As some of you know I am a member of CDL, an Episcopal monastery that has been committed to offering spiritual care in jails and prisons. It is actually the ministry that was established first and then we felt called to live into the monastic life. Living a life of prayer and contemplation has sustained me in the challenging work of prison ministry. I am not sure that I would have been able to do this for as many years as I have if not for the life of prayer we live in community.
One of my favorite parts of our ministry has been leading church services in the women’s jail. Around 25 women would pour into a classroom where I had set up our little church. I put a battery-operated candle, an upright cross, and a bread box with Jesus on a desk draped with lovely linens. I was allowed to bring in a speaker and we listened to inspiring music, and it really was church. Most weeks during the sermon, I would manage to work in the question: “What was the most important commandment to Jesus?” The women who had been coming regularly knew by now the answer and shot their hands up saying, “I know, I know!” Then they would say, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” This was my own little catechism but I also did this because there is a strong presence of what I think of as a mean-spirited Christianity inside of jails and prisons. The Evangelicals are there to save souls and tell them that they are going to hell, especially if they are homosexual. They threaten the inmates with eternal hell. And believe me, men and women behind bars are already carrying a full load of shame and guilt, and to add to it is just plain cruel. So I wanted to keep coming back to those words of Jesus about what is the most important commandment.
Loving your neighbor is difficult for all of us but it may be the hardest for men and women living behind bars. It is sometimes hard enough to treat our own family members kindly, let alone the strangers from all walks of life that get thrown in together behind bars. Imagine having to share a toilet with 8 others with no privacy, not even a curtain. The lack of dignity we subject men and women to is disgraceful.
In Gospel story from Luke, a lawyer seeking eternal life heard Jesus’s response to love your neighbor. Then he asks, “Who is my neighbor?”
The answer is the parable of the Good Samaritan.
We all know this story. It is an easy one to remember. A man is left for dead by robbers. The two men you would expect to care for the man in need don’t, and the Samaritan, who is considered a heretic and unclean in Jewish times, does. Jesus makes it clear how tenderly this outsider cares for the victim. The outcast is the one who shows mercy for the man in trouble.
The Samaritan was the total surprise in the story to the man of the law. Samaritan people were considered half breeds who defiled the true religion. And for someone focused on the LAWS, Samaritans were, well, not acceptable on any level. Yet he who was considered an enemy was cast as the hero of the story. This is a story to really mess up the class system of his day.
Who are the Samaritans of our current time? Who do we vilify and consider enemies? One such group are men and women coming out of prison carrying the label of “Ex-Felon.” These folks are treated with suspicion and most people don’t want anything to do with them. They are treated like outcasts.
One of the reasons we relocated the monastery to SLO County is because of an organization here called Restorative Partners. It was founded by Sr. Theresa Harpin, a feisty nun. Maybe some of you know about her. She is a real force of nature. This amazing organization offers many levels of support for folks coming out of prisons. They have housing, provide mentors to help navigate logistical issues like ID’s, and they help with job hunting support. It is an honor to partner with them and I highly recommend investigating whether you feel called to volunteer with RP.
In Los Angeles there are many organizations offering support including Homeboy Industries which was founded by Father Greg Boyle, Jesuit priest and author of several bestselling books. Homeboys offers jobs for folks coming out of prison or trying to leave the gang life. These men and women (mostly people of color) are portrayed in the media as dangerous and untrustworthy. But I want to tell you that the majority of these folks just want a chance to make a decent life for themselves and their families. And I have found that most of the men and women who have caused harm want to redeem themselves and are hungry to live a Godly life. They want to give back. It is redemption they long for.
Father Greg Boyle says, “We should stand in awe of the message they carry instead of sitting in judgment of how they carry it.”
I didn’t know that I could expand my capacity for compassion until I started going into jail. For me, it has been a school of learning that my heart is capable of ever more and more compassion. Witnessing the suffering and oppression many inmates have endured has expanded my heart – a heart that has been broken a thousand times as I listen to the stories of these beautiful souls. Believe me when I say, all of these men and women were victims first.
At the end of this parable, Jesus asks the lawyer, “who was the neighbor to the victim? The man replies, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”
Jesus breaks down the walls that dictate who is a neighbor. It is not always the obvious one. It is often the outsider who shows us compassion for the those in need – the unclean man, the one who worships differently, those who look different. The ones with tattoos, and the woman who might look a little rough. These are the folks Jesus uses to illustrate who is the compassionate neighbor.
It is up to us as followers of Christ to see no one outside our circle of compassion. Our future depends on this simple commandment. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. And to live into this we need to show mercy to those who are in need.
Compassion in action. Amen.