Quick Links to Support Immigrants’ Rights

Through an inhumane and dubious interpretation of immigration law, the U.S. government is currently separating innocent families at the border and locking up children in detention centers. For once, the Nazi comparison so over-used in Internet debates seems terribly apt. Brianna Rennix explains the situation in “Understanding the Administration’s Monstrous Immigration Policies” in the leftist political journal Current Affairs:

Children are NOT being taken from their parents simply because the government wishes to prosecute their parents for illegal entry and the children cannot accompany them to jail. That makes it sound like these separations are simply incidental to a separate enforcement policy that the government decided to pursue.

The reality is actually just the opposite. The Trump administration’s decision to prosecute parents for illegal entry was taken in order to create an excuse to separate mothers from children. As I’ve said, the irritating problem the Trump administration has been struggling to overcome, with reference to the many thousands of bona fide asylum seekers that come to the border, is that a) lots of them are moms with kids, b) kids can’t legally be kept in more restrictive custody than absolutely necessary, and c) there is a federal court decision, legally binding on Trump administration, that states that when you release children from detention who are detained alongside their mothers, the mothers have to be released too.

This is what Trump and Sessions have meant when they have talked cryptically about “loopholes” that are “forcing” them to release asylum-seekers into the interior. There are lots of asylum-seeking moms that the government would otherwise have preferred to have kept locked up in hidden border facilities, without any meaningful ability to recruit counsel, for the entire duration of their cases. But because these moms had a child detained with them, they couldn’t do this.

Separating kids from moms thus serves two purposes. One is deterrence. It’s designed to send a gruesome message to women contemplating fleeing Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico: If you come here looking for protection, we will take your child away from you…

The second and perhaps even more critical purpose of family separation is to ensure that moms who are still brave enough and desperate enough to come here will lose their cases. There are not nearly enough competent immigration lawyers along the border to meet the needs of all the people who come to ask for asylum. In the past, when the government was forced to release moms with kids, these families could go settle anywhere in the country they chose, and have their case adjudicated in the local immigration court in their new place of residence. Because they weren’t detained, they had the ability to actually recruit a lawyer to help them. And a lot of them settled in parts of the country, like California or New York, where the immigration judges actually, you know, sort of care about people not being murdered, as opposed to border judges, who are mostly looking for any colorable reason to say “no” to a case. Now that the government is starting to separate moms from kids on a large scale, it is possible we will start to see moms detained in border facilities for the entire duration of their cases. They will be unrepresented and facing unfriendly judges. They will lose.

I think it is important to understand that these family separations are not just a byproduct of brute over-prosecution of “illegal” entry. Rather, they are part of a concerted strategy to allow the government to avoid granting people asylum, and to circumvent the courts’ few, limited attempts to legally impose humane limits on their treatment of asylum-seekers.

Rennix points us to the New York Times’ June 14 staff editorial that includes a list of ways to fight these horrific policies. Some options:

Find out who represents you in Washington, and let them know you want the practice of family separation to end. Ask them to support bills that will help reunited children already taken from their parents and also prohibit future removals. Those include the Senate’s HELP Separated Children Act and Keep Families Together Act

The proposed Fair Day in Court for Kids Act would require the government to appoint counsel to unaccompanied children, and it’s important to ask Congress to support its passage. Until then, there are several nonprofits providing vital free legal aid that need financial support: The Texas Civil Rights Project; the Florence Project in Arizona; and Kids in Need of Defense and The Young Center, which work nationwide. Lawyers might also consider lending their expertise. The Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas is helping families with supplies and humanitarian relief.

Massachusetts voters should also keep tabs on the progress of the Safe Communities Act, which passed the state Senate and will have to be voted on by the House before the fiscal year ends June 30. This bill would prevent state and local law enforcement from being deputized to support Trump’s anti-immigrant policies. Call your representative today! Luckily, House Ways & Means Chair Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez is a supporter.

The Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy (MIRA) Coalition explains:

State and local police should use their limited resources to fight crime, not immigrant community members and their families. The bill would bar police from arresting or detaining a person solely for federal immigration enforcement purposes, or participating in U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigations or raids based solely on immigration status. It would also prohibit agreements to deputize state and local officers as federal immigration agents, co-opting and taking away resources from local communities…

The bill ensures that constitutional principles are upheld equally for citizens and non-citizens, by requiring a warrant to arrest a person on behalf of ICE. It also requires notice to immigrant detainees of their legal rights – in a language they understand….

[The bill] prohibits Massachusetts law enforcement agencies and the Registry of Motor Vehicles from providing information to any federal registry program based on religion, national origin or other protected characteristics.

Finally, if you’re having trouble deciding which advocacy group to support, ActBlue will distribute your one-click donations to eight of the top organizations working to protect kids at the border, including the ACLU and United We Dream.

New Poetry by Conway: “Lost in Translation”

Happy 2016! We’re hopeful that this will be the year of liberation for my prison pen pal “Conway” (Richard C. Jackson). He’s been waiting for a hearing on his early release petition since 2012, when California repealed the three-strikes sentencing law for nonviolent offenders. His case has just been picked up by Stanford Law School’s Justice Advocacy Project. If you’ve enjoyed his writing on this blog and would like to send a letter in support of his case, please contact Michael Romano.

Lost in Translation

In this shadowed space,
each word’s a button, a worried rosary bead.

Green flares announce one possible survivor.
How I found my soul interested.
I fell with the moon
I wait with white face.
I couldn’t know the danger,
though, coming home a stranger.

Yesterday has been left in ruin.
Someone piled prisoners, abandoned
their value like legless dolls.

Nothing stopped the way I left it.
In the shower mirror, crows’ feet
reflect an age complete, bubbling
down the drain, through the years
waving goodbye to the night in my eye.
This silver hair shows, like paint
from a previous life (chipped to primer).

If something came by for me to swallow
as do mirrors, another world appears.

Two moons, one in the window
over my shoulder, an unfamiliar egg
floating in space, in solitude
which has truth, which meaning?

This sphere of thought, birthed
by reflections, brought about
an inner directed connection.
New possibilities to do something,
discover a pattern, an opportunity to re-engage.

On this new stage stands
a mature embryo.

I am an offering, a need
begging to be cracked
spilled onto the fired skillet.
But still lost in translation…

A Christmas Message from Becoming Church

Becoming Church, an offshoot of the Church of the Saviour in Washington D.C., is an intentional Christian community devoted to racial and economic justice. Their major project at the moment is Reunion, a ministry that re-integrates formerly incarcerated people into civilian life, as well as doing activism for prison reform. I blogged about my inspiring visit to their weekend conference last year.

Their latest newsletter included some timely and challenging reflections by Rev. Becca Stelle, the Director of Becoming Church, which I am excerpting below. Please consider donating to this unique and worthwhile ministry.

I recently saw a sticker on the back of a car: “Give Jesus a Chance.” My first reaction was that the slogan projected too simplistic a faith, but in giving the off-handed language itself a chance, it began to resonate with possibility.

Our world is caught in terror and division, hostility and fear—between neighbors, between nations. Black against white; Muslim against Christian; Republican against Democrat; always, oddly, us against ourselves.  As our global degradation pushes us to consider new paradigms—some more palatable than others—we could do worse than to consider what Jesus offers.  Do we ever hear compassion or mercy as a legitimate political, economic or development strategy? Can you imagine? To give Jesus a chance would mean giving God’s love-strategy an honest political chance in a world bent on hatred; forgiveness a chance in a world steeped in vindication; reconciliation a chance in a world committed to war; hope a chance in a world consumed by despair. The proposition seems all the more laughable as circumstances appear increasingly extreme.

This is not the only way in which we are called to give Jesus a chance. The phrase has a double entendre.  In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus identifies with the sick, hungry, homeless and the prisoner.  “When did we see you hungry and feed you?”  “When you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”  In other words, Jesus is saying, “Clothe me, feed me, visit me in prison.  Give me a chance!”

Men and women coming home from incarceration face crippling obstacles to successful re-integration into the community.  A fortunate few have a roof overhead through Jubilee Housing’s Re-entry program.  Others secure employment through Jubilee Jobs.  As important as those services are, the sustained need for belonging and purpose remains.  All of them—all of us—need a spiritual community where our deepest inner impasse can be transformed by Love to its fullest potential.  For us, to give Jesus a chance is to know Charles and to be known by him; to keep him in prayer; to arrange a job interview for Charles; to help him with car repairs to get to that job; to wait out his anxiety; to talk him out of self-defeat; to pay the court fees imposed which he could not possibly manage on his minimum-wage, part-time income; and to watch Charles grow in confidence that he is important to our community; that he can give back; that he is a blessing. Even then, it’s not so much that we are giving Jesus a chance, but somehow Jesus is giving us a chance—to move from our societal plague of separation to become the whole, healing people God created us to be.

New Poetry by Conway: “They Have a Cave”

My prison pen pal “Conway” continues to wait for a hearing on his early release petition, three years after California retroactively repealed the “three strikes” law mandating long sentences for nonviolent crimes. If you have enjoyed his work on this blog, feel free to send me a letter of support that I can forward to his attorney.

Meanwhile, his artwork graces the cover of Carolyn Howard-Johnson’s just-published book of political poetry, Imperfect Echoes. Check out her sample poem, “Antigua’s Hope”, at Winning Writers, and read Conway’s new poem, “They Have a Cave”, below the graphic.

They Have a Cave

Have you been in a cave?
Blackened by shadowed bars; strip searched
like a newborn puppy, probed to prove a gender.
Paraded down concrete corridors, jingling in chains
like an untrained beast. Un-named, then re-numbered.

I despise this neverness, this severed distress
from the world of incorporated man.

I have survived too long in this cave,
while they have waved away time (The Administration.)
To claim the one key to freedom’s peace.
To fleece my mind, and control the doors
lashed to the mouth of each cave.

These caves have been built for your poor.
But, no-one they love. Only those
they claim to care about.

You can have my hollow cave.
I have saved nothing from its stark desperation,
from the stripes of separation
that have
stomped out this conversation…

Juvenile-In-Justice Gives At-Risk Youth a Platform to Tell Their Stories

I met prison librarian and youth advocate Jane Guttman 10 years ago when she invited me to teach a poetry workshop at the Juvenile Court School in San Bernardino, CA. Before then, I’d never had personal contact with prisoners. I unconsciously accepted the myths and fears that popular culture promotes about people who wind up behind bars. But I said a prayer, walked in there, and all those mental barriers dropped away. They were just kids–vulnerable, troubled, painfully sincere about their writing, grateful for books that could give voice to their feelings.

Jane has been working with criminal justice professor Richard Ross on his new website, Juvenile-In-Justice, which collects the stories of at-risk youth in their own words. Poverty, racism, under-resourced schools, and dysfunctional families create a deadly undertow that few can rise above. The system often fails them by throwing them in jail instead of providing support services. They become statistics and stereotypes to justify extending the prison-industrial complex. Juvenile-In-Justice shows us their faces, and their souls. Read these stories and let your heart be opened.

From “Welcome Home, Ronald”:

…At seven PM on Saturday night Ronald called. “I’m free Richard…I’m breathing free air.” Ronald Franklin, age 20, is now free after seven years—all of his teen-age years. Four and a half were spent in TGK while Ronald awaited adjudication. This isn’t a misprint. Yes, there is a sixth amendment and the right to a speedy trial, but in the case of adolescents, this is often compromised…

…I went to visit Ronald at a facility run by G4S, a private corporation that’s contracted by the state of Florida. In spite of being approved by his public defender, his mother and Ronald himself, I was turned away at the gate. Ockachoobee has 55,000 residents and 33,000 are incarcerated—but that’s another story and another time.

Ronald is free today, reconciled and living with a mother who was addicted for decades. Living around some of the roughest communities in the country: Miami Gardens, Liberty City, a Miami far from South Beach where privation and poverty are the norm. He is no stranger to subsistence living. For the past seven years the State of Florida spent $1.95 a day to feed him. Ronald will make it. He is planning on enrolling at Miami Dade Community College. He wants to do something with his life.

From “We Almost Starved to Death”:

This is the second time I’m here. I’ve been here three months now. The first time I was 15 and here for a month. I got tired of the stuff at home so I ran away. I survived by breaking into houses. So I’m here mostly for B&E and burglary. I live with my mom and stepdad. My sisters are both 6. And then I have a younger sister. My mom’s about 40. My dad died of heart attack when I was 4. My mom was doing crack and abandoned me and my sisters. I was staying in a foster home for two or three years. My little sisters and me were abandoned. We almost starved to death…

…They said I had behavioral problems and would break toys, push around my sisters, and go off by myself. I was so angry I would strip the bark off trees. They put me in children’s hospital. I was angry at the situation and my mother. I sometimes don’t want to see her, most times. She would badmouth my grandmother. She’s a tough one. Several times she would leave us all without food. I would get extra food at school for the twins and I got in trouble for that. She would leave my 8-month-old sister unsupervised. Where was DHR? I don’t know.

Follow Juvenile-In-Justice on Facebook for the latest posts plus news stories about prison reform. Now through May 17, you can also support Jane on Kickstarter to fund the creation and distribution of her book KIDS in Jail.

New Poems by Conway: “Sleep Deprivation” and “City Elegy IX”

My prison pen pal “Conway“, who’s serving 25-to-life for receiving stolen goods in California’s notorious Pelican Bay facility, tells me that not much is new about the New Year. His early release petition hearing has been deferred yet again, till February. Keep him in your thoughts.

Meanwhile, he’s writing lots of poetry, and creating artwork for a book project commissioned by another reader of this blog. I’ll share full details when it’s published.

The poems below made me think about the normalization of torture. With 2.3 million Americans in prison, many suffering under conditions like these, can we call ourselves a free society?

Sleep Deprivation

It made no difference
how busy the hours had been, or
who I’d communicated to
through the unseen voices on this tier
while sipping a lukewarm cup of mud,
even if it took thirty minutes of pushing
the hot water button on the stainless toilet’s sink.

The only thing that made a difference
was that section door.
It opens so loudly, I had to wonder
if it hadn’t been devised on purpose
by some lousy crumb, to be that damn noisy.

It crashed open around midnight
reminding me with its rudeness
that I’m still locked in this concrete box.
By myself.
With no way to open this heart or door locks.

To remind me that I was alone.
The cop walked a flashlight
searching for eyes to shine in
as keys uselessly jangled songs
step up and down the stairs
then exit.

As the sounds of persistent doors
rattle away again
then, creeping silence forced its way back in.
I could only hope
that the return of the intruder
would find me safely wrapped
in slumber’s silent headlock.

Long enough
to be recovered before daylight
to be upright and shuffled
among the chained population.
Not that much of anything was happening.
But, if something did,
it’s best to be prepared for whatever.

The legacy of intrustions
of clinking clanking conclusions
schedules of the return
by someone I do not know
someone who would never say hello
but someone I swear I will not forget.
At least until I fall back asleep.

I was too much awake in lonely thought, in this empty cell, to surrender.
Or, to recover from the intrusion of lonesome desire.
So, I listened in to the section doors open and close
as time prowled around in this pen of lonely people…

****

City Elegy IX

The streets have been my cathedral
I stole through the nights, searched and crept
Trying to find a truth I could accept
In the streetlights’ dance, of taking a chance;
To be burned beneath the sidewalk of not.
This seemed to be all, that a living wage bought.

Now this soul’s been stripped naked for years…
Rewinding each skyless night
Counting myself alone
Stuffed into this squeeze of unknowns.
Enduring this endless crush of bones.
While gun towers cast their scorns
Sheltered beneath those barbed wire thorns
Flinging the sting, off the point
Of their meaning; A meaning I must endure.

So, now that I know the score,
I’ve lost any right to be more,
Than the rumbled crash, and groan
Of steel doors. As they rattle (in threat)
On every closing report. Exposing intent–
From a contempible court.
Like a jester unsprung, itching to finger someone.

This soul still recalls, all of its flaws…
My conscience remains true, above false.
Forged in this furnace, of doing hard time.
Refusing to drop, even one dime. That’s why–
These vents are still blowing in grit, as
I’m flat on my back, in this land of unfit.
And those amber lights. It should be no surprise,
They keep catching me spotting for spies.
But those yellow lights’ glare, man!
That’s always been there. I know better
Than to expect any slack. So–
I’m standing here staring right back.

If this truth contains proof…
Somewhere existing, at my vision’s edge.
Between the silence, as my voice fell out alone. (Or so I had thought.)
It wasn’t until your voice was hurled
In the wind at the top of the world.

So what, if everything’s changed. (Alright.)
Those memories shared, have still stayed the same.
They remain soft as the breeze–
In my city’s warm summer nights…

New Poem by Conway: “Smell”

My prison pen pal Conway reports that the hearing on his petition for early release has been delayed until December, crushing his hope of being reunited with his family for Christmas. It’s been over two years since California voters passed Proposition 36, which was supposed to roll back the harsh sentences imposed on nonviolent offenders under the three-strikes law. This Nov. 14 L.A. Times article suggests the state is dragging its feet on releasing prisoners because the Department of Corrections benefits from their underpaid labor:

Federal judges on Friday ordered California to launch a new parole program that could free more prisoners early, ruling the state had failed to fully implement an order last February intended to reduce unconstitutional crowding.

The judges, for a second time, ordered that all nonviolent second-strike offenders be eligible for parole after serving half their sentence. They told corrections officials to submit new plans for that parole process by Dec. 1, and to implement them beginning January.

“The record contains no evidence that defendants cannot implement the required parole process by that date, 11 months after they agreed to do so ‘promptly,'” the judges wrote in Friday’s order.

Corrections department spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said the agency would comply with the order.

But the federal judicial panel did not take action on other steps it had ordered California to take last February. Those include increasing the sentence reductions minimum-custody inmates can earn for good behavior and participation in rehabilitation and education programs.

Most of those prisoners now work as groundskeepers, janitors and in prison kitchens, with wages that range from 8 cents to 37 cents per hour. Lawyers for Attorney General Kamala Harris had argued in court that if forced to release these inmates early, prisons would lose an important labor pool.

Meanwhile, my friend Conway keeps his soul alive through creative writing. In addition to poetry, he is working on an autobiographical novel about growing up with his brothers and sisters in a gang-ridden neighborhood. I think he could be the next S.E. Hinton! I was struck by this poem’s taut rhythm and rapid-fire rhymes and wordplay.

Smell

This is the smell of a cell…
This is the smell of rust and dust, and sometimes lust.
Plus it’s the smell of double bar-locks, block and blocks, of towers
and useless clocks. If you don’t know what time it is, oh well!

Could it be the smell of a dirty-ass sock, or worn-out useless
fruitless talk? But still, it’s a voice you feel you might trust.
Not that, oh no!
This is the smell of nothing good. No pleasure, no sound,
nobody around to be found, nowhere to go.
Nothing to show, for all the shit you now know.

This is the smell of a place where no one belongs, but still
we’re stuck here. Because the court insists we’ve done something wrong.
This is that place where they’ll put you away, to serve
day after day. And you’ll rust in the smell of the dust and decay.

This is the smell you will always smell, unless
they tell you “your smelling is finally done.”
In this smelly assed life, that’s good for no-one.
This is the smell of no place to be, this is the smell I see.
This is the smell of just one prisoner’s tale.
This is the smell of that living hell.
This is the smell that I smell.
This is the smell of jail…

New Poems by Conway: “City Elegy VII & VIII”

My prison pen pal “Conway”, who is serving 25-to-life for a nonviolent offense under California’s now-repealed three-strikes law, continues to work on his “City Elegies” series while awaiting a hearing on his early release petition. Like a man on a desert island, he has been knocked down to the bare minimum of possessions following transfer to another holding facility. His survival library includes the collected works of Shakespeare, Raymond Chandler, Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry, Peter Elbow’s Writing With Power, and Dag Hammarskjold’s Markings, which has become his personal bible. These poems find him reflecting on the passage of time and lessons learned in captivity.

City Elegy VII

As I stand here, ready to be judged…
All of me has been searched and prodded, so often–
that no place on this body remains a secret.

Dreaming of a fair future…
In the dark vault of the skull; (beyond prying eyes.)
It is difficult to picture a future without locks, or
a true mattress under my spine.
Yet, even an abused child, no matter how bullied or beaten–
in life, still clings to the dream of justice.
The hours sneak past, without favor, or concern.
With an unreserved acceptance for life, my faith
is a state of mind.

Twisted up in barbed wire, obeying the corridors’ mood…
Where guntowers encircle the perimeter, like hands tangled
in thorns, lifted to the sky in prayer.
Cages lined up, like pews before the pulpit.
If I bow, will it still feel as if my head
has been pushed down, forced?

Where amber lights glare at each other across the yard,
searching cold hard dayrooms.
Topaz eyes with no face, or mouth.
Nowhere to scowl but down,
frown at the graffiti of lost souls left behind.
Who dares to mark their name on walls they have passed?

Where concrete halls wrap around us all…
listening for a door to open, a door way beyond
every other door.
It is not louder, or colored differently.
But, it makes a different sound; a spiritual melody–
you’d recognize, like the transparent depth of wide open skies.
If you don’t anticipate any other muted hush,
your future requires you to hear this sound.
This door is quicker than a six second quarter mile,
heavier than a mortician’s smile. It gathers momentum,
echoing down the tiers, then blindly disappears.
Blindly disappears; like a fragrant smell in your ears.

Silent as a shadow leaning against a a wall…
I huddle in a corner, where the door can be
slammed in your face, enough times–
to convince the most stubborn of people.
I was late to understand.
There may never have even been a door, or
to kick your own exit through the wall.
But, if you’ve made it through.
It is best that you swear, you were never
even there.

Still, I ride on;
Day upon day, and night in my mind…

****
City Elegy VIII

Once again, day has passed away as days always do: murdered, by the slowdragging schedule,
which has been sentenced to my own wreckless past…

The sky has become a ghost. Numbered day after day…
Shackled up, and then put back away, for another lesson in patient discretion.
Years came and went, disappeared with slow eyed surprise.
Rumor, whittled away from the nonsense, laid things at my door.
I restrained the urge to check some chins on a few established figureheads,
content yet careful in their mediocre claims.
Myth, and my own creation, built this unknown obligation.

Born sometime along this line, where odd-old places flutter back and forth…
Wasting time tugging on fate’s vast web, and once again shivering in nearly-naked privateness.
Opposed to this familiar stonewall. Monotonous square-footed center, of times
shouted Quack!

Cheered by the sudden slap of dusk: Because it is what most others dread. (The shadow.)
The Shadow plays fair. None is innocent among the convicted. The raw moments of solitude,
are time’s savage instinct. Time stops for neither instinct, nor episode,
as another calendar drifts past.

As this swirling harvest inhales its latest issue, of rusted ventilation dust…
A new dawn, or illusion of such. Struck suddenly kicking the teeth out of another skyless night.
What passes for air, being captured from somewhere, amongst the fumes of circulation,
(inside this whirling frazzle of souls)
wrenched a stench so foul, that I’ve not been able to shake it loose
from my nose hairs to this very day.

In the pursuit to escape this meaningless existence, without the feeling of shame…
I stay prepared for unexpected company. (you might say)
Bringing along a false hope. So they, can take it, all-back-away.
Until this preparation exposes its last heavy locked door on my horizon.
If I pass through, I will have but one debt left on this
primitive soul. A redemption only God can know.

My time, my prayers, spin the rhythm, while a lost forgotten song
with its on and on, hums along in my head…
I must pay attention to the sound, document what’s goin’ down,
as I swiftly walk away from the possession of this prison.
Into an everywhere and anywhere, that can be salvaged from
a future of, whatever might possibly be.

What a righteous purpose I must learn, to earn…

(The song is called Albatross.)

Becoming Church: My Field Trip to an Intentional Christian Community


In late April, I attended the Second Acts Conference in Washington, DC, an initiative of the intentional Christian community and social justice coalition Becoming Church. Becoming Church is an umbrella organization for small-group churches (a dozen people maximum) that follow the Church of the Saviour model of “journey inward/journey outward“. Grounded in their faith in Christ, members support each other’s personal spiritual transformation and work together on service projects in their city.

Their vision for social change is both radical and humble. Radical, because they want to be used by the Spirit to attack systemic injustice. They’re not content to provide palliative care to the less fortunate, or as they prefer to say, “the under-resourced”. Humble, because they try to operate on God’s timetable, not their own, and eschew ambitious arms’-length initiatives in favor of intensive long-term relationships with a few needy individuals at a time. The combination reminds me of Partners in Health.

The topic of this year’s conference was criminal justice reform. Mass incarceration (mostly of poor people of color) due to the War on Drugs, and the legal disabilities placed on ex-offenders, have created a permanent under-class with few opportunities to re-enter society. People with a criminal record, or sometimes even an arrest record, can be legally discriminated against in housing and employment. They’re ineligible for most professional licenses, both white-collar and skilled trades. Essential federal benefits, including food stamps and public housing, are unavailable to them and their families. In many states, they have no right to vote. Barred from the legal economy, many ex-offenders predictably return to prison. (Look for a future blog post about Michelle Alexander’s devastating book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which was a foundational text for our conference.)

Becoming Church is working toward an ideal of 0% recidivism. They acknowledge that not every “returning citizen” will choose to turn his or her life around. But that doesn’t diminish our collective responsibility to remove every obstacle to their re-integration into the community.

Becoming Church has adopted a multi-pronged approach of prayer, activism, and social service. Their latest activist project involves buying stock in the largest private prison companies and speaking out at shareholder meetings. The small church groups in DC and Baltimore that spearheaded the conference operate “Strength to Love” halfway houses for returning citizens. These houses offer a structured and sober environment, skills training, spiritual support groups, and community gardens where residents can grow and sell fresh produce. We held our Sunday morning worship service in one such house in Anacostia.

You can find out more about their criminal justice reform work (donate! volunteer!) at their spin-off website, Why We Can’t Wait.

For the remainder of this post, I want to reflect on some striking differences between the Church of the Saviour model (as I briefly experienced it) and the mainline churches I usually attend.

Spiritual Growth, Not Church Growth

When a Church of the Saviour community grows beyond a dozen people, they’re supposed to split off. The accountability and support relationships among members are so intensive that it would be unwieldy to build that kind of trust in a larger group.

Contrast that to the endless bragging or hand-wringing about membership numbers in traditional churches and denominations. Our churches keep score by the numbers. We treat growth as a verdict on the rightness of our theology or political views, relative to other churches that are shrinking. Or we let ourselves be led by economic imperatives to fill the pews so that we can maintain our buildings and staff.

The Church of the Saviour groups do own a number of properties, but as I understand it, these are mainly for the benefit of the community, not worship spaces. Examples include a hospice care house for homeless people, an arts center for youth, the Strength to Love houses, and several small apartment buildings for low-income tenants. In most cases, each service project is spun off as a separate 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

The needs of the neighborhood drive the church groups’ ownership and use of real estate. The property is a resource for the neighbors, whether or not they attend church. By comparison, a traditional church has its own property which needs financial infusions, and invites neighbors to join so they can contribute to it. (Yes, I’m being cynical, I know we also want to spread the gospel, but the structure of the institution tells a different story.)

Inner Work Comes First

For Church of the Saviour communities, personal spiritual formation is the foundation on which the social gospel is built. Members help each other remain emotionally honest and open to God’s presence. Like a writing workshop or a Weight Watchers group, they bolster each other’s commitments to the spiritual disciplines (prayer, meditation, journaling, tithing) that might otherwise go the way of so many New Year’s resolutions.

This is because they understand that God does the work of transforming the world, not us. We’re just the “donkeys” who devotedly carry our little piece of the great burden.

Now, I’ve only spent three days with these folks, so I can’t say whether they’d start piling on the “shoulds” during a more long-term relationship. I can only observe that I never once felt burnt-out, pressured, guilt-tripped, or commanded to serve others in a particular way. Instead, during the support group check-ins and prayer times, the facilitators constantly invited us to share what the Spirit was doing in our lives. We were given opportunities to be educated about social problems, and encouraged with detailed case studies of successful outreach. Then it was up to us to discern our personal path to discipleship.

On several occasions, one of the conference leaders proposed that Christians are not spiritually prepared for the work we have to do. We haven’t taken stock of the sacrifices and suffering that might come our way when we stand up for justice. We aren’t sufficiently plugged-in to God’s love to be able to respond with compassion and equanimity when wrongdoers lash out at us. Our first priority must be knowing Jesus in our hearts.

By comparison, the liberal church frequently preaches Jesus as the supreme giver of homework assignments. We’re told that we should tackle huge structural injustices through individual good deeds (some of which, to me, sound strategically ineffective as well as inadequate) because “Jesus cared about the poor”. We don’t hear nearly enough about spiritual practices that would replenish our strength, ways of reconnecting to God’s love and getting support from our church family.

Church of the Saviour appears to understand that superhuman challenges require superhuman assistance.

I’m Not Okay, You’re Not Okay, but Maybe We’re Okay

Friends who’ve been through 12-Step programs have quoted these wise maxims to me: “You’re only as sick as your secrets” and “Don’t compare your insides to somebody else’s outsides”. I didn’t hear these exact phrases at Becoming Church, but these principles inform their accountability practices.

Church of the Saviour was conceived as a community of racial and economic reconciliation. Participants undertake to let go of the status markers that keep us separated from one another. Money can
easily become an enabler of ego-defenses and falseness. It makes us feel superior or simply allows us to hide dysfunctional aspects of our private lives.

Therefore, Church of the Saviour offers a more intensive membership track (in addition to spiritual support groups) where you make your financial statements transparent to the group, and accept guidance from them about developing a spiritually balanced relationship to money. Members also hold each other accountable for sticking to regular prayer practices, and try to keep each other on track in their personal lives, such as guiding a married couple through a rough patch. Members choose annually whether to renew their commitment to this intensive track. There’s supposed to be no judgment attached to the decision either way. It’s my understanding that they can still remain in the small group.

This is the part of Church of the Saviour that I have mixed feelings about. I don’t think I would adopt this model for my future Christian community for trauma survivors. People with my kind of history have been trained to submit to others’ judgments instead of developing our own sense of right and wrong. We are hyper-sensitive to emotional cross-currents in social situations, and can have trouble hearing our inner voice over the noise of others’ expectations. Reclaiming our privacy is a big part of our healing. This ties into a larger problem with Christianity–assuming that everyone’s main problem is taming an inflated ego rather than rebuilding a crushed spirit. (Or both at once, since parts of the self typically become inflated to protect other vulnerable parts.)

Based on some remarks from the conference, the accountability program seems based on notions of “objectivity” and self-suspicion that are quite mainstream in traditional Christianity, but that I have come to reject. Participants expressed the view that left to her own devices, the individual will be selfishly biased in her own favor, but her fellow group members have no motive to misjudge her.

In my experience, this is not true. Bias against a particular person isn’t the only obstacle. Most of the time, we have trouble even seeing that person through the fog of our own projections and pre-existing opinions. I mean, that’s what racism is, right? I don’t want to have negative stereotypes of African-Americans, I don’t hold that as an ideology, I try to overcome racist beliefs when I notice them, but I probably still make a lot of subconscious assumptions about people based on their looks and cultural markers.

My false diagnosis by adoption clinicians currently has more traumatic charge than memories of my abusive childhood. I don’t take the latter so personally, since I thoroughly understand the suffering that clouds my mother’s mind, but part of me is still tempted to internalize the former, because I can only speculate what (other than my “objective” presentation) made them see me as so repellent and damaged. The belief that they had “no reason to be biased” seriously messed with my head for years.

On the other hand, the companionship of two dozen grateful, devout, and grounded people inspired me to envision a time when my options would be less constrained by my trauma history. I had moments when I was able to perceive that God’s power was so much greater than the power of the people who hurt me. I still think I’m too much of a loner introvert to join this kind of group, for the same reason that I don’t usually join writing workshops, but I wouldn’t be motivated by fear anymore. And I can imagine that an accountability group with good boundaries might be an interesting opportunity for some survivors to face their fear of intimacy.

Church of the Saviour has a refreshing humility about, and lack of attachment to, any specific institutional format. Their attitude (in theory, at least) is “this seems to be working right now, but go ahead and change it as needed”. I’m really grateful to these folks for helping me open my heart and mind to new possibilities.

Here’s a hymn we sang at the conference that made a big difference to me. Lyrics here.

New Poetry by Conway: “City Elegy VI”


I’m pleased to share the next installment of my prison pen pal Conway’s “City Elegy” poetry series below.

This weekend, I’ll be attending the Becoming Church conference, a project of the Church of the Saviour in Washington DC, which will focus on Christian activism for prison reform.

My other purpose in attending is to research models for intentional Christian communities, so that I can create a theology working group for trauma survivors. Church of the Saviour is known for bypassing the standard congregation format in favor of intimate small groups based on 12-Step (AA). Group members commit to mutual spiritual accountability and social justice work. Watch this space for my post-game report. Meanwhile, enjoy the poem.

City Elegy VI
by “Conway”

About two years and counting…
 The city left a window open for me
  a muddy puddle of spiraling sights
  that twist and turn a knife named memory.

This wall presses against my core
  it is a cellblock of scornful spent shells
  hungering to be crushed into a new mold.
The brusharound, or flushed down sound–
of this walk. Every step behind
the moment, looking, mapping.
    On a pathway passing tipsters–
playing a pose (straight incognito).

I pretend to crawl away, from war
untried by the tolling sigh, the taste.
The touch torn, as if I am the thorn.
A beggar swelling to be born.

If I could lift the moon…
  emerge from this strangling forest of metal.
  My goal is not these burial stones under foot,
  lain out before my only path.
On narrow steps, gnashing in silence, I wait.
I kneel before a vanishing door.

Here, in these strange woods
my wounds find refuge. But time
cannot lead me to be seen, over the fence.

Here is the entrance, reason for contrivance
as storm clouds bring a newborn saline.
Another downpour of brilliant jewels.

Shimmering topaz eyes blaze everywhere
 tint the brief shadows in amber.
 batting those lashes like a paramour.
  While the streets still rush and hum. (Conspire.)
   Heavy lyrics that spark like a hotwire.

{Do-do-do walk, march into our fire
No-no don’t talk, cops pay their liar
Hang me from that dirty noose of smog
cut me loose from this frustrating fog}

I ride on, day upon day and night in my mind…
Roads descend behind a false mirror, of others–
not there. I dream of my old shovelhead (Rolling again.)
hidden away like a skeleton.
It has taken twenty plus years to get, from nowhere
to here. Amongst the settling shades of memory.

A good woman waits somewhere else instead;
Some said “for a husband, as if he were’nt dead.”
I palmed her hand on a cold window-visit’s caress.
Ceremony sees us deserving such torment.

I taste a scent of gallows…
  The ink under my skin, folded under my jumpsuit
  burns under scrutiny.
    I stand; Ready to be judged.
      Heard.
    I am what I am, no mask.
    I am not what I was;
      Just ask…