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There But For Fortune – 2/22/2015

[Rev. Kelly[i]:]

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a play about betrayal and hatred and despair. In particular how the cycle of wrongdoing and the quest for vengeance against the perpetrator can create a vicious, consuming cycle where all the possibilities of life become narrowed down to one tragic singularity. At one point in the story the titular character, the prince of Denmark, talks with two affable fools, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, about fate. They pronounce that though they are not quite so lucky as they could be, as servants of the royal family they are fairly pleased with the hand that has been dealt to them. And then comes the following exchange:

HAMLET: What have you, my good friends, deserved at the hands of fortune that she sends you to prison, hither?

GUILDENSTERN: Prison, my lord?

HAMLET: Denmark’s a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ: Then is the world one.

HAMLET: A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ th’ worst.

ROSENCRANTZ: We think not so, my lord.

HAMLET: Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ: Why then, your ambition makes it one. ‘Tis too narrow for your mind.[ii]

          All three men share the same country. Comparing their respective stations in it, the two servants and their master, it would seem obvious that Hamlet has the better lot. And yet, the country which the two fools are glad to call home, its prince finds to be a dungeon, a prison, a cage from which he cannot escape. The metaphor of prison is a common fixture in our literature and in our speech. It’s used to describe any sort of difficult or desperate situation where the options becomes narrowed to the point of having no choice at all. We talk about the prison of poverty, the prison of ignorance; the Eagles sang about drug addiction as being “prisoners…of our own device.” Some religious and philosophical outlooks view the body itself as a prison – restraining the mind or the soul and keeping it from achieving its full potential.

To be in prison, so the metaphor goes, is to be unable to pursue one’s own sense of purpose. Malcolm X, who was assassinated 50 years ago yesterday, and who spent six years in Charlstown State Prison, not so far from here, wrote years after his release, “Any person who claims to have deep feeling for other human beings should think a long, long time before he votes to have other men kept behind bars – caged. I am not saying there shouldn’t be prisons, but there shouldn’t be bars. Behind bars, a man never reforms. He will never forget. He never will get completely over the memory of the bars.”[iii] To be imprisoned is to have one’s ambition, one’s calling, thwarted and blocked.

[Lisa M. Kirk:]

My heart tells me that the most important thing we can do while we live our lives is take care of each other. With that work we also take care of ourselves as we create community around us. So that, is truly my call. As the call got louder and louder, I realized I could no longer put it aside. I entered seminary and signed on for a Field Education with a Chaplaincy Program for the homeless and marginalized. The chaplaincy program is about companioning people during extreme difficulty. Most are victims of addiction, economic failure, mental illness. I learned early on that I, or any of us, could easily be in their shoes.

Our job was to just be with them. We walked the streets per chance we would run into someone who needed a listening ear and a reminder that they are valuable. We met with them at McDonalds in the morning for coffee.

One particular morning a young woman shared with me her fears of never becoming sober. She cried at the loss of her dignity every time she stumbled up the street, and every time she had to beg a friend for a bed or sleep by the river. I cried with her, holding her hands and praying for her to find the strength.

Every day, these people struggle to keep their dignity. We gave them the space to reclaim it whenever necessary simply by companioning them on their journey.

At the beginning I was so nervous I wondered what the heck I had been thinking to decide to take that route, but by the time I was done, I was so grateful for the experiences and the people I had met. The holy, in the form of peace and love, appeared in each exchange. I was changed. There was no way to avoid that. My heart had opened up even more for these people and the service fulfilled a call, an urge, a want to help people’s lives become easier. A spirit of good energy attached itself to me. On both sides peace and love grew. Human connection is an antidote to so many challenges in life.

I’ve been a part of the Church of the Larger Fellowship Letter Writing Ministry for a couple of years now. It has become a passion that affirms my belief in the inherent dignity of all. My time with the folks on the streets affirmed that my ministry is to the grieving and the marginalized in our world.

I have a story about a man named Norm and me. Norm and I began to write through the CLF a couple of years ago. I contacted CLF; filled out all the paperwork; got notification that I’d been matched with someone…and then, I waited. The waiting was hard; every day I wondered what he was like, was he a UU, would we get along? And so I was a little antsy, nervous, but I was also very excited about it, excited to find out who I was going to be writing with. In any conversation with my friends the topic came up, I expressing my nervousness, but also my hopes that this would be a long lasting meaningful connection. Finally the first letter came. It was thick, in a business sized envelope. More than I had hoped for. I had in my hand the answer to my wonderings and I couldn’t wait to read it. I ran into the house breathlessly, and with some apprehension, with some rumblings in my stomach, and happiness.

Norm’s letters are always 7 or 8 pages long. 8.5 X 11 sized paper, small handwriting. He uses every inch of the paper, sometimes even the margins. In his first letter he told me he identifies as Wiccan and he listed the Goddesses he prays to. He told what each one represents. He explained his belief as New Age-He wrote that every religion has a creation story and a flood story. With numerology, physics, and astronomical science he described how God is our Universe. It was quite an introduction; one I never could have predicted, but it did not disappoint, even though I don’t quite follow it all.

Norm is brilliant and he always has a lot to say. He can talk about the law, history, science, his many theories about God, his own failings and insecurities, and he never fails to say how much it means that I take the time to write to him. I, on the other hand, who spends hours and hours writing sermons, essays, papers, often need a break.

So, Norm and I clashed. Last spring I stopped keeping up with my end of the bargain. It was a very busy time and I stopped writing as often as I had been. Norm finally wrote and let me have it. He was hurt and angry. He was never disrespectful or rude, he was just honest.

I learned that my letters were the only form of communication he received from outside of the prison except a Sudoku subscription that his mom sometimes kept up with. Through a back and forth letter writing conversation for a few months Norm taught me what it is like to be in prison. As a prisoner he has no identity. He is no different from anyone else there. He has the same options, the same schedule, the same everything. He has no choices except those that are laid out for him; he cannot decide to go for a walk whenever he wants, or go to the gym, or have blueberries for breakfast.

[Rev. Kelly:]

The word ‘prison’ stands in as a place holder for any condition or situation in which there is a loss of self-determination. In our society it is most often invoked as a metaphor by people who are distant and aloof from the actual, literal place that is prison, and the experience of it. The current popularity of the television program, “Orange is the New Black,” most certainly not withstanding, much of the point of prisons as they currently function in America is to place certain people at a far remove from the rest of the community.

This was not always the case. Some of you have heard me talk before about the very early days of Christian religious life in New England. In the first towns settled by Europeans there was only one place of worship and attendance was mandatory. That mandate applied as much to folks in jail as it did to everyone else. So each Sunday the prisoners would be led to the meetinghouse, and sit in the same room and hear the same preaching as everyone else in town. And because the discussion of the Gospel was considered essential to the very early puritans, those prisoners had the same chance to speak in church as everyone else did. Some used that opportunity to speak what lesson they found in the readings for that day, and sometimes the lesson they found had to do with their current situation and why they ought to be let out of it.

But that is a far and distant cry from the situation of the modern prison. More than to reform, more even than to punish – though certainly it is a punishing place – the modern prison system serves as a means to throw people away. To disconnect them from the communities and relationships that all human beings need in order to manifest and reinforce our own humanity, and to place them out of sight and out of mind. There are some terrible crimes for which people do go to jail, and I do not mean to pretend that every soul in prison is innocent – although we also know, as a matter of pure statistical fact, that not everyone in prison is guilty, either. But as a society we have lost our sense of relationship to the prisoner, to the point where even once released – having paid one’s debt to society, as we say – a felony conviction remains an eternal blot on a human life. It allows for all manner of legal and social discrimination.

Eugene Victor Debs, the international labor organizer and four-time candidate for the US presidency – the last of those campaigns conducted while he was in prison himself – famously said, “So long as there is a minority, I am in it. So long as there is a criminal element, I am of it. So long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” The institution of the prison, as it currently exists in this country, can only be explained in this way: That those of us who make the system of incarceration possible, with our labor, with our tax dollars, or simply with our non-interference, proceed with the expectation that we and the people we love will never be subject to it. If we all actually believed that any and all of us could be imprisoned at some point in our lives, the institution would necessarily undergo a radical transformation.

[Lisa M. Kirk:]

It is not the prison’s job to build the prisoners up, to help them recover their self-esteem; the job is to break them down, and to keep them broken down. Every day, their dignity is stripped from them by their fellow prisoners and staff.

A few weeks ago a man who spent 18 years in prison visited a class I was in. He was part of a program called Partakers through which prisoners can get their bachelors degrees from BU while they are incarcerated. The professors go into the prisons and teach. This man told us that after he came out of a class a guard berated him telling him that he would never finish school, that he was not smart enough. With his words, the guard attempted to take away his dignity, he threatened his safety, his identity, his independence, his right to fairness. But, the visitor did not respond to the guard, he did not let him take his dignity, he did not take the bait. This is a consistent challenge for these people. Holding on to their dignity means not taking the bait, not trying to save face, avoiding conflict so they don’t end up in the hole, lose privileges or add years to their sentence.

Norm helped me to understand that I didn’t have to answer every single thing in every single letter he sent, which, at the time felt overwhelming to me. His letters are very long and detailed because I am the only one he has to talk with. My letters, even if they’re only a couple pages long, or, now and then a card or a Sudoku puzzle book, tell him that there is someone in the world who cares about who he is, about WHO he is. There is someone who cares about what he’s thinking about, and someone who thinks that he is important. What I came to understand is that he is just like me, just like any of us. He simply wants to be heard, to be counted. He wants to be seen as the individual that he is.

And the truth is that any one of us could be where he is.

I encourage you to join me in this letter writing ministry. In this blessed room, we are surrounded by a bunch of caring and compassionate people. If this community could add the joy of companionship to a number of our incarcerated brethren through pen pal relationships we would be making the world a better place.  It could have a great impact on your life and that of your prisoner, just as it has for me and Norm.

And, as I said, any one of us could be where Norm is.

In a society where people get left behind, we are not immune. The song that this service is named for speaks to that fine line between them and us. The first verse goes like this.

Show me a prison, show me a jail
Show me the prisoner, whose face is growing pale
And I’ll show you a young man
With so many reasons why
And there but for fortune, may go you or I.

 

[i] This sermon was composed and delivered cooperatively by Rev. Kelly and Lisa M. Kirk. Each holds the rights to their respective sections.

[ii] Act II, Scene 2.

[iii] From, The Autobiography of Malcolm X

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