Transformation from the Inside Out ~ The Need for Prison Ministry
Article ID: 10926
Age Group: Adult
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Posted: August 27th. 2006
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“Are we really that scary?” one of the elders of the Wiccan group asked me. “Has the media done such a good job at making us monsters that no one will come?”
My answer to both questions was soft and pained, one word: “Yes.” My heart felt like it would break.
Wicca has received its fair share of prejudice and bigotry over the last fifty-plus years. Misinformation, both intentional and accidental, has labeled us as Satanists, baby killers, brain washers. I was once called an “abomination” in a conversation about Wicca and marriage. But it isn’t the religious preference of this group of seekers that keeps good teachers, priests, and priestesses from sharing their experience of the Goddess and the beauty of Wicca. It’s the fact that they are incarcerated offenders. Prisoners. The outcast class of society.
I began my prison ministry a little less than a year ago. It was the coming of age of a dream I’d held since I was fourteen – to reach out to lost and hurting souls with love and compassion in the hope that I could make a difference. If I could change the course of just one life, I thought, it would be well worth the time and energy. I have always believed the world is transformed one soul at a time, and I wanted to start with the souls most reviled and forgotten. What I didn’t realize is that the life course I would change so profoundly would be my own.
I volunteer at a state men’s facility. It is a Level 4 facility – just one notch below the most maximum security for a state without the death penalty. The median age of the population is less than 30. The men are split pretty evenly – black and white – with a smattering of other racial groups. Sex offenders make up the greatest percentage of inmates, having just recently moved ahead of those convicted of murder. As many as half of the men in this facility never receive a visitor. The only contact they have that lets them know the outside world cares about them and their fate is through volunteers.
Ahhhh… but does the outside world care about them and their fate? I’m not convinced it does. I have been shocked and overwhelmingly saddened by the response my ministry has received. “They don’t deserve compassion.” “Give ‘em a toothbrush and pillow and nothing more.” “Monsters.” “They’ll never change.” “I could never do what you do.”
The first time I took the long walk down the empty corridor, past the guard station, and down another corridor to the chapel with big doors sliding firmly closed behind me every so often, I admit to having been jittery. Not afraid, but anxious about what I didn’t know. I expected a group of curmudgeonly older men (even though I knew the age stats) with hardened faces and rude or contemptuous attitudes. I couldn’t have been more wrong. What I found was a young group (several are younger than my twenty-something older sons) who were grateful, pleasant, cooperative, and far more respectful than a whole lot of people I know on the outside. They were just people. Men who had made bad choices, some terrible and incredibly harmful, and were now living the consequence of those choices.
Slowly, I began to see my own prejudice in my unstated belief that I could bring transformation to anyone. I’ve spent a great deal of my personal and professional life insisting on the intrinsic value of the human being. I’ve preached that our worth is not derived from our actions, be they good or bad; our worth arises from the fact that we are human, and that no matter how atrocious our choices, we cannot extinguish the divine spark within.
Preaching is one thing, experiencing is another. As I got to know these men as human beings, the transformation I’d hoped for began to happen. Except it was I who changed. My understanding and experience of compassion grew and continues to grow. I am blessed and humbled to be allowed a peek inside the minds and hearts of a part of society we lock away and try to forget about. Seeing the good, the bad, the incredibly painful dynamics of crime and consequences is a bit like seeing into the face of the Goddess herself. Chaos and destruction – life and rebirth all interacting within some cosmic order.
I sit with the stories of childhood abandonment and abuse that created adults who perpetrate terrible crimes. I hold the pain of the murderer in my heart next to the pain of the victim and her family. I grieve for the abused children, the lost adults. And behind it all I see the human being. It is a shaman’s journey.
Bo Lozoff, author of We’re All Doing Time and founder of the Human Kindness Foundation, is adamant that the prison experience need not be one of shame. This long-time prison minister brings the experience of spirituality to federal prisons with the concept of “prison monks” creating space and awareness that allows for great spiritual growth while “doing time.” Bo’s work has received numerous humanitarian awards over the past 25+ years. But it’s not the awards that tell the story – it’s the amazing response from hundreds of thousands of convicted offenders across the country, many of them hardened criminals. These men, these human beings, respond with gratitude and tears of joy as they find a way to transform their lives and their experience.
Bo’s work is enormous and awe inspiring. My work is tiny. Other ministers, one by one, add their light to the great need for compassion in the correctional system. And still more is needed. Where I work, the Department of Corrections has instituted a new rule. If no religious volunteer is available for a particular day (or at all), then the religious service is cancelled. For the more mainstream groups, it’s not much of a problem. Sheer numbers alone ensure that our Christian brothers have enough volunteers to cover the need. But for Wiccans, Buddhists, and members of the Moorish Science religion (to name just a few) it can mean canceling a single event or the loss of religious services altogether. It was this new rule and the difficulty of finding new volunteers that prompted the question asked by one of my group in the opening paragraph.
All great religions emphasize compassion, reconciliation, forgiveness, and responsibility. As Bo Lozoff says, these are not suggestions for living – they are instructions. Not just instructions for those behind bars, instructions for each and every one of us. Prison ministry is an aching need in our society. Truly the world is transformed one person at a time. For those on the inside that transformation might begin when they are viewed as fully complex human beings carrying the spark of the divine. For those on the outside it comes when we face our own prejudices and shadows.
Consider prison ministry. Certainly it needs you. More importantly, you might need it.
Copyright: Midsummer 2006 Emrys
Location: St Paul, Minnesota
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Bio: Emrys is a Wiccan High Priestess practicing in an eclectic tradition in Minnesota. She is the mother of 7, an ardent pacifist, and seeker of compassion and peace. She believes her greatest gift is her ability to see the human being and not the affliction.
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