Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Embodying the Gospel within the Prison Walls

Maybe it was a mix of naiveté and wishful thinking or just plain ignorance that I thought I would find the women at the prison to be progressive thinkers, ready to change the society around them, at least those circumstances that played a role in the choice they made that led them to prison. I was so incredibly mistaken. The women at Raleigh Correctional Center for Women have developed a truly fundamentalist culture, in which they believe that if they really trust in God this time then God will protect them and everything will be okay. If they pray and trust “hard enough,” they will even be able to open their own businesses because for them, God shows this kind of favor to God’s people. I have also found the women to be, not only manipulative, but also arrogant and demanding. They feel as if you “owe them” because of all of the time they have spent in prison. I understand that they would have trust issues, but I guess I expected to receive a little more respect. I have been gently reminded on a few occasions that there is a reason why these women are in prison.

I had several disappointing interactions while trying to prepare for the worship service I led on June 15. The chaplain’s clerk got angry with me because I did my own program. Even though she knew I did it because the head chaplain asked me to do so, she told me that she would never do another program for them. The gospel choir was very resistant to help me with songs I wanted them to sing for the service. They were angry that I wanted them to sing a certain version of the song “Nobody Knows” – they called it her version, as if I had written the song. Only four out of the eight or nine women even showed up on Sunday to sing. So in my first four weeks of being at the prison, I found myself in a situation where I could not often identify with the spiritual experiences of the women, and I was also surrounded by a mix of other issues, which to no small degree include class and race issues. I was frustrated and disappointed and not quite sure how these women would respond to my sermon.

To my surprise, the worship service that I led went beautifully. The women really enjoyed the musicians I brought with me, and they were responsive and engaged with the sermon. Afterwards I had many women come up and offer affirmation to me. One woman told me that she had gotten some new things from my sermon that she needed to think about and process. And word travels fast on the prison grounds. A small group of women came to the service, but before I knew it, women all over came up to me and told me that they had heard that I did a good job. Even the woman in the gospel choir who had the worst attitude with me told me that she heard I did a wonderful job and that I was going to make a great preacher. Her attitude had changed. I felt as if many of the women saw me differently.

I have no other words to describe this change other than I think I had to “prove” something to these women before they would accept me as a chaplain. I’m not sure what that something was or if it was the same thing for every woman. It does make sense however that they would not trust or respect me until they had a reason to do so. Maybe that worship service was the first opportunity they had to see me as a pastor, as someone who cared, as someone who declared that God loves them and is with them in the midst of all of the seasons of their lives. I know that they couldn’t have agreed with all of the theology that I communicated through the sermon, but I think they did receive the message of God’s love. Perhaps, there is something to be said about the pastoral authority that comes from proclaiming God’s word. Or maybe it’s much more than that. Maybe it’s about embodying the gospel with your whole being so that the way you relate to others proclaims God’s love. Perhaps, the women came to trust me because I revealed my care for them as God’s children. And maybe that’s why my theology didn’t threaten them. Instead, they seemed to seriously consider how what they heard affected their faith.

I also think it mattered that I didn’t pretend to have all the answers. I admitted in the sermon what troubled me and what I didn’t understand about the text. I even uttered the words – “I do not know.” I invited them to think with me about the text instead of telling them one interpretation was the only possible interpretation. For whatever reason, I’ve always thought that my painful honesty in my preaching, teaching, and conversation was a negative aspect to who I am as a minister. I cannot even try to hide my true feelings because my facial expressions always take over and communicate what I don’t always want to admit. Ask anyone who knows me well, and they will tell you that you can usually tell what I’m thinking by just simply looking at me. Many of the women at RCCW have already experienced my confusion through my facial expressions in conversation and Bible studies. They heard it through my spoken words in my sermon. I now see that perhaps this honesty is also a part of my embodiment of the gospel. Sometimes the truth is painful, and Christ calls us to speak the truth in love, not to cover it up in order for everyone to “feel good.” Trying to reckon with our call as the body of Christ is hardly ever easy, and maybe it it’s not a bad thing to embody that confusion and restlessness that often comes after hearing Jesus’ words to come and follow him.

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