilled by Clint Eastwood and his escape from Alcatraz. But visiting the island itself is a little surreal and very surprising. I was surprised to know that the prison housed, even at its peak, only about 268 prisoners. I was surprised to know that the guards lived on the island with their families, that children were actually raised there during its 30 years as a federal penitentiary. I was surprised to see the small, 5 by 9 cells that the prisoners lived in, to see the cells where Al Capone and Machine-gun Kelly lived, to see the dreaded D-Block where prisoners were put in isolation. It was impressive to see the factories built on the island where inmates worked everyday.

The most impressive thing that I discovered on Alcatraz is a lighthouse. The lighthouse was there before it was a Civil War fort or a prison. The other interesting thing about the lighthouse is it is at the highest point of the island. As I was sitting on the ferry boat leaving the island, I thought how ironic it was that here on the rock, this symbol of brokenness, evil, darkness, crime, punishment, and deprivation, the highest point on the island was a lighthouse. When I saw that, I thought of the words of the Apostle John, when he said that Jesus was the light that had come into the world and it was the kind of light that the darkness could never extinguish. I was reminded that Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” I remember when Jesus said that those of us who are the followers of Christ would be like a light set on a hill for the whole world to see.

You see, the city of San Francisco is only 1 and ¼ mile from the tiny little island of Alcatraz, which means you can stand on Alcatraz and almost feel like you can reach out and touch the skyline of the city. What a contrast: a massive, burgeoning city, filled with activity, and a small, little island isolated with those who are deprived of all the freedoms and privileges. And yet standing above them all, tall on this island is a lighthouse.

One of the things I love about Christmas is that it’s the holiday of lights. It’s when we light up things in a beautiful way. San Francisco was all lit up. The homes in my neighborhood are all lit up. My own house has lights all over it. Remember, no matter how bad life gets, no matter how many prisons we build, no matter how many laws we pass, standing tall above everything else is the light. And it gives light to all men who come to it. And it’s also a symbol of hope; that goodness prevails, that love prevails, that God will endure and those who love and serve Him faithfully will never be forgotten.

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