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Cycles of Life Include Death: Can’t Cancel the Contact

Have you ever witnessed the loud street preacher or self-proclaimed prophet, standing atop a soap box on a busy street corner? Their message could span a wide range, from the spiritual warnings of the future, to past misdeeds of people, to current displeasures with systems or governments. A group of friends and I have recently walked by one such gentleman and his particular message was promoting angry retribution for people who have committed particular crimes. He was telling anyone who would listen, that “these criminals” should be locked up forever and we should throw away the key.

He sits, on the street corner, with anger on his left and hatred on his right.

They sit, invisible on his shoulders, but visible on the t-shirt he wears; the sign he carries.

We sit, in contemplation of his right to be, his right to feel; his right to say.*

While I acknowledge the many layers of pain, trauma and complexity in a situation like this (most likely present in the perpetrator, victim and advocate), I also don’t want to forget what happens when we label someone a criminal. That generalization of classifying them forever, for the worst thing they have done in a moment in time,** is overlooking our humanity and God’s power of redemption. 

As ministries have navigated this covid season, trying to keep connections and relationships going, an example of that challenge has certainly been in prison ministry. At times the prisons have been locked down, excluding friends, family, volunteers and prison chaplains. Reintegration groups in the community have managed to stay connected to some degree, depending on local restrictions, but there too, halfway houses have had tighter restrictions because they are in the high density communal living category. So it has been an on again off again, sometimes in person, sometimes online, rollercoaster. 

When it was possible to gather outdoors, one of our reintegration groups would meet at a large open area park to social distance and share time together. On one occasion, word came that a close friend (I’ll call him Paul for privacy reasons) had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. He and his best friend were lifers who had served out their sentences, were holding down jobs and were part of this group to encourage others that life could go on… but for Paul, it suddenly did not. He was the first guy I ever went to support during his parole hearing and I remember the look on his face and the energy in his body as the parole board granted him full parole. 

He stands for a perceived injustice, which burns from within; not fully understood.

They stand patiently for a moment, pausing to listen to his pleas and platitudes; but then pass by.

We stand with each other to hear about the pain, to wonder about the loneliness; to consider the ways our paths cross.

It was a shock to us all and because of covid; his family was unable to hold a traditional funeral for him. Despite that, there was a community of people who cared for him and his best friend who wanted to honor him, so they planned a beautiful memorial to mark his passing. We all got to be a part of that in one of our park gatherings and I was moved by the presence of the people and spirit of compassion and love that showed up that day. It was a memorial service I will never forget. In my time interacting with people who have committed offences and in the relationships I have formed thus far, it seems to me the act of just being with, has deepened my views of seeing each other as normal human beings. 

And I haven’t been able to bring myself to delete Paul’s contact information on my phone. He is gone, but not forgotten.

As we round the block and see our street preacher again, I don’t want to cancel him either but I do consider more deeply what might be going on in his spirit too? Mark Charles talks about three forms of trauma: PTSD, historical trauma and PITS (perpetration induced trauma).*** Our reintegration chaplain has since had conversations with our friend on the corner and is convinced he is probably suffering from at least one or more of these kinds of trauma. So we will continue to ask curious questions, continue to extend olive branches of connection and continue to hold each other in relationships to the best of our broken human abilities. 

He strolls back to his empty dwelling and puts his sign back in the closet, his t-shirt into the laundry.

They stumble into dormancy for an unknown time, waiting to be heard; dealt with or boiled to the surface again.

We stride on focusing forward, searching for ways to find justice, healing and peace; for us all. 

  We have work to do, to expand our empathetic horizons, to challenge preconceived notions and to not fall into societies entrenched stereotypes. We need to advocate for shifts in the correctional system, away from perpetual violence and punishment that causes more trauma, towards primary prevention and restorative justice. People in our faith communities have much to offer to people who have been convicted of crimes, and people coming out of prisons have much to offer to the rest of society; with the right healing and supports. The guys that I have met want most of the same things I do, to know they are created with purpose, that their life can have meaning and that they are good enough to be connected in community with others.  

In some time and place.

In some way.


*Poem Postures of Pain – by Jesse Edgington

**Rethinking Incarceration – Dominique Gilliard

*** Unsettling Truths – Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah

Photo provided by the author.  

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