I Call That Mind Free

January 13, 2008
Rev. Victoria Weinstein


"I am only one. But still I am one. I cannot do everything,

But still I can do something.

And because I cannot do everything

I will not refuse to do the

something that I can do." – Edward Everett Hale


HOMILY            "I Call That Mind Free"   Rev. Victoria Weinstein

I want to start with a quote from a random man on-line, just a normal e-mail by someone named Edward Santella.  I read this some time ago and it has stayed with me since.  Santella says, "So, rumor has it that there was this guy who taught that we should love God, love our neighbors as ourselves, love our enemies and turn the other cheek. He said we should feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick, console the sorrowful, and visit prisoners. He said when we do those things, we do them also for him and when we don't, we deny him. Well, it's only a rumor. I don't know what made me think about it. Besides, there's no money in the budget for this sort of thing."

It's that last line that made me laugh, because if you're feeling cynical, you could really argue that that's what it's really all about in the 21st century, even in the churches and houses of faith.  

Idealism is holding out in little pockets of the population but we could argue that idealism is pure foolishness, given the big problems in the world: isn't it wiser just to try to focus on our own lives and communities, to do the best we can there? Sure.  And if we're lucky enough to live in a community where there aren't a lot of visibly hungry or thirsty people, and certainly not naked people, and we are already visiting the sick, and we are consoling the sorrowful, why extend ourselves so far as to even think about visiting the prisoners? Jesus was an idealist. He was a guru. We don't have to choose to follow that guru.  We may decide that we're not required.  We may think, not only is there no money in the budget for many of these things, there's no energy in the emotional bank.

I understand that.  Which is why it is with special admiration and even amazement that I am proud to lift up to this church today those people who have, in the midst of all else going on in life, chosen not to forget the prisoner, and to make an effort not only to visit the prisoner, but to become emotionally involved with them --  to not stand apart from them as the successful, "together" ones who deign to pay attention to these criminals, but to believe in them, to risk the adventure of actually growing to open their hearts to them, to sit together as friends, to share lives as equals.

You shall visit the prisoner.  It seems such a random request at the end of a list of eminently practical recommendations.  But for at least as far back as Jesus' time and in all cultures we have basically done the same thing with our "bad people:" locked them in cages and left them to rot – or to destroy each other-- until it comes time to unlock the pen and release them into the world (if that time comes at all).  In this country --- one of the only democracies to do so -- we also execute some of them: we execute them using an outmoded series of lethal injections that have been outlawed by animal humane societies , who wouldn't even euthanize a dog in the manner in which we execute criminals.

When this was being discussed the other day in the Supreme Court, with a panel of experts advocating for a more humane method of execution by barbiturate overdose, Justice Antonin Scalia said -- and you could kind of hear him rolling his eyes -- "This is an execution, not surgery." He was basically expressing his opinion "so what if the condemned suffers horrible agonies before he dies?"

Morally, you might agree with him.  I have my days.  Except that the United States has a terrifying record of executing those later exonerated by DNA evidence, overwhelmingly executes the poor, racial minorities, and the mentally ill.  Justice Scalia's impatient tone and sense of arrogant certainty from the bench the other day sounded to me like someone who is confident that all is well in our criminal justice system.  I assure you that it is not.  We have to guard against smug complacency, which is just where those who profit from the prison industrial complex want us.  Those who profit from the multi-billion dollar prison industry are counting on you and me sitting here thinking, "Prisoners are incarcerated because they all deserve to be."  They're totally invested in you and me not doing a bit of research or questioning authority.  

Well, I started questioning authority on this after I started making prison visits, and I encourage you to do the same. Looking under the rock of the prison industry is a really ugly and depressing task, but I think it is part of our civic responsibility.

Visiting a prison for the first time is scary.  It is intimidating.  It can raise a lot of our own anxieties: am I somehow implicated in the crime by being here, by offering compassionate presence to someone who has done wrong?  Will the guards and wardens treat me in a hostile manner? Sometimes they will.  Some prisons are more invested than others in dividing every human being into two distinct moral categories: The Good Guys and the Bad Guys.  If you're even associated with The Bad Guys, you can be treated coldly and even brusquely, which is no fun, but it is a profound learning experience. 

What is it like to drive a long way on a cold afternoon and to be ordered at the security station to remove your blazer, suffering the chill and the embarrassment of walking through freezing corridors in a thin, almost sleeveless blouse? If a woman is wearing a bra that has an underwire in it, she may be ordered to remove that, too, and to stow it in a locker.  If you don't have a quarter with you to lock the locker, you go back out to your car and get one.  You wait in line to get through the locked gate and see a baby's diaper being searched by a guard. You are patted down sometimes and searched for weapons… and sometimes they wave a wand around you respectfully and smile as they press the button that clicks open a gate, and a very kind, friendly guard escorts you across the yard to the next building.  You never know what to expect. 

On some visits, no touching is allowed, and you sit in a crowded cafeteria-like room in a din of noise, trying to concentrate on the person in front of you.  Sometimes you are left in private and no one disturbs you at all.  At one maximum security prison I was not stopped or reprimanded when I embraced a young Unitarian Universalist woman and slid a chalice necklace into her hand.  She wore it for the rest of her prison sentence and no one confiscated it.  Fairly amazing luck.  In other places, you can be pulled away by a guard for having a piece of paper fall out of your Bible (which is the only thing clergy are allowed to bring in with us).

The salient point is that when you "visit the prisoner," you are not in control of things.  You must defer with absolute obedience to the authorities who will tell you exactly what to do, and in that way, you in some small measure experience what a prisoner experiences every moment of his or her day. It is an affront to your sense of inherent worth and dignity.  As you leave, walking out to your car with deep, cleansing breaths and drawing the sweet smell of freedom into your lungs, it occurs to you that the whole point of prison, really, is to persuade everyone in there that they have no worth and no dignity – because it's impossible to control large populations of people who have a strong, developed sense of self-esteem, isn't it? They are there to do their time, and it is the institution's job to keep them under control in body and in mind.

And it is this last piece that fills me with suffocating dread.  If we believe anything in common here in this sanctuary, do we not believe in the sanctity of the freedom to think and believe as we choose, and to pursue our own learning and understanding unfettered by external authorities? How many of you consider education and the ability to have access to learning among your highest and most cherished values, for you and your children? Is there any circumstance, any crime so heinous, that we honestly believe an intelligent response to that crime is to chain a man or woman's mind closed, even as we keep them locked behind bars?  I am opposed to capital punishment as an execution of a body, but to be honest with you, I fear even more deeply the murder of a human mind, the slow suffocation of an intellect – which to me is akin to destroying the soul; it is demonic.

Think of your own life without books… without a daily newspaper or favorite journals … without stimulating conversation… without the arts, culture, without music that inspires.  Imagine, also, your physical life limited to a cage, perhaps a day room, a cafeteria, a muddy yard around which you may or may not have permission to walk in circles for an hour a day.  Imagine keeping your spirits up sufficiently under those conditions to still desire to learn, to grow, to seek understanding, to make something of yourself, to dare to say, "Even I, an incarcerated convict, implore the society that imprisoned me for a chance to get an education, to better myself, to prepare to be someone other than a likely recidivist when I am released from my sentence."     

Those are the individuals who apply for the college-behind-bars programs supported by the Partakers, and I am God bless them for their ambitions, for wanting to make something of their lives.  Bless Bev and Mary and Stan and Jean and Sue and Dexter and Deanna and Len and Dorothy and Carrie for holding out a hand of support and care to them, for driving to see them, for enduring the uncertainties of visiting hours, rules and regulations because it means the world to someone living behind bars that these people actually give a damn about them, and more than that.

Our Partakers volunteers ask you to consider this: there are hundreds of men and women prisoners who would like to participate in the college behind bars program.  They have never met you – in fact, the may have never met anyone like you – intelligent, open-minded, appreciative of diversity, hungry to learn, someone who deeply honors education and who is willing to go beyond your comfort level to become part of their lives.  But we would like you to meet some of the prisoners with whom we are already involved.  The Partakers volunteers are asking that any of you who feel so called agree to make one visit with them.  Their goal this year is that each team take at least one additional visitor from our congregation into the prisons to see what it's like, and to learn more about Partakers ministry.

At the end of the service, I would like all the Partkers volunteers to come up to the front of the church.  You write your name and phone number and e-mail on your program if you are willing to go on ONE visit and hand it to any one of them, and they will arrange it.  One visit. That's all they ask.   

You are only one, but still you are one.