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Prison Stories

Prison Stories

Monday, February 10, 2014 – Week of 5 Epiphany, Year Two

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office:

Psalms 80 (morning) // 77, [79] (evening)

Genesis 25:19-34

Hebrews 13:1-16

John 7:37-52

As many have observed, the United States has some very bizarre ways of translating Christian values into public policy. To me, the disconnect is most profound between the professed faith of our leaders and our criminal justice system. When it comes to crime and punishment, we seem to lose all faith in a Christian story of salvation.

We permit torture and capital punishment, the very mechanisms that facilitated Christ’s own suffering and death. We subject a disturbing proportion of our population to incarceration and permanent records, when we claim to believe in redemption. Our criminal justice system puts our faith to a real test: Do we believe in transformation, reconciliation, and salvation . . . or not? It seems not.

But today’s second reading admonishes us, “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” This is no easy task in a society that makes the imprisoned and the tortured so easily forgettable by storing them out of sight, out of mind, off shore, out of the news.

Authors and activists like the extraordinary Michelle Alexander (author of “The New Jim Crow”) are helping us to remember the imprisoned and to recognize the effects of mass incarceration. I’ve also been blessed over the past few years by two profound ministries that call the imprisoned and the tortured to remembrance.

The first is St. Leonard’s Ministries in Chicago, where I met men who had been imprisoned for decades after being present for crimes committed in their teens. These men recovered from addictions, discovered people who believed in them for the first time, and found professions helping others transition to life outside of prison.

The second ministry is Prison Stories, which brings the stories of incarcerated women out of the prison walls and into our church—St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Creative writers, musicians, and professional actresses work with the women to build their own narratives of past, present, and hopeful future.

Both of these ministries have forced me to confront the depths of my own faith: Do I believe in the power of grace to work for good in people’s lives? Do I believe that God offers real salvation, here and now, to people most in need of healing and change? If I do believe, then it is mostly because these ministries have helped me to see redemptive grace in the most palpable way.

Our public institutions deeply lack faith in the redemptive powers of God. Instead of serving as channels for conducting God’s grace into people’s lives, so much of the criminal justice system obstructs that grace insofar as humanly possible. Today, the Letter to the Hebrews challenges us to remember those in prison and those being tortured, those whose legal rights and social status are often erased. So today, let us remember and pray for them, and pray for a culture that truly believes our redeemer lives.

Lora Walsh blogs about taking risks and seeking grace at A Daily Scandal. She serves as curate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and as director of the Ark Fellows, an Episcopal Service Corps program sponsored by St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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