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Last Sunday after Pentecost: “Human to Human”
This morning, on the Feast of Christ the King, hear again the opening words of this letter to the Colossians: “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
This morning, as we hear these words, I know they are also being read by the inmate congregation of St. Thomas the Believer in Lovelock Correctional Center: “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.”
I wonder deeply how this text is speaking to the men gathered for worship in Lovelock prison, what sermon my counterpart is preaching there. I know I could learn a lot from it.
Because having recently returned from another Alternatives to Violence Project workshop at Lovelock, I feel even more connected to the spiritual seekers there.
Men I know are taking this Epistle very seriously, one Paul himself may have written from prison. Men who have lived with the power of darkness. Men redefining what the words endurance, patience, redemption, and forgiveness mean in their lives. Men building Christ’s kingdom from within prison walls.
Does this sound overly dramatic? The truth is, I barely give justice to my prison experience when I try to explain it to my friends on the “outside.” And I have a difficult time reentering what I now think of as my “ordinary” life when I come home.
But I want to bring back to you today a fragment of that extraordinary place where I have seen God’s transforming power right before my eyes. And working within me.
For three days in early November, from 7:00 am to 4:30 pm, I was immersed in Lovelock’s tightly contained, disorienting, and very intense prison world as a participant in an Advanced Alternatives to Violence workshop. I have a keen sense when the steel gates slide shut behind me that I am entering a universe I barely understand—seeing only a small glimpse of prison life at large, a life I know is steeped in pain, suffering, anger, and isolation.
But within the small sphere of the AVP workshop, in the blandly corporate visiting room where we gather and open our hearts wide, it is a different territory. One of laughter, vulnerability, raw stories, and raw honesty.
As one inmate said with gratitude and stunned joy at the end of our last workshop day, “When I am here, I can forget for a while that I am in prison.”
How had we created such a peaceful sanctuary together: these 24 inmate participants, 7 inmate facilitators, 3 outside volunteers, and me?
How had we set ourselves free within a locked room? Established an atmosphere of trust within a world of suspicion? Connected so fully and honestly across lines of age, race, education, language, experience?
Together, miraculously, we had established a new kingdom of Christ in the most hostile setting imaginable. One in which we all felt a transforming power; could see it in each other’s faces, could hear it in each other’s stories.
Yes, the AVP program is full of effective exercises to learn techniques for communicating, reaching consensus, and finding common ground. And yes, the facilitators are expert in leading discussions—and giving participants plenty of games and role plays to practice active listening, mutual respect, and peaceful problem solving.
But each time I am in an AVP prison workshop, I feel something much greater than good programming at work, an intensity beyond anything I’ve ever experienced in any other retreat related to inner change—whether in a church, a seminary, a community or corporate group.
There is a spiritual charge, a hungry desire among the inmates who choose to be in this program to reach for a new way of life, to heal the damage they have caused and have suffered from, to practice peace.
I hear their longing and hope in the words of our Canticle today:
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
The tender compassion of our God. As I search to name the something greater, the transforming power, working wonders in these Alternatives to Violence workshops, I believe it is the spirit of compassion. The peaceful force that Christ radiated in his broken world. The foundation of his kingdom we are called to build.
Compassion in the harsh prison environment is clearly the ray of light in the darkness, the drop of rain in the desert. Inmates have shared with me that to survive on the yard they had learned to shut down emotionally, wear a mask, avoid eye contact, be careful about the questions they asked or the answers they gave. One man shared that in the three days of the workshop, he had had more eye contact than he’d had in ten years.
He tenderly thanked the group for letting him share from here [hand over the heart], rather than from here [hand over the face, as a mask].
And as we went deeper and deeper into sharing our stories—where we wanted to seek forgiveness, who we needed to forgive, when we had acted irresponsibly, when we had shown courage—we became companions in suffering and joy. Just as we were.
The breakthrough exercise in this experience of compassion was a guided meditation called “Human to Human,” toward the end of the third day.
I was randomly paired with a quiet young man whom I’d met in my September workshop, but had little interaction with. Unlike many in the group at this point, I did not know the particulars of his story, his personality, his dreams. He did not know mine. We were asked to sit facing each other, knee to knee, and close our eyes.
Then he alone was invited to open his eyes and gaze on me, observing me as another human with all the same fears, anxieties, and regrets; all the same desires for love, safety, and well-being; all the same longings for health and peace.
As he then closed his eyes, I was asked to also gaze silently at his face, seeing in it the mirror of my own humanity. And then we were both asked to look upon each other. And I saw in his face a person I had never fully seen before: an Everyman and a holy man, a Jesus and a Buddha, a softened face of complete acceptance and compassion.
We had arrived together, human to human: into Christ’s kingdom.
This transforming moment came back to me again when I read the Gospel this morning: the tender exchange between Jesus and the criminal, hanging in excruciating and equal pain on the cross. The man’s simple but profound request to be seen and remembered; Jesus’ compassionate promise that they would be together not only in suffering but in Paradise.
What a small, but miraculous moment in this horror story. The heart connection between these dying men created a sanctuary of relief even while their humanity was being stripped away.
Again I wonder what my prison counterpart is preaching on this text this morning. I believe we may both be reaching to say:
Take a risk to look into the eyes of each person standing in front of you. To acknowledge him or her as a person who suffers and dreams just as you do. Let down the fear, the preoccupation, the mask that separates you. Truly see that face as your own, and respond with compassion.
See the picture of the homeless child in the Philippines and give for his relief; he only longs for a roof over his head, as you do.
Listen for the tenth time to your elderly aunt’s same story; she only wants companionship to ease her loneliness.
Bring some warm food to your neighbors at the Community Thanksgiving Potluck; they feel the same hunger you do each day.
Dare to go into places of suffering, where people are sick or in mourning or imprisoned; your presence alone will be enough to ease the pain.
And pause when you see the sadness in the eyes of the young mother standing outside the grocery store, and ask what’s wrong. Just those few words will create a sanctuary of relief right there in the cold parking lot.
Because we all do have this transforming power Jesus showed us, human to human. When we bring compassion to the ordinary and extraordinary places.
When we take the risk to be companions in suffering and joy and build Christ’s kingdom. Amen.
~ Rev. Clare C. Novak
Associate for Interfaith Ministry, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church
Incline Village, Nevada
November 24, 2013