29 June 2009

What Are the Chances?

Synchronicity and coincidence run neck and neck around here sometimes. I'm always on the lookout for connections between stories, but there are days when the two by four is wrapped in neon and brings along bumper stickers and T-shirts as well.

For instance, this weekend, I dealt with two men whose brothers had died.

And last week, two different men whose mothers had died.

What's with that?

Two weeks ago, a man sat in my office shaking. He'd just gotten back his HIV test and found he was negative. The man who might have infected him is sitting in jail, facing charges related to deliberately infecting his partners. The enormity of it all overwhelmed Jimmy and when I got him on the phone with his mother, he cried like a little boy. Today he got word that another friend from his circle has died of AIDS.

Twenty years ago, I did volunteer work with the local AIDS foundation. It was still a scary time back in the late 80s. People who were diagnosed were often dead in 18-24 months. Talking and handholding were important things to do. Listening was a key skill.

I couldn't have guessed then that the work I did there would have somehow led to the work I do as a chaplain. I'm often amazed how much of my life experience gives me some common ground with the people I meet each day. Which means I need to stay open to my life and all the people in it. There's always time to hear another story.

28 June 2009

"The Worst of the Lord"

"God did not make death, nor does God rejoice in the destruction of the living." Wisdom 1:13

What a great line, and a prelude to the gospel story that tells of not one, but two women healed by Jesus. It's not often I can make a room full of men blush, so I love the story of the woman who suffers for twelve years with her hemmorhages. "Where do you think she was bleeding from? Her nose?" I can hear the unspoken comments, "Man, PMS for 12 years???"

Set apart from the regular life of the community, dependent on others for necessities, her bank account exhausted and no medical help that she hadn't tried. Had she lived in the 21st century, she would have been up at three in the morning, ordering from another infomercial. But she didn't. One day, she decided enough was enough. She got out of bed, ignored all the people who might be hissing at her that she should go home, paid no attention to the commotion around Jesus. She had only one thought: "If I just touch his clothes, I'll be cured." That's what she aims for.

When she lays claim to her intention, Jesus asks, "Who touched me?" His disciples point to the crowd. They don't see a woman filled with faith, full of the knowledge that she has been healed. "Look at all these people," they whine. "How can you ask who touched you?"

But Jesus knows the look on her face and finds her immediately.

He has his moment with her and sends her back, this time to her community. How does she feel? Three different times today, I looked across a roomful of men and wondered, "How would they ever get what it feels like to have the period from hell that just will not quit?" Instead I asked them, "Imagine that you spend twelve years in prison. Twelve years of someone else telling you what you can wear and what you'll eat, who can visit you, and what music you can listen to. Imagine after twelve years, you get out. You can choose your own clothes and your own schedule. You can drive a car and go where you want. You can go to the store where a whole aisle is devoted to breakfast cereal. Imagine how free you might feel." There were some nods. This they could understand.

But there's this other story, the first claimant to Jesus' healing touch, a 12-year-old girl. No matter that people have arrived saying she's dead. No matter that the professional mourners and musicians are already planning the funeral. No matter the commotion at the house, like the woman who'd touched him earlier, Jesus fixes his eyes on the present need and goes in to the young girl. Again, healing happens with a touch.

I like the similarity between the woman and Jesus, so focused on what was necessary, both intent on life and healing. Isn't that what the line from Wisdom was all about?

You're probably wondering about the title for this post. Twice today, after the reading from Wisdom, the lector said, "The Worst of the Lord." Hey, if this is the worst, how great is the best?

20 June 2009

Maybe It's a Full Moon

and then again, maybe not.

Back in the days of training, and every year since then, correctional workers get warned about being co-opted by the offenders (or the system, I like to add). It's too easy to "fall in" and do things the way everyone else does just because it causes the least resistance. So, for instance, when I'm short-tempered and cranky, I can bark orders and threaten to write an infraction in a heartbeat. Surprised the heck out of a roomful of offenders once when I used my "schoolteacher" voice to make them quiet. (Ten years of teaching high school girls is great training for working in a men's prison. Trust me.)

But co-opting. It's a temptation. I've seen some gorgeous tattoos (and some really ugly ones) but I've only barely thought about getting one. My main hesitation? What if I woke up thin one day? What would that wonderful tattoo look like except puddles of ink?

I decided early on that my wardrobe would be simple--mostly because I didn't have much money to wear anything too dressy, but also for solidarity's sake. I stick to jeans and a bright colored top. For variety's sake, the last two years, I have sported a "boot" that protects broken bones. Last year it was the left foot (arch bone broken into "three pieces and gravel"), this year it's the right foot (four broken toes, and yes, I broke them all at one time. Go figure). The boot is also my "attention getting device," as if I don't get enough attention.

I wear a watch and sometimes a beaded bracelet made of recycled paper by women in Uganda who used to work in the stone quarries. It's the story I like, and so do the guys when I tell them. But nothing else. My pierced ears closed up a long time ago and I'm not inclined to pierce anything else.

Hair is the biggest distinguisher at the prison sometimes. We seem to go through periods where guys are growing it out (and donating to "Locks of Love") or shaving it off (when the shampoo is really bad, it's easier not to have any hair) or getting an odd cut that eventually comes off because someone determines it's a "gang indicator."

None of which explains this:
I can't wait to go to work in the morning.

14 June 2009

Torches and Buckets

Saint Teresa of Avila, the 16th century Spanish mystic, saw an angel rushing towards her, carrying a torch and a bucket of water. “Where are you going with that torch and bucket?” she asked. "What will you do with them?”

“With the water,” the angel answered, “I will put out the fires of hell, and with the fire I will burn down the mansions of heaven; then we will see who really loves God.”

I have forgotten where I first read or heard this quote, but the image it conjures in my mind has stayed with me for years. As it teased my imagination, so it has been one of the building blocks of my spirituality--which, if I am truthful about it--has always been "a little bit of this, a little bit of that" (with thanks to Fiddler on the Roof).

I've yet to find an illustration, but I want one, desperately. I wonder if we could live our lives without the threat of punishment or the promise of reward. Could we just do the right thing because it is the right thing? I hope so.

In terms of prison ministry, carrying this story within me means that I don't fall in line with the "scare them away from hell" folks. Fear is all some people understand. The criminal justice system certainly makes that clear. But I don't have to go along with it. I don't have to co-opt that vocabulary and vision. There's room in my thinking for doing things just because they are the right things to do.

I hope I have that courage.

13 June 2009

Caps and Gowns

It's graduation season here in the Northwest. Yesterday was the last day of school for most districts and in the afternoon, the streets were full of students celebrating. Those in cars honked their farewells, those on foot cheered with lattes held aloft. The windows of cars and trucks have been decorated for weeks with "Proud parent of THS grad!" and "2009 rules!" "UW bound!" "Proud Scripps dad!" The governor spoke at the University of Washington graduation that went on for almost four hours, according to a grandmother who attended. Caps were adorned with "Hire me."

At the prison, graduation is not quite so visible or vocal. Two times a year, we have a graduation ceremony. The graduating class is small, but the names in the program are many. The greatest number of graduates are those who received their GED certificates. They passed five tests to get that piece of paper, but the work and life behind those tests--if you only knew.

I've heard some of the stories about education interrupted, families that came apart at the seams and made homework impossible, drugs and alcohol that made a more convincing argument. Now they're in prison and here is a small victory, a success, something that puts them on notice that they can indeed accomplish something.

We're a receiving prison. Men don't stay here long, but sometimes just long enough to get a taste of success, long enough to pass the GED tests. They may not be here to pick up the certificate, but they'll get it in the mail.

No horns honking, but the families who come to the graduation are pleased, relieved, amazed. We all eat cake and drink prison punch. One small step toward release, toward a better life back in the community. Maybe I should think about decorating my car when graduation comes around.