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.

Our Internal Conversations and Peace Building

A few years ago I came across a quote, (unfortunately I didn’t note the source.)   The line was:

“We don’t live in the world, we live in the conversation we have about the world.” 

 What is the current conversation we are having about the world?

What have we picked up?  How have we arranged those thoughts?


Applying these questions to our thoughts and internal conversations:

What thoughts/conversations have we picked up? about ourselves? from our family? friends? from our country? and the world?  How do we arrange them in our minds?  What is the timing of when we do something? Or do nothing?  When we speak up? Or when we remain silent? based on those thoughts we’ve picked up?


Of the many internal conversations we have daily, is the conversation you have about yourself accurate?  Is it current?  Does it reflect the being that you have grown into?  Does it reflect the larger aspect of your gifts and being in service to a higher calling?

What is the conversation you have about your partner?

Is it accurate?  Is it current?  Does it reflect the being that they have grown into?  Does it encompass their actual talents and gifts in service to a higher calling?


And what about our enemies?  What conversations do we have about them?  How do those conversations affect our own peace of mind let alone our actions and quality of being in this world?

I wonder, what have our conversations about the world been like lately?


Another quote I read years ago was

“85% of the thoughts you have today are yesterdays thoughts.  You can’t expect things to change if you’re not open to different thoughts and seeing things differently.”     -source unknown


We know the key to change, is creation of new thoughts.  Energy follows attention.  Like MLK Jr and “The Dream.”  Awareness of our own thoughts is also recognized as a universal practice of peace.  Awareness of our own mental diet, which then effects all the conversations we have in our own minds, and our quality of being in the world.


When we find ourselves looping or telling ourselves an obsolete or incomplete story about ourselves or others, we are at a choice point, a moment of conscious creation.  Conscious  creation.


So I’m going to digress just for a moment to give an overview of the use of conversations about an ‘other’, whomever that other may be, that is a leftover of our colonial past, that is a form of violence


Destructive use of conversations are those constructs about ‘others’ that are not accurate:  That are not in alignment with human values and human decency.  Conversations that undermine the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  That instead of fostering justice, equity and compassion, validate and justify violence toward another.


For example when we’ve been the victim of a crime, personally or collectively- and then we label the perpetrator ‘evil’.  i.e. 9/11 and then the ‘axis of evil’ story that justified our invasion and occupation of another land.  Instead of holding to Gandhi’s non violence principles that states “Human being are more than the evil they sometimes commit.”  We are all more than the evil we sometimes commit.  MLK Jr knew that.  What if his conversation had been to label bigoted whites ‘evil’? and justified violence in return?


But today, what about a modern example?


What are your thoughts/conversations/stories about those that are incarcerated?  ‘They deserve it.’  Right?  They wouldn’t be there unless they did something wrong.  Yet research shows that our collective conversations about drug use, War on Crime have also been fabricated to produce fear, so that we collectively react and vote for politicians (Democrat and Republican) that are “touch on crime”.


And lastly, I have one other example of our creation of conversations about another that perpetuates violence.  Our military added a psychological component during the Viet Nam years to desensitize our troops to killing the enemy.  How does the military make our troops better killers?  -By dehumanizing the enemy. -By constructing a conversation about the other that follows the pattern of colonialism. Thinking that negates the inherent integrity and wholeness of the enemy.  -By calling the enemy derogatory names.  –Making them as less than human.


And as Gandhi, MLK Jr and religion in its most pure form have taught us, our job is to adhere to our principles and promote and provide a voice for wholesome narratives of our enemies, convicts, victims, ourselves, and all of the diverse voices of our world.


So….How do we break the cycles of violence?

By focusing NOW on our creativity and peacework, it is important to have the critical thinking skills to determine what stories are we being asked to pick up versus what are the stories that we have created ourselves that are mutually beneficial?


For example, when New Zealand saw an increase in youth being incarcerated the Maori understood if the youth of their society had a problem that meant it was everyone’s problem.  Thus they initiated Restorative Justice circles where victim’s and their family as well as offenders and their family all sat together and heard what the impact truly had been, made their way through forgiveness, reconciliation and restitution.  What is their conversation about the incarcerated?

What if our conversation is how can we gather with those who are most impacted and create breakthrough?  What if we believe in healing our youth instead of criminalizing them?  What if we understood as a society that perpetrators are key to healing victims?


And regarding those inside, do you know that spiritual emergence is a common phenomenon in jails and prisons?  Could you please make that conversation more widely known?

“New studies confirm what chaplain’s pastoral experience has demonstrated: that physical, behavioral, and emotional healing happens sooner and with more lasting results if accompanied by spiritual healing.”  Could we facilitate more support for our inmates in their spiritual emergence process?  What is the greatest benefit to convicts?  Studies show it is Interactions with healthy adults.  Not any specific program, but ‘one to one’ casual interactions with volunteers inside.  Are we not doing peace building work and creating a world of parity when we engage with ‘other’s’ who are seeking to find their own accurate narratives?  Instead of narratives in the form of dominant norms that have defined them by our fear, the color of their skin, their drug use or their immigration status?


What is spiritual healing?  A return to wholeness.  A sense of belonging.  A sense of rebinding- within ourselves, each other, and our creator and the mystery.  That actually the root of religion- re ligio  , re– yet again  and ligio the same root as ligament- to bind

To rebind yet again within ourselves, each other, and our creator and the mystery, that which is greater than ourselves is inherent in all faith communities.


Tying this in with, what we pick up, how we arrange our thoughts and how our thoughts define the creation of our lives:


It is time to honor all ways of knowing- epistemologies, ways of viewing reality- ontologies, axiologies. and other non dominant forms of viewing the world  What conversations do we have about those who are brought up in a mindset that only validates their way of knowing and delegitimizes all others- even women’s ways of knowing.

How can we use our creativity and imagination in breaking thoughts /beliefs we may have been taught as truth?  or unchangeable? or unchallengeable?


How can we more actively and consciously engage our imagination in creating personal and collective narratives that reflect our DREAMS individually and as a society?  What do we want to create for our world?  What is our dream for this world?  What is the lasting leagacy you want to leave- like MLK Jr, even after the dreamer is gone, the dream lives on…


John Paul Lederach wrote in a book titled ‘Moral Imagination’:


“…moral imagination requires the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that includes our enemies: the ability to sustain a paradoxical curiosity that embraces complexity without reliance on dualistic polarity; the fundamental belief in and pursuit of the creative act; and the acceptance of the inherent risk of stepping in to the mystery of the unknown that lies beyond the far too familiar landscape of violence” (p.5).



Isn’t this what MLK Jr and Gandhi did?

How can we help ourselves, as well as other people, claim our inherent wholeness and ability to create health and well being?


For example in a world that thrives on division

Don’t allow people to put you in a position of having to choose either/ or

Commit to bivalent action

For example, in the criminal justice world, stand with victims and their families and reach out to offenders and their families

We cannot reach lasting solutions that are sustainable until we have met the needs of victims and their families as well as offenders and their families.

-always build communities that are diverse, that include polarities

– gather people of different viewpoints creating greater appreciation for differing viewpoints-


Creativity, Peacebuilding and Moral Imagination require us to not only be conscious of the narratives that we’ve picked up and arranged, but to compost those not serving us and  to create NEW narratives, stories, conversations that pave the way to our society more closely matching the values that all persons are persons of value.


It also helps us to free ourselves

as MLK Jr spoke at Vanderbuilt Univ during the civil rights era he said:

“for those of you who are white, and because of family considerations, or business considerations or political considerations would like to help us, but can’t, let me tell you, we will liberate YOU.”

“He gave his life not just to create equity for black people but to free the minds of whites people.” To free us of our hatred.  Now we need to take the next step and free ourselves from the cycles of thoughts we are taught to not question that perpetuate injustice and violate the dignity of any being or creation.

It is time for new stories, new dreams and a time for moral imagination.

WE are ALL incredibly creative and Our minds are what can create a better world for all.  Thank you!

WE all have the amazing capacity to bring change/peace into our world, one thought at a time.

Thank you!<

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