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?

Night at the Overflow Shelter

My name is Julie and I worked in a homeless shelter back in 1998-9trash 19. That’s where I was assigned when I signed up to give a year of service with Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Since then, I’ve spent about 10 nights at homeless shelters, on overnight volunteer shifts. Most recently, I stayed overnight at one of Winston Salem’s Overflow Shelters which is set up at a church as emergency housing to keep guys from freezing to death during these cold months. There’s not enough room for them in the purpose-built shelters, so this solution has emerged.
I’ve only been there twice, but I’m proud to say that I gave some guys something to laugh about both times. In January, I was a new face at supper, plopping myself down with them at a table. Since I’m trying not to weigh 230+ pounds anymore, I ate an apple while they supped. It was about my 10th apple for the week, so I decided to spice things up by shaking some pepper on it. Now, these guys had just spent ten minutes telling me they’ve seen crazy stuff on the street, wilder stuff that could be imagined, details that I could not handle hearing, but that I should trust them, they’ve seen some crazy stuff. I have no doubt about that. At the same time, when they saw me put pepper on my apple, they completely freaked out, saying they’d never seen anything so crazy. They asked how I could eat that. I’m proud of that moment, I really am. I shocked them, which isn’t easy. Then, the other night, we sat around the table discussing the types of food they’d love to see served one night. This is when I thought I’d be clever and use a fanciful word which I thought meant one thing. They looked at me, mouths agape, and said they could not believe their ears. Apparently, the word I said has a completely different connotation. No need to go into specifics here, but I’m proud to say that, even though I looked like the fool, I did give them a hearty laugh after a cold day spent outside. They laughed and laughed and laughed at me for that one.
20 Mattresses
For three hours in the middle of the night, it was my job to stay awake. There is a man who is paid to stay awake overnight, but he didn’t seem too interested in chatting the night away, so I left him alone and arranged myself in a folding chair with a pillow, blanket and smart phone for entertainment. When I took breaks from yahoo news, I looked out at this sea of 20 mattresses on the floor, thinking about the men on them. If all was right with the world, these men would be in their own homes, with loving wives and dutiful children. They’d have enough money to provide for several other people and wouldn’t have to worry about just trying to survive. I love and care for my husband and want to do whatever I can to make his life easier for him. I was sad that, at least at this point in their lives, these men did not have someone to share such warmth with.

All Day
The lights were turned on around 5:30 and the guys were out the door by 6:30. There are no showers there and this is where these guys sleep every night for months, so, do the math. After they left, I sat in my car waiting for the defroster and wipers to clear the windshield, thinking about our divergent paths. From the Overflow Shelter, these guys were heading out for a long day outdoors in the cold. One mentioned that he’s ride buses all day, while another said he’d hang out at the bus station. They really didn’t have many options. Since the downtown library closed for renovations, they lost access to the couches, books, magazines, newspapers and restrooms that helped them get through the day. Meanwhile, I would be heading to my cozy bed for a few hours, eat plenty of food, stay plenty warm and spend time at a friend’s house before returning to my kindly husband in Charlotte.
trash 1Outro
I’m glad things worked out for me to spend the night at the Overflow Shelter this week. I think about St. Francis of Assisi all day, I write about him and I read about him. He’s still an elusive figure to me as I try to read what he had to say by his words and his life. For me, wanting to spend the night at the Shelter is directly related to my wanting to understand Francis better. It is said that he followed Jesus more perfectly than anyone before or since. If he’d spent the night volunteering at the shelter, Francis would actually hang out on the bus, riding around all day, sharing stories and having great laughs with these guys, some of whom are very funny with their witty observations of the world around them. I, on the other hand, just hopped in my car and headed home after the night. Anyhow, I look forward to spending at least one more night there before it closes up for the season and I hope to find in Charlotte, some funny guys to sup with and I hope to make them laugh, even if it’s because I say something dumb.

Here’s a Video I made after my January Stay

What did Francis of Assisi look like, pray tell

Here’s my point: you may have a dozen excuses in your back pocket, ready to pull them out at any invitation or before accepting any compliment. You may like to say that you are not x enough or not y enough or you don’t have enough z in you to do something. I want to assure you that Francis said “yes” to God over and over again, despite having a patchy beard, small feet and non-milky eyes.  You can say “yes” too, no matter how big your head or feet are.

Here is a detailed description of St. Francis’ physical appearance, provided to us by Thomas of Celano, his first biographer. I’ve yet to find a painting which depicts this precisely and would love to see an artist take a crack at it.Image

Overall appearance: cheerful

Face: kind, not lazy, not arrogant

Height: Medium-Short

Head: Medium sized and round

Forehead: neither large nor rough

Eyes: not to big, not too small. not milky. black.

Eyebrows: straight

Hair: dark

Nose: neither uneven  nor wide

Ears: neither large nor sagging.

Temples: Smooth

Beard: Patchy

Teeth: White and even

Lips: neither fat nor large

Neck: slender

Fingers: long

Nails: tapered (was not a nail biter)

Legs: thin

Feets: small

Skin: fine

Fat? no