Nov 22, 2011

Often times in conversation with someone I haven’t met before, when I mention that I do jail and prison ministry, their response is, “I couldn’t do that.”  When I ask them why they feel they couldn’t do jail or prison ministry, the common response is, “I am not qualified.”  A few say they are afraid.  Although I still feel that fear is probably the larger factor holding people back, I would like to demystify supposed ‘qualifications’ needed for jail and prison outreach.  I will quote from Thurman’s book Creative Encounter, which affirms the way that we can attend to one another without needing to be ‘experts.’

Thurman wrote, “It is relevant to my purpose to discuss the aspect of prayer that throws light on the meaning of primary religious experience” (p.34).  He stated that prayer is “…the method by which the individual makes his way to the temple of quiet within his own spirit and the activity of his spirit within its walls.”  He elaborated, “…’readying’ a quiet place is very important” (p.34).  In fact he went onto say, “One of the greatest services … is to provide spells and spaces of quiet for the world weary men and women whose needs are so desperate” (p.35).  He then shared his story about a busy parishioner who always fell asleep during worship service.

Everything Thurman wrote is applicable to jail and prison ministry.  When volunteers go inside to ‘lead’ chapel in a jail or prison, one of the most important services they are providing those inside is a place of refuge and quiet.  A volunteer need not feel one is a religious leader or skilled in the ways of leading typical worship services.  When a volunteer comes inside a jail, it creates and allows a group of men or women a place where they can come from the chaos of their dorm or living quarters.  One hour of chapel time per week allows them some blessed sacred silence and allows them time to pray and rest.  And yes, also a place where some will invariably fall into a state of deep relaxed sleep. (Almost every other week, someone in the jail chapel falls asleep.)   If a person feels they can hold those present in prayer throughout an hour of silence and prayer giving and truly listen to the unfolding of people’s lives, I believe, one is highly qualified.  The incarcerated don’t need experts in prayer.  They need sacred time not profane time.

Dr. Thurman gives us more details pertinent to jail and prison ministry in his passage on suffering, especially the aspect of sanctifying one’s distresses.  This idea is paralleled in another book, Ansel Gruen’s Heaven Begins Within, where there is a chapter titled, Spirituality From Below, specifically addressing the need to start with offering our own shortcomings, faults and temptations in prayer paving the way for silence to have a place to enter.  I have never needed to explain this to people inside.  The incarcerated that choose to come to chapel usually have spent many hours regretting their mistakes and shortcomings and worrying about their families and futures.  Giving them a quiet place to pray usually opens the floodgates and allows these thoughts to flow out.  Thurman explained “…in dealing with personal suffering and pain that the discipline of spirit may-and I emphasize the word may- guide one to the heart of religious experience” (p.49).  Thurman words shed light, “Hence the sufferer stands in immediate candidacy for the very core of religious experience (p.54).  I can testify this is my experience time and time again with those coming to the chapel.    Spiritual emergence is a common phenomenon inside of jails and prisons and yet we as a society don’t support this.  Why not?  Can we not see the incredible opportunity we have for healing our society simply by being present to those searching for spiritual direction?

Thurman later wrote, “It is a commonplace philosophy that our meaning as persons is derived from our sense of belonging” (p.81).  By providing chapel space that is NOT denominationally oriented, where ALL are welcome in the journey of spiritual and religious deepening, we also create a place where all belong.  The value of this cannot be put into words.  This too, is one of the gifts that we can provide.

In concluding, Thurman shared that becoming conscious of “being completely and thoroughly understood and of being dealt with at a point … that is beyond good and evil” is to be a “recipient of the love of God” (p.91).  This too is related to a sense of belonging in the world and a basis of self dignity and self love that few inside have ever known in their pasts.  If we truly want to better our society, we can see the importance of providing spiritual refuge where the process of prayer and silence through grace work their wonders within individuals, especially where conditions are so ripe and already happening due to the focus of suffering.  We have the capacity to steward spiritual development and maturity in a way that truly benefits all.  And in the meantime, this hour of listening and witnessing prayer also dissipates our own fears about ‘those inside’ and we on the ‘outside’ begin to witness and experience the humanity of all.

Conference Photo of Participants

An Appeal to End Religious Violence

We, the participants from different parts of Nigeria and representatives from Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and United State of America at the conference organized by the New Era Educational and Charitable Support Foundation (NEECSF) in partnership with the Voice of Angels Foundation (VAF), United Religions Initiative (URI) and Interfaith Peace -building Initiative (IPI) on the occasion of the 3rd Annual International Conference on Interfaith Dialogue and Non-violence Communication on the theme of “Building Common Future through Interfaith Dialogue, Mutual understanding and the Golden Rule” which was held in Jos, Nigeria from October 27-29th, 2011

After reflecting on the urgent need for interfaith dialogue, role of religion to build peace and the teaching of the Golden Rule “Treat others the way you want to be treated” which is a common principles of different religions, indigenous cultures and secular philosophy is a fundamental principle that addresses and enhances mutual respect, human right, trust building, harmony and co-existence.

The participants of the conference appreciate the President of Federal Republic of Nigeria, His Excellency Dr. Goodluck Jonathan for supporting the African Union Interfaith Dialogue Forum launched in June, 2010 in Abuja, Nigeria. We also thank and appreciate the African Union and the African Religious Leaders Council for taking the Initiative to launch the Forum.

We, the participants of the conference, being committed to a personal pledge for peace and non-violence and agreed to work together to bring positive change in our personal lives, family, communities and country came up with the following statements:

Deeply concerned about the religiously motivated violence in most parts of the northern Nigeria which claim the precious lives of many people which also destroyed property, commit ourselves to be part of the process to end the conflict and promote a culture of peace
We express our condolence and compassion for the family of the victims who lost their loved ones and we pray for those who lost their life, and may their soul rest in peace

We call upon the religions leaders in northern Nigeria to engage actively their followers in the peace and reconciliation process and to work together to heal the wound and stops the cycle of violence and restore the mutual relationship and build trust between the religious divide in the area.

We also call upon all concern bodies including the elders, traditional leaders, the media and women of both faith (Islam and Christian) to work actively in the process of reconciliation, forgiveness and peace building within the community.

We also appeal to Rev James Wuye and Imam Nurrudeen Ashafa of the Interfaith Mediation Centre in Kaduna, who transformed the religious motivated violence in their community to a peacefully community, to share their rich experiences on the work of Interfaith co

Local press article from 1st day of conference

Catching up on important meetings

Sani and I at the peace conference

Tuesday evening Nov 1st, John and I met for dinner with Sani Suleiman of JDPC. Sani is the coordinator and program director of Peace building and Conflict Transformation for the JDPC in Jos, Nigeria. He is a Muslim working for the Catholic organization. www.jdpcjos.org. Justice Development and Peace Commission/Caritas (JDPC) is responsible for social development activities in the Archdiocese. The JDPC serves all humanity regardless of religious or ethnic affiliation and is involved in different aspects of human development: Agriculture, Rural Water Supply, Human Rights/Legal Aid, Democracy Monitoring, Street Children (Under the Care for Children Programme), Prison Ministry, Women Empowerment and Conflict transformation/Peace building. Sani is a skilled moderator, peace builder, and has a regular radio presence in Jos. I met him in June at Eastern Mennonite University’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) in Virginia. We were in the same class, Peacebuilding In Traumatized Societies and did a report together on the situation in Jos, Nigeria. We worked so well together that led to his participation in helping the facilitation of the Voices of Angels material during the Interfaith peace conference engaging the participants for two full days in “The 7 Principles of Reconciliation” (learned from Angeles Arrien and Patrick O’Neill). At our dinner when I asked straight out what he valued from the conference Oct 27-29, he said, “What amazed me was the process that engaged the individual’s heart but also the collective process.” He felt it was, “a very unique and important process.” He said it was new and that although he had been doing reconciliation work with a focus on perspectives of relationships he really learned. He said, “Apart from issues of personal transformation, connecting people and being a strong instrument of peace building, just this afternoon a participant from the conference called me and asked how I was doing. They were a stranger to me before the conference and now they are a friend. The conference provided space for sharing, learning and individual commitments.” He noted he observed my sensitivity in allowing him and Emmanuel to engage the people fully in ways that were culturally relevant. He concluded with, “You really challenged me and I wish to do the same with those whom I work.” I acknowledged his incredible skill in interactions with others while imparting the material of the principles. I was impressed by his flexibility adapting them spontaneously in culturally relevant ways, adding local moral teaching stories, adding movement, clapping, rhythm and humor. What joy he brings to the process while keeping all thoroughly engaged. What an honor to have worked with him. I asked him if he felt equipped to continue to process of engaging other in “The 7 Principles of Reconciliation” and he replied absolutely.