Wednesday, September 2, 2009

When did you we see you in prison and visit you?

Matthew 25:31-40

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.

Then the righteous will answer him and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?'
And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.'

Lauretta got me started doing prison ministry when I was going to Pullman Memorial Universalist Church in Albion, NY.

Since we both have left that church I have continued visiting and writing the prisoner whom I had been visiting and writing to.

Now I like to think I am doing this as part of the Brockport Unitarian Universalist Prison Ministry.

The United States incarcerates more offenders per capita that any nation in the world. It is getting so expensive that states like California and New York are having to discharge prisoners because taxpayers can no longer afford to house them. It costs about $35,000 a year to keep a person in prison. They could have been sent to an Ivy League Private College for that.

Of course the prison industry employs working class people in rural communities and keeps politicians in office for "bringing home the bacon".

I was observing the guards during my visit today. They are mostly middle aged white guys watching younger black and Hispanic guys. It's like the old plantation days when the whites supervised and economically benefited from the servitude of the blacks.

The prisoner I visit is a white guy in his early 30s who is clearly the minority in this prison doing 6 years for a crime of sexual assault, his first offense, and when he is released he will be a registered second level sex offender and will be heavily stigmatized as a threat to his community which he is not.

Our criminal justice system in the United States is seriously dysfunctional and extremely expensive and benefits primarily the middle class who provide the attorneys, judges, parole officers, correction officers, etc who job it is to "work the system" of mostly poor nonviolent people who society has significantly marginalized to begin with and then when they transgress incarcerate them.

There are a number of moral and ethical issues raised by the way we operate our criminal justice system in the United States. One of the values of Unitarian Universalism is "justice, equity, and compassion" in human relations. I don't see much of this in our criminal justice system which is primarily adversarial and retributive.

There are better ways of doing criminal justice such as restorative justice.

I have questioned myself many times on why I have responded albeit reluctantly to Lauretta's request to visit a fellow UU in prison. I have no clear answer other than I feel deep down in my heart that I owe it to him and if I can help as one UU to another I am willing to do what I can.

I go to see the prisoner once per month and write him a couple times a month and send him books and articles and food periodically.

I do it on our behalf, on the behalf of us Unitarian Universalists. I want to feel I am representing and living out a faith that cares about human dignity, and justice, and is willing to facilitate human potential.

I can say, Well, Lord, I went once per month and the last time was August 28, 2009. I will go again in September. Okay?

And I can hear the King say to me, "David, you've been a real idiot, and made plenty of lousy mistakes in your life, but hey, I mean, did you visit some prisoners so I guess you're not as big a doofus as you think you are."

Being a Unitarian Universalist, a real one, not just one in name only, requires the practice of corporal works of mercy, you feeling me?

I would love to hear what you do to live out your Unitarian Universalist faith. I would like you to brag about what you do to contribute to more justice, equity, and compassion in the world. Leave us a comment.


  1. I'm posting anonymous but not because I'm ashamed of my story.

    First of all, thank you for this post. I spend 14 hours in jail recently. I refused to submit to a breath test, even though I had one beer, 3 hours prior to being pulled over. It was still on my breath, woops. I pled the 5th, feeling it was my right. Anyhow, I was aggressively pulled out of my vehicle, arrested, processed and put into a red one piece jumper. I complained about having flu symptoms that night but the prison guards told me to "shut up". They were horrible to me. I had never been in jail before. The county prison was across the street, employing the same guards with the same attitudes to everyone. I'm a husband, and a father. I consider myself to be a good person. But manners were not going to help me that night.

    While I was in there I met a man who tried to kill himself before being arrested. He spend the whole week there. Shouldn't he have been in a hospital, I thought?

    Unlike a lot of poorer one time offenders I met that night, I was fortunate because my wife bailed me out in time. If I hadn't I would've seen the judge that morning meaning I wouldn't have been aloud to leave the state. I was on vacation.

    4 thousand dollars later, my lawyer told me that he's confident they will drop the whole thing.

  2. Prisons are awful places in general, though. I've visited my brothers in them many times. What can really help improve things is to donate books or get them donated. Usually I've had to go through the chaplain.

    Some prisons will accept donations from used book stores, some require that the books be new. Obviously, I've had an easier time of it when I can just go to used book stores and ask for donations. Even if the used bookstores don't want to give you much out of their stock, they get a continual parade of people trying to sell books and these people usually have some books the store can't take. Often people are happy to donate what they can't sell.

    I really like doing book drives for prisons because I very much believe in reading and in learning life lessons through literature. IMHO, charity work goes best when you find something that relates to other things in your life that you care about.

    My YRUUs do a work trip to El Salvador every year and come back with lots of ideas for helping out the folks there. This year, we're doing a bunch of stuff to send a girl from the village where my youth stayed to medical school, for example.


    Ps. From what I've read, my take is always ask for the blood test if you know you're innocent. Breathalyzers can be thrown off by weird stuff like dental work, burping and mouth sores.

  3. Living our faith is so important. Thanks to your friend Lauretta you are experiencing the commitment that is needed to be involved in something.
    For myself a commitment to caring for 'human rights' and 'mother earth' are very important. I belong and follow many groups who share the same passion.

  4. "I would like you to brag about what you do to contribute to more justice, equity, and compassion in the world."

    I expect that I would be yet again accused of being a narcissist if I did. ;-)

    Thanks for your own virtual visiting of me while I am in "prison", even if that "prison" is all of the world outside of the property of the Unitarian Church of Montreal. :-)

    For the record I spent a few hours in a jail cell in a Montreal police station as a result of one of my arrests on bogus criminal charges brought against me by Montreal Unitarians. I happily accepted this short term incarceration as a learning experience and the Montreal police treated me with a lot more respect for my inherent worth and dignity as a person than a lot of Montreal Unitarians and other U*Us do. That is the one and only time that I have ever been in jail so far. . . As I was leaving the police officer who had taken charge of my personal property while I was incarcerated handed everything back to me, wallet, keys, shoelaces and picket signs. When another officer saw the picket signs being handed back to me he questioned this and the officer in charge replied -

    "C'est un gentilhomme."

    "He's a gentleman."

    Made my day. :-)

  5. Oooh... This is a good story. At my church we have a partner congregation in Transylvania. We send them the normal aid that one sends a partner church, but there was a fundraising drive several years ago to get them a tractor, tools to fix said tractor and a manual of instructions on doing so. I appreciated it in a "teach me to fish and I will eat for a lifetime" sort of way. We sponsor English classes there too, and one year I paid for a month of them myself and gave the resulting certificate to theCSO as part of his Christmas present.

    Giving to others is such a critical part of UUism for me because we always have the temptation to get caught up in ourselves and our personal struggles and doing this kind of work is such a great reminder that it isn't all about you.

    I actually changed churches a few years ago because I wanted to find one that had a greater commitment to feeding the homeless, cleaning up streams and just getting out there and making the world better. I found one. :)


  6. Thank you all for the wonderful comments. Chalicechick, I like your idea of donating books, and your partnering with a church in Transylvania. I wonder if BUUF should look for a church to partner with even though we haven't established one ourselves yet?

    Robin, your story is precious. "C'est un gentilhomme." I have always found you to be one, and a scholar as well. Here in the States a great compliment is to say, "You are a gentleman and a scholar."

    All the best,

    David Markham

  7. If every church I've been a member have hasn't had a partner church a lot of them have.

    Here's the program's page on how to help out, I'm not sure if you have to be a congregation or not but I'm sure they would answer if you asked:

    I know LinguistFriend's old church in California would run emergency earthquake shelters during earthquakes. Even though I see doing community service as a way to remind yourself that the world doesn't revolve around you and your problems, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that he met a very nice girlfriend working in those earthquake shelters.


  8. One more thought: my church has an "action week" where there are dozens of opportunities to do charitable work for a few hours at a stretch throughout one week a year.

    It gives people who have never organized canned food at a food bank, put together first aid kits for migrant workers, or fixed up an inner-city vegetable garden a chance to do a little bit of good while seeing if they find the activity rewarding and enjoy it. A lot of the organizations we've done work for have found regular volunteers through this little taste of charitable work.

    Y'all might want to try something like that since it isn't a regular commitment for the entire church, so it would make starting out a little easier.

  9. Thanks for the compliment David. I am indeed a gentleman *most* of them time but can be somewhat "less than gentlemanly" when someone else is "less than gentlemanly" with me. . . I am definitely something of a scholar and I am right in the middle of being quite scholarly today.

    Best Regards,

    Robin Edgar

  10. Among many things the congregation to which I belong does is split its weekly loose collection with a designated local organization doing community work. The recipient changes from month to month.