June 24, 2009: Blame the rain?

[Background to today’s blog; much of this info is discussed in the last chapter of Way Opens. Scroll down to the * if you already know about FMC’s inner workings.]

A few years ago, 8 to 12 people doing what’s sometimes called prison ministry, formed a quasi-support group at Friends Meeting at Cambridge (FMC) and called this group, what else, Prison Ministry. These people were visiting prisoners in jail, writing letters to men and women behind bars, advocating for a more just criminal justice system, volunteering in agencies working with families impacted by violent crime, etc., etc. Uncomfortable with the word “ministry,” this group, which meets once a month, is now called Prison Fellowship (PF).

Over time, PF, while continuing to support its members’ individual efforts, took on a new role: sponsoring talks and lectures about the criminal justice system and sharing the stories of individuals directly affected by what some call “the very criminal justice system” for the entire Meeting’s edification. PF also proposed FMC offer a weekly meal-and-sharing opportunity for the formerly incarcerated which is now in its second year and has attracted eight to twelve regular attenders. My husband (who cooks amazing meals for these weekly, powerful, community-building gatherings) and I attend faithfully.

* About a year ago, in the Spirit-led, organic way that these things happen, three people from Prison Fellowship found themselves raising funds, mostly from the larger FMC community, to bail out a young man who’d been held in jail for three years. This oh-my-God-we-actually-DID-this! has led PF to wonder: Should we create a bail fund? A legal defense fund?  Both? Neither? (Twice, through PF members’ efforts, money has also been raised to pay for lawyers, too.)

Over the past few months, at our monthly potluck-plus-meetings, PF has gone around and around on this should-we/ shouldn’t we. Lots of good meals, little progress. Last month, someone suggested we do a kind of personal assessment, ask ourselves what’s keeping us back, what’s a concern, fear, ” a stop,” as they say.

So I did. And here’s what I discovered when I listened to that still, small voice: Given how many people could use bail and/or legal defense funds, including, God forbid, people I love, people I break bread with every Wednesday night, how do you decide who gets what? I am simply not up to such a challenge. It’s too much.

Usually an energetic and optimistic person, I prefaced my gloomy remarks (last night) with: “Maybe it’s the rain but. . . ” (We haven’t seen sunshine around here FOR A LONG TIME!)

But in the organic, Spirit-led way that these meetings go, another PF member suggested that the decision-making process re who gets what should be the responsibility of a wider group, including, she suggested, mothers whose children had either been the victims of the perpetrators of violence and people from the Wednesday night group!

Yes. Once again I’ve assumed primary responsibility for some endeavor. Once again I have decided it’s all up to me! Once again I have failed to appreciate the power of community.

Can’t blame the rain for THAT!

March 12, 2009:”Go tell it. . . “

Three times last week I heard tragic, dire stories from Palestine. Last Sunday, Gay Harter* showed slides of her trip to Palestine last fall and shared her concern for the troubled country’s remaining Christians. A few days later, photographer Skip Schiel, a f/Friend, presented his slide show which included photos from ravaged, desperate Gaza and painful first-hand accounts from the Palestinians Skip has met on his numerous trips. This past Sunday, at First Church in Jamaica Plain, Reverend Terry Burke, to illustrate his Lenten rededication to social justice, told the story of Rachel Corrie, killed by an Israeli bulldozer (made in USA) while protesting the destruction of Palestinian homes (Skip had also recounted Rachel Corrie’s death).

A huge fan of both Gay and Skip, I’d attended their respective shows because I knew they would tell me news from “over the hill,” i.e. information and stories not reported, not told. They did not disappoint. And I’d heard Terry Burke’s wonderful sermon because I’d been asked to give a talk re Way Opens that morning at First Church.

During my talk, I quoted from a Derrick Z. Jackson Boston Globe column from the day before: “This week, the Pew Center on the States released a report that found that states spent $47 billion on prisons last year, with spending rising faster than for education. The spending continues to rise, even as crime rates have fallen by 25 percent over the last 20 years. . . Huge percentages of the 1.5 million people in prison, particularly African-Americans (one in 11 African-Americans are under some form of correction), are there for nonviolent drug offenses that call out not for barbed wire, but for treatment, education, and job opportunities.”

Like their counterparts in other churches I have visited, these JP U-Us are concerned and well-informed and compassionate people. When I brought up CORI reform, for example, they knew what I was talking about. Still, I got the feeling, especially when I read that column, that I, too, was bringing news from “over the hill.”

When I’d heard Gay and Skip’s impassioned presentations, my first reaction both times was “I, too, need, to go to Palestine so I, too, can come back and tell what I saw. That’s the only way our country’s policy will ever change.” But, after Sunday, I’m rededicating myself to reminding people how many African-Americans are “under some form of correction” (one in ELEVEN? C’mon!). And—this is brand-new, folks—to explore ways to better connect with other people of faith working on, as some call it,  “the very criminal justice system.”

* Gay Harter is a loyal member of Side-by-Side, a safe and loving sharing circle for the formerly incarcerated  held every Monday night in Boston’s JP. After people from my Quaker meeting’s Prison Fellowship group visited this circle, we decided to start a similar group in Cambridge. No wonder I’m a big fan!

 

 

December 30, 2008: Redemption (and the Beloved Community

Yesterday morning, after beloved grandson Dmitri and his equally beloved parents had gone home after our wonderful Christmas together, David and I were feeling pretty sad. Rather than indulge in gooey, fattening holiday leftovers, we oh-so-maturely opted for a brisk walk around Concord’s Great Meadows. A wildlife preserve beside the Concord River, Great Meadows is a perennial favorite.

One of the first things we always do at Great Meadows is to check out the  “recently sited” blackboard which hangs on the kiosk at the preserve’s entrance. After they’ve walked around the preserve, birders and small children note what they spotted. Sometimes these chalked notations are pretty fanciful—dinosaurs, sea monsters, etc.—but always worth reading.

Yesterday, however, there was nothing written on the blackboard except “Happy new year!”

“A clean slate!” I thought. “Literally!”

What would a clean slate feel like? What if my considerable “trespasses/debts”, like a messy, much-chalked-on blackboard, had been vigorously erased somehow? As we walked (Great Meadows being flooded, our walk continued around Cambridge’s Fresh Pond, instead) I contemplated myself as a clean slate. It was exhilarating!

I’m not a clean slate, of course. I have made many mistakes.  But every week, when I listen to formerly incarcerated men and women talk about how they’re turning their lives around, I am reminded that although our “chalk marks” are never completely erased, with Spirit’s help, there is Possibility, Hope; can I say Redemption? 

Maybe not. I’ll admit that maybe I’m using the word “redemption” incorrectly. (unlike my “literally” usage which was spot on!) In traditional Christianity, as I understand it, redemption means being delivered from sin and happens through sacrifice. I’m talking more about a spiritual process by which the possibility for change and growth are acknowledged, honored, and acted upon by both individuals and the larger community. A “beloved community.”

I plan to keep using the word “redemption”—as elucidated—as often as possible because such a loving and forgiving concept feels like something people of faith (that’s me!) should just be saying.

And witnessing to.

November 15, 2008: Twin (Mind) Set

Was reminded the other night of the dramatic, charged moments right after Allison and Christina had been born (25 years ago this month): There was “Roth baby # 1,” aka Allison, who’d scored a perfect score on the Apgar and was therefore an instant star in that operating room (It was a high-risk birth and there were lots of medical people milling around in case something went wrong). And there was scrawny Christina, “Roth baby # 2,” instantly delivered to Intensive Care. And there was me, feeling such pride and such fear simultaneously!

Maybe that intense moment on November 2, 1983 was teaching me to think about and to feel two very different things at the same time. Certainly this past week I have been both elated that Obama won and constantly wondering how KT’s faring in jail (At least KT got to vote for Obama before being sentenced). Come to think of it, this mindset’s very much informing this week’s column for the Somerville Journal.

Another example: Last night, Lynn threw a very sweet birthday party for Nesto (Nesto: told you I’d mention you in my blog. So there!) Many of the guests were young people affiliated with the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute which, tragically, may close because of state cutbacks. These young people were so delightfully playful, so comfortable with their elders, so FUN, obviously, in part, because they’ve been doing such important work and have received some excellent training. So I laughed and teased and tossed rubbery anemone-like tossables back and forth with these 16-29 year olds, all the while feeling so sad that the Institute may have to shut it doors. (I’m linking the Institute’s website if you want more info.)

June 25, 2008

Last night was the Graduation Ceremony for the Carey Program. Run by the City of Cambridge’s (MA) Department of Human Services, the Carey Program is a very structured,  9-month opportunity for homeless men, many of them just out of prison, to “become men,” as one speaker said last night. These men live at the Cambridge Y where they report to Carey Program counselors and advisors weekly; meanwhile they’re looking for work and, with assistance from the Program, find a place to live.

Because 2 of the men from Friends Meeting’s meals-and-sharing circle were graduating, David, I and three others from the circle went too. As had been predicted earlier in the evening by Cambridge’s mayor (Denise Simmons; she’s impressive!) and others, the speeches given by each graduate after he’d received his certificate were powerful, tear-producing, amazing.

What struck me was the same thing that struck me when I taught homeless students: How much  having a spiritual life plays a leading role in recovery, survival, making it. “God put some beautiful people in my life,” the first graduate stated. He was followed by graduate after graduate thanking God, asking for a moment of silence, etc.

Years ago I was asked to talk to Harvard Education School students who were taking a look at why some students hang in there and others just give up and fail. When I mentioned my observation that homeless students who had some kind of spiritual life seemed to fare better than those who didn’t, they didn’t seem all that interested.

Too bad.