GRACE IN EXILE by Brother Dennis

It happened following the exchange of peace during the worship service on a Sunday just before Christmas. The location was the 9000 floor of Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles. But the real location of this powerful moment was within the human heart.

     Jail can be a hard place to be anytime, but when the holidays roll around, the sense of separation from family and friends can be especially challenging for those who spend Christmas locked up. The longing for family and friends during this time sometimes makes it harder to feel a connection to the delight and wonder of the season. Some feel forgotten while the world outside seems to go about the joy of Christmas without them.

     And so it was on the Second Sunday of Advent in the jails. Worship in the jails is different – and beautiful. There is no chapel on the 9000 floor, which houses our gay brothers and trans sisters, so we gather in a small classroom off the main corridor. When the 25 or so if us are gathered there is not too much space left. So we gather close around the altar set on one of the classroom tables. I always have a few volunteers that are willing to help lead the service by reading Scripture, leading the prayers and even helping serve Communion. It is sometimes loud in the corridor outside our space, but we welcome it all as part of the experience. On the is day, we heard the Gospel story of John the Baptist – the voice crying out in the wilderness – calling for us to prepare the way of the Lord.  We also recited the Benedictus, from the moment in Luke’s Gospel when Zachariah first praises God and then turns to his infant son, John, and telling of his future as the prophet of the Most High. We reflected on what it meant to prepare the way in the context of the jail setting, how we are all called to be John the Baptist in our own way, and what it meant for us to be the voice crying out in the wilderness of prison. We took Zachariah’s words personally, as if he was speaking directly to us when he said that we are called to prepare the way and that the tender compassion of God would break upon us. We considered the question of are we not all called to be prophets in our own time. It all became so first-person, so personal. And then it happened. God’s grace came crashing through the cold concrete and steel box we call the county jail.

     After we exchanged the peace with one another I started distributing Christmas cards to the inmates, which is common practice this time of year. But in addition to the usual handful of cards given for inmates to mail to their families and friends, this time there was an additional special card for each person – a personal card with a personal message just for them. The cards had been written by people, some of whom were young children, who wanted our friends in that room to know that they are not forgotten. They were messages of encouragement, hope and love. The men read their cards with looks of astonishment. Their eyes big, their hearts beating, it seemed like they couldn’t quite believe what they were holding in their hands – these messages of love just for them. 

     James is a soft spoken, gentle African American bother who seems out of place in this sometimes harsh and chaotic environment. I have come to know him as a deeply spiritual man who prefers silence to chaos. He seemed undeterred by the Deputies shouting out orders to inmates being moved by our classroom. He sat silently staring at his card. It seemed as though I looked in his direction just as he looked up at me. Our eyes met, tears streaming from his, which inspired my own. He asked if he could read his aloud to the group. The card talked about how although they may not know each other, they did know that the card he was holding connected them in a wonderful and mysterious way. It said that they would be praying together through this card and that they hoped their connection would bring some peace and joy to their hearts.

     Soon others began reading their own cards. They were filled with messages of love and care. Many men were weeping. I was weeping. God was weeping with us. Tears of compassion and love. Some rested their hand on others shoulders as they read. One person said that the Christmas card they were holing was the only piece of mail they had received in all their months in jail. It was deeply personal and healing. There was such a profound sense of connection through cards and tears and grace. This is what the kingdom of heaven is like: a room full of men no longer forgotten sharing love through hand-written Christmas cards. Scripture came alive that day. Those tender voices of love crying out from the wilderness. The path within our hearts was prepared for the indwelling of God through love from people no longer called strangers. And yes, in the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high broke upon us, shining on those who dwell in darkness and set our feet into the way of peace.

     God’s grace came crashing through those concrete walls that day and entered the hearts of all those whom God loves.

I SEE YOU by Brother Dennis

A couple of weeks ago we were in Austin, Texas for the tri-annual Episcopal Church General Convention. It’s a big affair with roughly 15,000 people attending from across the landscape of The Episcopal Church. There were a lot of important conversations, resolutions being explored, Cuba being received as a diocese of TEC, and lots of fun and Episcopal fellowship. We were there to represent the Community of Divine Love with the rest of the CAROA (Conference of Anglican Religious Orders in the Americas) members and talk with people about the monastic life and our ministry in the jails. So, there was a lot going on, but for me there was one in particular that is memorable in a unique way and I’m sure I will not soon forget, if ever.

     On Sunday, July 8, roughly 1,000 people boarded nineteen charter buses, while others joined in private vehicles and we all made the hour-long trip to the Hutto Women’s Immigration Detention Center near Taylor, Texas, where I found myself standing on the road with other hearts beating for social justice. We stood there on the road outside Hutto bearing messages of compassion for our incarcerated sisters and surely in hope that our presence that day would make a difference. Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said it so well that day under the hot Texas sun: “We do not come in hatred, we do not come in bigotry, we do not come to put anyone down, we come to lift everybody up. We come in love. We come in love because we follow Jesus, and Jesus taught us love.” This is the Episcopal Church that I love.

     I stood looking at the building that was about a hundred yards off with its rows of narrow vertical windows. They were familiar. Twin Towers Correctional Facility here in Los Angeles as well as many other facilities have the same design. I knew that the women were on the other side of those windows. As I fixed my attention, suddenly I saw it. There was something white moving up and down one of the windows. They were waving at us. I waved back and started yelling ‘I SEE YOU,” over and over again. Soon all of us were waving and yelling the chant of “I SEE YOU! – Te Vio! Others began chanting YOU ARE NOT ALONE,” in both English and Spanish. This holy exchange between chants of solidarity and white waving went on for a good thirty minutes before we were asked to disperse and return to our original gathering place up the road.

     This experience deeply touched the hearts and energized the souls of all who were there. Little did we know that what happened next would leave us in tears. At least it did me. We learned later that evening that the women incarcerated at Hutto had telephoned the Episcopal Church. Their message was that they saw us, and that the women were huddled around those windows weeping and watching. They never left those windows until the last of us had left for our return trip. They wanted us to know that it meant everything to them that we had shown us in such a force of solidarity and they felt seen and indeed not alone that day.

     To see people on the margins is everything. To be seen while ensconced in the margins is everything. I’m proud to be a part of The Episcopal Church that is taking social justice concerns seriously, but this is not just the work of well-meaning Christians. This is not just the work of those of us who are striving for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being. This needs to be the work of all people everywhere. These are troublesome times when people are being separated in alarming new ways. More than ever in recent history we need to see one another; and not just the women of Hutto and millions of other refugees, but also the person standing next to you; the lonely neighbor, the confused teen, the addicted sister or brother, the overwhelmed mother, the one on the other side of the political debate. We need to see each other now. We need to show that the eternal power that brings us together in solidarity as human beings is more powerful than any lesser power than wants to confuse and divide us.

     That day on the road in Texas changed me. I am more aware than ever of the importance of really seeing people and of the power of love that springs from being mindful of really looking at people; of really seeing people. In doing so, I am more open to people really seeing me for who I truly am. I just know that this is what God desires for us; to be connected to one another. To really see each other. I encourage you to try it. You don’t have to be yelling form the side of the road. You can quietly say to someone: “I see you,” and see what happens next. It just might change your life.

Hutto Women's Immigration Detention Facility - Taylor, Texas 

Hutto Women's Immigration Detention Facility - Taylor, Texas 

REIMAGINE JUSTICE by Brother Dennis

conference - Jack and Dennis.JPG

At the beginning of March this year Prism hosted a national prison ministry conference in Los Angeles. Our theme was “Reimagining Justice in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” The conference featured important voices from across the criminal justice landscape including Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ – Founder of Home boy Industries; Sr. Helen Prejean – Founder of Ministry against the Death Penalty; Time Robbins – Founder of The Actors’ Gang; and Mike Farrell – Founder of Death Penalty Focus. The conference inspired critical conversations on how we might reimagine Life Behind Bars, Re-entry Projects, Victim-Offender Reconciliation, Prosecution Reform that included both current prosecutors and defense attorneys; death penalty, post-sentencing legal support and Juvenile Justice Reform. This conference also featured celebrities and world-class musicians, but the real stars of the three-day gathering were our friends who have returned from living life in exile in jails and prisons and the telling of their stories – stories that largely go untold and voices that too often are not heard. One of those stories came from Jack Morris, who was recently released from prison after serving the last 37 years in solitary confinement.

The idea that conversations about how to reimagine justice should be held at the center by those women and men whose lives were most directly impacted was an inspired one, and it made this conference unique and powerful. In a way, the experts, professionals, and celebrities where all the supporting cast in this gathering where people were encouraged to reimagine their own views, important connections were made and lives were truly changed. Here is just one of those stories.

Isabel is a sixteen year old high school student. She and her mother Alison had planned to attend just the first day of the conference as it was being held during the weekdays and school was in session. However, they found the speakers and panel discussions so compelling they decided to stay for all three days, sitting in the same two seats right up front and never missing a moment. After the conference ended, Isabel returned to her seemingly normal routine. Although, she said that when she returned to school the next day, everything was different. She told her parents that she saw people differently. She heard things differently. She said that her world had changed.

That would have been a good enough ending to the experience, but it wasn’t the end of it for Isabel. A few days after the conference, she found herself with an opportunity to read poetry at her school in front of other students gathered in the school square. She stood on the soapbox and offered her poetic words and call to social justice. She would say later that the conference gave her a new voice and the courage to speak out. Now, that would also have been a more than good enough ending to Isabel’s story, except that it wasn’t the end of the story, not for her and not yet.

A week later, Isabel’s father Michael reports that Isabel would not (or could not?) stop talking about the conference. A few more days go by and Isabel is at LAX preparing for a trip with her family to London to visit her sister attending school there. Well, guess who she runs into at the airport? None other than Jack Morris. They sat for 45 minutes and talked. These two who just days before were strangers in one another’s lives, but no longer. Isabel, a bright, young woman finding her voice and her way in the world; and Jack a man who had already been in solitary confinement for twenty years when she was born, and also finding his voice and his way in a whole new world. Isabel described Jack as “gracious and adorable.” I have a sense that that is how God sees Jack, Isabel then referred to him as “my new best friend.” Sneaky Jesus!  

These are the moments in time that no person can predict or orchestrate. The best we can do is try to create the sacred space environment and opportunity for the Holy Spirit to carry us into unexpected and sometimes amazing places. We have learned this well from our many years of walking the hard but grace-filled road with our incarcerated friends living in exile.

Isabel and Jack’s story is an important one because it speaks of hope for the future. Isabel’s future, Jack’s future, and our future. The stormy weather pattern of our nation and our world, as well as the challenge of criminal justice reform, may cause one to wonder where our hope will come. The answer can be found in large part in the millions of people marching. From The Women’s March and The March for Our Lives, to Isabel standing on her soapbox at school, the people are rising and demanding their voice to be heard. It is the young who are our voice now and they who are our hope for the future.

Surely, our work does and will continue in the jails and prisons. We will continue to do our part in lifting the cry of those whose voices are too often silenced by a system that is far from just for all. But I am keenly aware now of the importance of handing our experience strength and hope to a new generation of prophets and peacemakers. We must take what we have learned and hand it to those like Emma Gonzalez and Isabel who can carry us forward to new horizons with new vision for our future.