Why I’m Writing a Prisoner

This morning, after piling my 2 fried eggs atop toast and covering it in a glob of green chilies (a taste acquired in New Mexico), I pulled out my pad of lined paper, a plain white envelope and one of the decent pens we own, not one of the cheap 50 pens we’ve acquired from the months we’ve spent in hotel rooms with my husband’s job over the years. I sat down at our dining room table and began to write. I hardly know this guy. He is the friend of a relative of a relative but I know they love him and vouch for him that he’s a good guy, despite his recent circumstances.

Why I'm writing a prisoner.
Why I’m writing a prisoner.

This is the second prisoner I’ve written over the past four years. When my friend’s relative spent a year in the federal women’s prison in West Virginia. I wrote her about once a month. I took my cues from her. As she wrote me a letter, I wrote one in response. Honestly, I loved getting back into the habit of writing actual letters again. This is what Pope Francis promises us is part of our encounter with the poor. It is an exchange, where there is something to be found for both people. Its not just a one-way giving spree. There’s satisfaction to be found in the exchange. As a person who is 41, I have had the pleasure of living in both worlds: the by-hand and the digital world. Over the years, I’ve let go of the boxes and boxes of cards and letters people sent me when I lived away from home (Spain at 16, Maine at 17, college at 18, Costa Rica at 20). Those cards accompanied me during my time away from the familiar. My Aunt Bonnie was the best and most consistent card writer. Her slanted left handed scrawl was unmistakably recognizable. In her honor, I bought a box from a yard sale this past Saturday. It will allow me to write down people’s special dates and to sort the cards into folders so that I can be totally on top of these things just like she was. I miss so many birthdays, anniversaries of deaths and weddings that it’s really shameful. I hope this system, bought for $2 will help me be more like Aunt Bonnie.
Since I live primarily in this digital world, it is easy to forget that some folks have been thrown back to 1993, technologically speaking. These include my pal who is in a hospital in Washington, DC, who treasures the cards sent to her by friends and family, my grandma in Wisconsin and this guy who is in prison.
tra 1So, what do I write to the guy? Well, I guess I start with the premise that I don’t have to be extra clever or profound or even extra interesting. I just start writing. It turns out that it took me four pages this morning to tell him all about that friend of mine who is in the hospital in Washington, DC. I told him about her lifelong ministry to the poor, something she was doing way before Pope Francis helped make it trendy again. I described visiting her at her office about once a week for over a decade and the circumstances surrounding her recent hospital stay. As I wrote to him, a clever phrase did come to mind and I took the liberty of re-writing it neatly in the margins, “Just because her body is in a prison doesn’t mean her heart and mind have to be.” Nice, I thought. I need to find out if he’s allowed to be sent books or at least photo copies of pages of books (every prison has differing rules). There are probably people with more profound things to say than that, like Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor who described life in the death camps. Someone like Nelson Mandela. I’ve never read anything he wrote but the guy spent decades imprisoned. Martin Luther King, Jr., Paul the Apostle, there are lots of other people. For us, on the “outside” we can read what they have to say and admire them for being so deep in the midst of such desperation. I’m guessing that a prisoner would read another prisoner’s words with an even greater understanding of the journey they are on.
So, when I write to this fellow, I know I’m getting a lot out of it. I got to spend 30 minutes thinking about how much I love and admire my friend about whom I was writing. Re-reading my own writing is a strange pleasure, especially when it has come together and is actually pretty good stuff. In my first letter (this was my second letter, written in response to the one he sent last week), I was very blunt about my intentions for writing to him. Being a Christian is pretty easy sometimes since there is nice, concise instructions on how we are supposed to do this thing. If you look up the 7 corporal (“bodily”) works of mercy, you’ll see that visiting the sick and visiting the imprisoned are actually spelled out right there for us. I don’t expect to visit him in prison but my letters are a way to distract and maybe give him something new to think about for a few minutes, which is like a visit. I don’t know where the correspondence will go but I think I will just keep telling him stories about all of the wonderful people I’ve met in my life. I was blunt about my intentions.
St. Francis himself was imprisoned too. That was in the 13th century so I guarantee you he didn’t have a window, 3 hots nor a cot. We could come up with a long list of imprisoned people we’d have loved to correspond with throughout history. In the meantime, if you don’t plan on visiting someone in prison then I suggest you ask God to help you find someone you can write to in prison. I recommend spreading the word around. According to a statistic I just read, it looks like about 1 in every 300 Americans is currently in prison or in jail. Put out an APB on Facebook and ask folks to tell you the name of their aunt, godmother, stepdad or brother-in-law who has been locked away for a time. I rely on the people we know in common to vouch for the guy so I know I’m not getting mixed up with someone who is a danger. If you need help finding someone, I can help spread the word for you. It is taboo to talk about our relatives and loved ones who are in prison but with statistics like 1 in 300, you’ve got to figure that just about every single person you know knows someone who is in jail or prison right now.
So, that’s why I’m writing to a prisoner. It’s also why I think you should write, too.

How this relates to St. Francis:
1. If St. Francis’ prison term was happening right now, how would you get his address? What would write to him?
2. Like Pope Francis, St. Francis was all about seeking out those who are on the margins. Ask God to show you who are on the margins that you can reach out to.
3. In typical colorful medieval metaphor, it is said that St. Francis’ “whole body was a tongue” which means that his whole being actually spoke the Gospel even louder than his voice preached it. As we mediate on the instruction to visit prisoners and we recall that our hero, Jesus was brought to trial, convicted and sentenced to death, how can your actions speak, telling the world you believe this stuff?

Turn your Robbing into Singing

This beautiful story is from my hot sauce supplier

We bought hot sauce from a man at the farmer’s market yesterday. He and his wife (who is from Peru) are on a quest to create a hot sauce that is as delicious as it is hot and I’m on a quest to consume as much as it as I can. A former enlisted Navy guy, he randomly told us a story about a time in Portugal which was chock full of Franciscan themes. I asked his permission to use it and promised to share his website as a way to thank him for the delightful story. (Click here to order their delicious hot sauce and support his small family business).
He and his friends were glad to hop off the submarine when it arrived in port in Portugal. After months at sea, I can only imagine what a relief it is to breathe fresh air, eat new food and talk to new people. A briefing on the ship had warned them about muggings and that it was unlikely that any mugger who claimed to have a gun would have one since they are very

040822-N-2653P-274 Atlantic Ocean (Aug. 22, 2004) - General Dynamics Electric Boat test engineers rest in modified berthing facilities located in the Torpedo Room aboard PCU Virginia (SSN 774) during Bravo trials. The torpedo room can be reconfigured to meet a variety of operational missions including bunking a special operations team. Virginia is the Navy's only major combatant ready to join the fleet that was designed with the post-Cold War security environment in mind and embodies the war fighting and operational capabilities required to dominate the littorals while maintaining undersea dominance in the open ocean. U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 1st Class James Pinsky (RELEASED)
Atlantic Ocean (Aug. 22, 2004) – General Dynamics Electric Boat test engineers rest in modified berthing facilities located in the Torpedo Room aboard PCU Virginia (SSN 774) during Bravo trials. The torpedo room can be reconfigured to meet a variety of operational missions including bunking a special operations team. Virginia is the Navy’s only major combatant ready to join the fleet that was designed with the post-Cold War security environment in mind and embodies the war fighting and operational capabilities required to dominate the littorals while maintaining undersea dominance in the open ocean. U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 1st Class James Pinsky (RELEASED)

expensive. With this helpful information, they darted out of the vessel to see what Portugal had to offer. That evening, a guy walked up to them and asked if they are Americans. They nodded yes and he, with grand gestures and a loud voice announced that he loved Americans. When they asked why, he cleverly answered, “Because they have money!” and then indicated that since he had a gun in his jacket pocket they really ought to hand over some of their money. Remembering their earlier training, they expressed doubts as to the veracity of his claim. He responded by acquiescing that he did not in fact have a gun but that he did have a hypodermic needle contaminated with a particularly nasty virus. This was not covered in their training on the submarine so they decided to make a deal with him. They asked if he’d like to take a different approach and perhaps do something to work for some money. He affirmed that he was up for this. Together, the crewcut, civilian clad young men who live under the sea struck a deal with the above-ground dwelling man that he would sing a traditional Porttrash 12uguese song, a fado, in exchange for money. So, right there, on the street, he sang to them, they enjoyed themselves, they shared their money with him and afterwards, they shook hands and parted ways with smiles and well wishes.
This story could have come straight out of the life and times of St. Francis of Assisi, except for the part about living under the ocean for a six month stint since in his day it would only have been possible for about 30 seconds at a time. I imagine these young men as I imagine a younger version of my husband, also a former enlisted navy sailor, with cargo pants and a tshirt, happy to be in civilian clothes and out from under the watchful stare of his chiefs on the ship. I love that they diffused the situation and that they dealt with the stress and potential danger of it with creativity and came up with an agreement which created a beautiful moment out of nothing. To passers-by, a local guy was entertaining some tourists but something more powerful was happening in that moment when violence and the threat of robbery turned to singing, smiling and a wonderful story.

St. Francis of Assisi and Robbers

This story can be found in The Life of St. Francis of Assisi by Thomas of Celano, Chapter VII.  St. Francis had his own encounter with robbers right after the very public mutual-disowning with his father in front of everybody in town, he set off to whatever was next for him (spoiler alert: he became a dishwasher at a monastery for a short time). The robbers attacked him and “savagely demanded who he was” to which he responded “I am the herald of the great King!” to which they responded by beating him and tossing him in a snowy ditch. Although they mocked him, Celano tells us that St. Francis, supine in a ditch, sang even louder out of his “joy” and “exhilaration”.

Julie and Robbers

Although I have had many, many things stolen over the years (2 bikes, wallet, etc.) and had thieves break down the door into my Lexington, NC office twice (sadly, they heavily damaged the office but only made off with one Indian rupee which I kept from my trip to Kolkata. I hope the robbers went to a pawn shop with it and left disappointed after finding out it is worth 1.5 cents), I have not had encounter like the ones described here, thank God. I have several questions for you to choose from as you think about the sailor-turned-hot-suace-chef guy’s  story and the story of St. Francis:

Questions for You

1.Have you seen a terrible situation turn into something beautiful?

2.What was it like for the fado singer as he parted ways with the sailors?

3. Have you ever found yourself supine in a ditch (either real or metaphorical) yet filled with joy?

4. What about these stories surprised you?

Serve a Year with an Alternative to Teach for America

New Mexico is a beautiful state. I got to go there in February 2015 to lead a daylong retreat for the teachers. St. Francis school was founded by Franciscans over 100 years ago in the tiny town of Lumberton, New Mexico. There were beautiful blue skies and a layer of snow on the ground when I visited. Most of the teachers are volunteers who give one or two years to the school, receiving in turn housing and a small living stipend. Take a few minutes to learn about Mike’s experience as a volunteer teacher and about Lilly’s too. You just may find yourself googling them so you can find out how you can go there!

I made these two videos for FREE. I love to ask people to consider giving a year of service and this is just one more way I help promote year of service programs.