Seminary at Sing Sing
Sojomail - June 19, 2008
It is a powerful way to be a witness for Christ, by demonstrating your capacity to not judge the way everybody else is judging and to serve unconditionally.
- Lt. Cmdr. William C. Kuebler, a military lawyer for a Guantánamo detainee, who has persistently challenged Bush Administration policy as "designed to get criminal convictions" with "no real evidence," and asserted that Pentagon prosecutors "launder evidence derived from torture." (Source: The New York Times )
Seminary at Sing Sing
Last Wednesday evening, June 11, I was blessed and honored to give the commencement address at Sing Sing Prison. The New York Theological Seminary offers a program of theological study leading to the degree of Masters of Professional Studies, with all courses taking place inside the walls of the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York. In twenty-six years this extraordinary and courageous seminary training program has graduated hundreds who then go on to ministry, both inside the prison system of New York and back in the community when their sentences are finished.
I have often told the story of the first time I visited this unusual and inspiring program at Sing Sing. My book, The Soul of Politics, was being read by the students as part of their seminary curriculum, and I received a letter from the prison inmates themselves, inviting me to meet with them and discuss my book. It sounded interesting, so I wrote back to ask when they would like me to come. A young man wrote to me on behalf of his fellow Sing Sing students saying, "Well, we're free most nights!" He went on, "We're kind of a captive audience here!" The prison authorities were very accommodating and I got to spend several hours with about 70 guys in a crowded room deep in the bowels of the infamous penal institution.
The animated book conversation was one of the most stimulating and rigorous of any I've ever had. I vividly remember much of that discussion, and especially the riveting comment of one young man who said to me, "Jim, most of us at Sing Sing come from just about four or five neighborhoods in New York City. It's like a train. You get on the train in my neighborhood when you are nine or ten years old, and the train ends up here....at Sing Sing." But this young man had experienced a spiritual conversion inside of that prison, and was now enrolled in the New York Seminary program training pastors to work inside the prison system and to go back and work in those neighborhoods from which they had come. After the session that night, the young man came up to me to say goodbye, looked me in the eye, and said, "When I get out, I am going to go back and stop that train."
A few years later, I was in New York City to speak at a town meeting on poverty. Guess who was up front, helping to lead the meeting? I immediately recognized two of the young men I met that night at Sing Sing--Julio Medina and Darren Ferguson. Last week, Julio came back to the commencement at what NYTS calls their "North Campus," now as an illustrious alumnus who spends his days running a very successful drug rehabilitation program in NYC. Darren was being the newly installed pastor of a church in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Queens where some recent shootings had him out on the streets that night instead of at the Sing Sing commencement.
These are very special graduates. To get to where they were last Wednesday night, twelve men had to overcome so many obstacles. I told them, in my commencement address, that they "had an advantage." The advantage they have is in knowing what faith really means, how much it costs, and how it can completely change your life and the world. They know that faith is for the big stuff. And they know that if you have faith, even the size of a grain of mustard seed, you can move mountains. And that's what these men had to move to get to this place on a warm Wednesday night in the visitors' room inside Sing Sing prison. They got to take off their prison jumpsuits, and put on shirts, ties, and graduation robes to wear in front of their beaming and tearful mothers and fathers, wives and children, extended family, and so many friends.
Theo Harris was selected by his fellow students to give the "class reflection." He spoke of the "School of Hard Knocks" whose three core curricula were "street education, peer pressure, and ghetto economics." He said all his fellow class members had to go through the school of hard knocks before they got to go to this school of preparation for the ministry. Theo said he had learned "the greatest lesson of my life....that no one is beyond redemption. That is what sustained me, that is what motivated me, and that is what brought me to where I am today: redeemed." He then named each of his fellow graduates, observed their special gifts and vocations, and then concluded, "We have expressed our desire to make a meaningful contribution to our community. Now, all that remains is for us to go out among them, roll up our sleeves, and really make a difference."
It was a night of rich gratitude and profound hope. And while I have often been inspired by the faces of the young bright graduates facing me on brilliant spring days of school commencements, I have never felt more grateful and more hopeful than I did looking into the spiritually-chiseled faces of these redeemed graduates on a summer's night at Sing Sing prison. Thanks be to God.
I will begin with some positive news of growing international pressure on the Zimbabwean government. The United Nations secretary general has demanded an end to the violence and lifting of the ban on food aid. The U.S. secretary of state has called a meeting with African leaders to discuss the situation, and the Botswana government has issued this statement: "Botswana is alarmed by these arrests and detentions as they disrupt electoral activities of key players and intimidate the electorate, thus undermining the process of holding a free, fair and democratic election." The latter is particularly remarkable because this is the first government in the region that has issued an official statement condemning the violence.
I was touched recently to hear Dr. Alfredo Quinoñes-Hinojosa, honored by the Merage Foundation for the American Dream for his contributions in the field of medicine, tell his exceptional story. Dr. Quiñones' journey began at age 19, just as it has for millions of his Mexican paisanos - hopping the U.S.-Mexico border's perilous chain-link fence. Unable to provide for his family, he remained firm in his decision to head north, even after he was initially caught by the border patrol and deported back to Mexico. He eventually succeeded and labored as an undocumented migrant farm worker in the San Joaquin Valley. The same hands that picked tomatoes in the hot California sun now perform neurosurgery on brain tumors in the halls of Johns Hopkins University. Educated at the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard, he has reaped great rewards from his determination to succeed and his optimistic attitude towards life. Many would say he has realized "the American Dream."
So there I was last Saturday, along with our friend Kwami (the nurturing boyfriend), loading and unloading a truckload of secondhand bunk beds and bureaus, wondering how long my surgically-repaired ankles and arthritic hands would hold up. I could have found somebody else to do it, of course, but no one I trust enough to do it right. Strange as it sounds, moving donated furniture into a family's worn-out HUD apartment is a delicate job. It wasn't about the furniture, after all. It wasn't about all the phone calls, waiting in line, sidewalk hot dogs, application fees, and driving all over town. That stuff is valuable sometimes, but it sure isn't enough to keep us here in this neighborhood on a bad day. No, the real job - the job that keeps us here - is about communicating genuine, garden-variety love to vulnerable, poor people who may feel that they aren't worthy of your interest, let alone your friendship.
This Training for Change conference was a good experience, one that I did not expect and that challenged me deeply. One of the tools we practiced was learning to tell our personal stories to build relationships with each other. I'm not very good at that, and I have a hard time finding the desire to open up to strangers.
Father's Day was especially poignant this year with the shocking weekend news of the death of Tim Russert, the long-time and extraordinary host of Meet The Press. I knew Tim a little, mostly from the times I have been on the show or at Washington events that we both attended. Watching Meet The Press is a Sunday ritual for me; one of the very few things on television that I always tape. Tim Russert's unexpected passing broke the heart of official Washington and the outpouring of emotional remembrances was highly unusual for this cynical city. Listening to so many of the heartfelt tributes to Tim Russert made it painfully clear how much the people in this city and around the country knew him well and loved him dearly.
I was glad to hear something in Brian McLaren's session on "scared to talk politics in church?" It wasn't something Brian said but rather something from someone who doesn't look like me, and who had on a shirt I probably wouldn't wear. He spoke up in the Q&A at the beginning of the session (which was a fantastic idea, thanks Brian). This man had noticed in many conversations in the working groups and among conference attendees that while no one was out and out bashing either political party he noticed that more often people would speak favorably about the "more progressive" political party and "jabingly" about the "more conservative" political party. Now as one who is coming from a more conservative background and who is now very much wanting to find a political third way to let my faith fully inform my public policy, I noticed this underlying level in conversations happening here.
Yesterday I was in a class where we were trying to frame up the story of ourselves--not just an idealistic fluffy tale--but one that when you told it, others would understand in their gut why you felt the way you feel and maybe even get a glimpse of the "real" you and move a little bit closer to you as a person. A gentleman shared with me his negative feeling of experiencing that vulnerability. I do believe that most people feel this way...scared to go deeper....scared to really talk about raw happenings and going beyond the issues to a place that is personal. I think that may be very natural, especially surrounded by strangers whom you are meeting for the first time. In reality, being vulnerable to strangers has always been easier for me, than being vulnerable with those I am close to in many ways. I realized that I may be different than others in that respect, and I'm okay with that.
I ran into an acquaintance here at Pentecost 2008 who reminded me of how this "get rich or die trying" message is ingrained in our psychology at every economic level. As we caught up, he filled me in on how he's excited to be here because he just took a job in his hometown of Philadelphia as a community and church organizer. He's most interested in addressing the issue of the streets in Philly where poverty invades every inch of life, but "get rich or die trying," as 50 Cent likes to promote, is the ruling philosophy. Coming from a similar background, he has emerged with a different philosophy that drives him to bring change to the youth who are living in the same situation that he once found himself in. How does he empower his community to not fall into the trap of having getting super-rich as their only aspiration?
The Poor People's Campaign included poor whites from Appalachia, poor African-Americans from rural and urban areas, poor Hispanics and Native Americans. This group all came together to build Resurrection City which became the headquarters of the campaign. This "city" consisted of shacks built by conference participants and included a school, an arts and cultural program, and a medical clinic staffed by volunteer doctors. In this community African-Americans shared gospel music with Appalachian whites who in turn shared their bluegrass music. This Resurrection City was a place of Beloved Community. Sadly, the goals of the Poor People's Campaign were not accomplished due to the assassinations of Dr. King and Robert F. Kennedy, bad press, and days of constant rain.
So it is that each summer Sunday from June 22 through Sept. 21, I will be here as a guest of God's Politics, hoping you also will wish to be their guest with me. I think it is fair to say that nobody at this point knows exactly what will be said here, because nobody has yet lived the summer of 2008. When we come to Sept. 21, however, and to the autumnal equinox, I pray it may be said of all of us that we have spent our time together with benefit and to all those good ends that can come from responsible conversation.
Each generation always says, "oh man, these kids today are not like we were." That could be in my mother's era, her mother's era. There are differences, I guess, in each generation. I find with these young men and women, that they really, in many cases, are more disrespectful towards adults than in my generation. And a lot of them are very angry and very bitter. There are many factors that we can attribute this to. But what I've come to find is that a lot of them, given time to reflect, will come out of that negative, rebellious type of phase that they are in.
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The Christian Century
In his new book, The Great Awakening, Jim Wallis describes how as a young man growing up in an evangelical church, he never heard a sermon on the Sermon on the Mount. That telling personal observation reflects a phenomenon about which I have been increasingly concerned: that much evangelical Christianity on both sides of the Atlantic has based itself on the epistles rather than the Gospels, though often misunderstanding the epistles themselves. +read more
Arizona groups want 'compassionate' immigration talk
More than a dozen religious leaders on Monday called on Arizona's elected officials and community leaders to turn what they call a fear-based immigration debate into a more compassionate dialogue. +read more
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Foreign Policy in Focus Commentary
You know Jim Wallis says that real change happens when there are social movements beating down on open doors. So we need to be building up the social movement...The movement is way bigger than any candidate or any party. +read more
Most illegal migrants deserve compassion
Arizona law cracks down on illegal immigrants; religious leader urges "compassion"
Los Angeles Times blog
Ministers press for migrant compassion
Religious Leaders Call For Immigration Change
KOLD TV - CBS (Tucson)
A struggle to energise evangelicals
The Financial Times
Valley Christian group wants immigration reform
East Valley Tribune
Red Letter Christians
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