Book Review: White Like Me by Tim Wise

White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son by Tim Wise 2005 Soft Skull Press
Book Review by Steve Clemens. June 2006

Have you ever read a book on racism and not felt guilty as a white person? I just have and I’m extremely glad that Tim Wise has shared his own stories with us.

Maybe it is the context in which I’ve read his book: the federal prison system of the USA. Interestingly enough, the only exception allowed in the 13th Amendment to the abolition of slavery is the penal system. In this “slave state” where I’m presently incarcerated, there also exists the proverbial “house nigger” and “field nigger” dichotomy. Even though we are all slaves (they pay us 12 cents/hour for our jobs here) there still is clearly a continuing of white privilege over the people of color within this American gulag.

By using his own personal stories, this 36 year old antiracist activist describes racism as a “dangerous pathogen” or a “pestilence ravaging my people.” Most books I’ve read have described how racism affects people of color in our society; Wise lets the reader understand how white privilege and racism negatively impacts the white community.

This is written by a white male for his own “race.” Even though he has much more exposure and participation in his upbringing with communities of color, even though some of his relatives were extremely progressive, Wise discloses new blind spots and subconscious areas where society’s racism has infected him. The confessional style of his writing doesn’t engender guilt which can paralyze us-rather I felt a sadness and anger at what this society has done to me-along with a challenge to seek our own redemption by joining the struggle.

By revealing his own blind spot while working to end apartheid in South Africa, Wise shares his criticism of white, middle class liberals and progressives who “treat social justice as if it were some kind of salad bar or cafeteria line, when in fact it is life-or-death serious.” We can’t ignore racism claiming we are just focusing our activism on a specific peace or justice concern. The story of his grandmother’s Alzheimer’s and how it revealed the scurrilous depth of racism within a woman who modeled anti-racism for Wise is incredibly moving.

Pax Christi USA has decided to take seriously working to end the scourge of racism in America. This book is must reading for whites in the peace community. I’m planning on buying a copy for each of my sons for Father’s Day-as a gift to myself to make this a better world.

Remarks at the Open Door Community's 25th Anniversary

Clarence Jordan, Koinonia, and The Open Door Community
Remarks by Steve Clemens, July 16, 2006 at 25th Anniversary of Open Door

Clarence’s Biography
Clarence Jordan was born in 1912 into a fairly-prominent, well-to-do, white Southern family in Talbotton, GA. His brother went on to serve on the Supreme Court of Georgia and his nephew, Hamilton Jordan served as Chief of Staff for President Carter.  So Clarence came from this good Georgia stock and somehow something changed in him. In The Cotton Patch Evidence, which is a biography of both the Koinonia Community and of Clarence, Dallas Lee talks about an experience Clarence had when he was twelve. He recalled singing “Love Lifted Me” at the local Baptist Church on Sunday and when he went home at night, his house was only a block or so away from the county jail. And he heard the screams at night coming from the man pulled on “the stretcher”, a rack with a pulley and a chain, stretching the man out who was then beaten,  knowing that the Warden, the man beating the prisoner (who was most likely a black man), was a member of the choir at that Baptist Church. The dissonance between the song and the subsequent actions made a mark on the conscience of that young boy.

At age 17, Clarence enrolled in the Agriculture school at the University of Georgia. Like fellow members of the white, male, ruling class, Jordan signed up to become an officer in the ROTC unit – that’s the heritage of the old Confederacy. Just before graduating with an officer’s commission in the cavalry, while practicing shooting and stabbing at cardboard and straw dummies from his horse, Clarence realized he couldn’t keep doing this because he recalled from his Sunday School heritage the words of Jesus to love one’s enemies and that dissonance between the two caused him to resign his commission. His interest in following the call of Jesus led to a call to seminary and after graduation he enrolled in the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, KY. While there, he started doing work in the African-American community and churches in Louisville and fell in love and married Florence Krueger, a local librarian. He and Florence had four children, Jan, Jim, Eleanor, and Lenny.

Clarence also fell in love with the Greek, koine Greek, the everyday language in which most of the New Testament was written, “street Greek”. So when he was teaching or preaching, Clarence carried his Greek New Testament and he’d just translate it on the spot. He stayed on to earn his doctorate in that language, studying it to more fully understands the message of Jesus and the early group of disciples and believers. But he didn’t remain a scholar in that ivory tower because, while at seminary, he had to do some practicum assignments and he ended up working in African-American churches and started meeting people and saw their needs and had his heart changed. In 1942, during WWII, he met Martin and Mabel England, American Baptist missionaries to Burma who had returned to the U.S. because of the war. Clarence and Martin shared ideas and wondered aloud what it might be like to live in a way that replicated the life of the early church to see if it could be done – committed to nonviolence, economic sharing, and racial reconciliation. They were excited about the Sermon on the Mount. They said we gotta try this out – to see if we could live like the early church did.  After looking for a potential site to practice their ideals, they purchased a rundown farm in Sumter County in southwest Georgia, about 2 ½ hours south of Atlanta at today’s driving speeds. They purchased it “on faith”. Joyce Hollyday’s Clarence Jordan: Essential Writings contains Clarence’s re-telling:
            When we started that thing, we were supposed to pay the fellow twenty-five hundred dollars down. And Martin England, who was a missionary under the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society to Burma – he and I agreed on the common purse – we were going to pool everything – and I had the idea Martin was loaded. I don’t know why I should think that – [he] being an American Baptist missionary. But he talked “Let’s do this” and “Let’s do that,” and I said, “Yeah, let’s do,” and I thought he had the money.
            So when we finally pooled our common assets, we had fifty-seven dollars and thirteen cents – and both of us had resigned our jobs. But on the first day of November 1942, right on the button, we walked in that real estate office and put down that twenty-five hundred dollars. A fellow brought it to us, said the Lord had sent him with it. I didn’t question him, where he’d been talking to the Lord or anything like that. We’d take it right quick, before the Lord changed his mind. (Hollyday, pg. 18-19)

So Clarence and Florence, Martin and Mabel, and their kids moved to Sumter County Georgia. For the first five, six, seven, eight years, Clarence was still the “golden boy” -in demand as a preacher in the local churches. He also played the trumpet. But Clarence could talk and talk but when he “put flesh” on those words, there was a different reaction. One Sunday, in 1950, a man from India was visiting Koinonia so Florence and Clarence took him to church with them. Since the dark-skinned foreigner was a convert to Christianity because of the work of Baptist missionaries, the Jordans didn’t even think it would raise any issues with the members at Rehoboth Baptist Church, just up the road from the farm community. But the people at Rehoboth said, “We don’t allow ‘colored people’ to worship with us. The church felt the Koinonians were trying to “integrate” their fellowship and voted the next week to expel Clarence and Florence from that Baptist church. Tensions kept rising and the reason why they were kicked out of the church was not just because they brought a man of color into worship, it is because the word started getting around –“hey this guy not only talks this Christianity stuff but they’re eatin’ together at Koinonia. These black and white folk are eatin’ together and workin’ together. And that was the radical thing.” Clarence could talk all he wanted to about racial reconciliation –that didn’t matter- but when they started eatin’ together – that was the issue. And that was the crux of getting kicked out of the church

In 1956, Clarence “sponsored” two black students to attend a business college in Atlanta. When the newspaper carried the story that this white man from outside Americus was trying to “integrate” the University system, “all hell broke loose”. A grand jury was impaneled to try to close Kamp Koinonia that the community ran in the summer with black and white children participating together. The County Commissioners claimed the camp had health code violations. (From their perspective, it wasn’t “healthy” for blacks and whites to be together.)  The GA Bureau of Investigation (GBI) was asked to investigate these “race mixers” and see what “illegal” activities they might be charged with. The Klu Klux Klan held a rally and a long line of cars drove out to Koinonia to intimidate and get the Koinonians to move. Finally, they tried to disrupt the community economically.  The local produce stand run by the community was dynamited. An economic boycott was declared and Koinonians could not buy or sell anything in the entire county. Members had to travel 45 miles to Albany to purchase parts for the tractor, groceries and gas. They couldn’t purchase seed. The chickens who provided eggs to sell for community income had to be slaughtered because they couldn’t sell the eggs. And ultimately the economic boycott got to a point where they also threatened anyone who would consider selling anything to them so when one of the businesses in town talked about selling some feed to Clarence and the community, that business was dynamited as well.  People supportive of the work of the community came from all over to try to help out because the community was under seige. There were bullets flying at night. Clarence, because he was speaking around the country wrote to friends saying “help us out”. There were stories about the violence directed at the community in Life, Time, and the Saturday Evening Post. Some sent money as support. Others came. Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement took her turn on “night watch” duty during Holy Week in 1957 and had a flashlight shot out of her hands. Fortunately she wasn’t killed or injured but she was frightened by the experience. When asked if she wanted a coat or a blanket because she was shaking, she replied, “that ain’t cold – that’s scared!” Shots were fired into many of the community buildings. And that was the reality Koinonia faced late in the fifties and into the early sixties. Community members were called “communists, nigger –lovers, …”  I’d encourage you to get copies of what Clarence wrote or listen to some of the tape recordings made by him during this time to hear some of these powerful stories.

Finally, the community started a mail-order business in order to survive economically because it would be protected by federal agents (post office) rather than the local “law-enforcement” people who were in collusion with the Klan. The motto for this mail-order business of selling fruitcake, pecans, and peanut products was “Help us ship the nuts out of Georgia!” Insurance companies dropped their coverage – even Lloyds of London would cover Koinonia - so Koinonia turned to the wider community asking people to pledge money, $25, $50,  as a form of “common insurance” in the event of a need arising due to the boycott and violence. Out of that also came the idea which became the idea for a “Fund for Humanity” which I’ll get to in a minute.

After the physical violence died down by ’63, people started to leave. By 1968, only the Wittkamper family and the Jordans remained. Clarence died in 1969 just as the first house under the new housing ministry was being completed. He was working on his Cotton Patch translation of the book of John when he slumped over from a heart attack. He was 57.
Clarence’s Theology and Ideas
There are several words or phrases that Clarence Jordan used that help summarize his theology. The word Koinonia is a term used in the Greek New Testament which described the early church and has been defined as “fellowship”, “community”, and refers to the practice of “holding all things in common”. So when the Jordans and the Englands wanted to begin their “experiment” they thought this term could help capture what defined the early church – that passion of holding all things in common, of loving one another, of being in fellowship with one another, and being on fire with the Holy Spirit.

As a student of agriculture, Clarence often used the term “demonstration plot” where farmers use test acreage to show the efficacy of various brands of seed, fertilizer, or farming techniques. So, you’d set up a demonstration plot and plant five rows of corn with one seed or fertilizer and then plant another five next to it with the competing brand, and so on. Clarence said what we need is a demonstration plot of God’s Kingdom. We need to see if it is going to work out. We need to try it. We need to live it. So that’s what Koinonia was to be: a demonstration plot – a visible manifestation of what the Kingdom of God, the Reign of God, might look like.

When translating the New Testament directly from the Greek while preaching, Clarence said that the word metanoia, used to describe the early part of John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ ministries as “repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” is a terrible translation because metanoia is not about “feeling sorry for getting caught doing wrong” but is much closer to the English word metamorphosis. A caterpillar doesn’t get sorry because he’s about to become butterfly, he’s getting prepared for a new way of life, his day of liberation. Metanoia/metamorphosis is changing so you can get equipped for the new order. “Change your whole way of thinking because the new order of God’s Spirit is impinging upon you!” So, the decision to follow Jesus is not one of getting sorry, being repentant, as much as it is rather getting equipped to be about the loving relationships, the sharing, and the reconciliation that Jesus is a part of.

Clarence talked a lot about faith and there are these wonderful, pithy quotes of his like “fear is the polio of the soul” Jordan often contrasted faith with fear: “Fear is the polio of the soul which keeps us from walking by faith.” “Faith is not a stubborn belief in spite of all evidence but rather a life lived in scorn of the consequences.” He said what faith is is “betting one’s life on the unseen realities”. They are still realities – they’re just not seen – and it is our job to make those realities visible by the way we live our lives.  Clarence used the phrase incarnational theology to remind us that we have to live out our beliefs in our everyday practice. Theology isn’t just an academic exercise but has to inform how we live. He talked about incarnational evangelism in that our lives speak more than our words. We give witness to what we believe by how we live our lives. We speak more with our lives than with our words, “turning our convictions into deeds.”

Clarence reminded us that the New Testament was originally written in a language that the common person could understand. For us to better understand the message of the Gospel, it needs to be translated into our time and culture – thus Clarence’s “Cotton Patch” version. He translated the texts into 20th century Southern vernacular so local folk could relate to the stories and concepts. The New Testament was written in the everyday, common, street Greek and its not all this flowery language – it’s the language the common people would understand – and it was written in a local time and a local place so to translate it into our time and place today, we have to help people understand what the geography was like, what the relationships were like, and so in the Cotton Patch translations you find the story of the Good Samaritan was recast as a white businessman traveling from Ellaville to Albany. Now Clarence’s listeners would know there was one town between those two places – Americus. So when the businessman is robbed and beaten and left for dead on the outskirts of Americus and first a traveling evangelist and then the gospel choir director pass by the victim, the man who stops to help is a local black farmer in an old beat-up pickup truck. He helps bandage the victim and takes him to the hospital. When Jesus asks his listeners “who was the neighbor to that man?” (the “Good Samaritan”), we get, “Ooh, I don’t want to answer that question. It was the nigg … - I mean it was the colored man …” The Good Samaritan in the context of the 1950s and 1960s in the South, and today, is that poor African-American brother, is that man on Death Row, is that homeless person down the street, is that person with mental illness – that’s the Good Samaritan for us today. So that’s what Clarence helps us understand with his Cotton Patch translation.

The virgin birth for Clarence Jordan was less about whether or not Mary was sexually “pure” but the proper emphasis on the story was the idea that her offspring was “sired by God”. Clarence complained that the church too often over-emphasized the deity of Jesus, obscuring the radical concept of the humanity of God. Clarence talks about the ancient church heresy of Gnosticism – of only seeing Jesus as divine and he said the real error of the church is seeing that God has taken on humanity and as Clarence translates it, “The Word became flesh and God parked his mobile home next to ours” adding, yeah, and the black bastard drove down the property values. That’s where the Gospel comes home for Clarence.

When Clarence spoke about the resurrection, he said:
            The good news of the resurrection of Jesus is not that we shall die and go home with him, but that he has risen and comes home with us, bringing all his hungry, naked, thirsty, sick, prisoner brothers [and sisters] with him. … The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church. (The Substance of Faith pg.28-29)
That’s the incarnation.

The Communities of Koinonia
The Koinonia Community was really two separate experiments. From 1942 until 1968, it was known as Koinonia Farm. Koinonia Partners was the name of the community that existed from the dissolution in 1968 until the mid-1990s. The Koinonia Farm community, designed to be a demonstration plot, had a strict policy of personal divestiture before joining. You had to give your money away – it couldn’t be given to the community. Clarence remarked that if you gave it to the community, you would either want to have a greater say in how things were run or the community would be tempted to sit around and “talk about theology all day” rather than working. “Give it away and then come join us.” Community aspects included shared meals and shared work. The common purse was the vehicle for economic sharing – you didn’t have your own possessions, you shared economically. There was an expectation of a commitment to gospel nonviolence based on Jesus’ dictum to “love your enemies.” And the term that Clarence used before many of us were educated in the late 60s by our sisters to use inclusive language, Clarence talked a lot about “brotherhood” and what he meant by that was that equality of all of us but being in relationship with each other, and for Clarence, especially that meant in the South healing that racial divide.

Although the original expression of the community in 1942 expected a life-long commitment – you were in it for the long haul- by 1968, only two families remained. So obviously, with a lifetime commitment, something changed but that was the original intent. Numerous conscientious objectors to the Korean War came because it was a safe haven for people who refused to fight or the draft could receive a respite and hospitality. People supportive of the witness for racial reconciliation during the turbulent 50s and 60s came and went. By 1968, with only two families left, Clarence asked what should we do. Clarence deemed the demonstration plot of this community a failure. Clarence had given up on community being able to happen in that time and that place and he was ready to pack his bags and head to Atlanta to finish his Cotton Patch version and continue the speaking engagements which became a regular endeavor. But, you know, Clarence’s speaking would not have been the same – because the power of Clarence’s speaking was always backed up by that demonstration plot. Even the failure of it could be said “here is a place where we’re trying it out, where we’re trying to live it out, where we’re trying to incarnate it” – you can’t talk about the incarnation if you’re not trying to do it. 

However, the group of friends Clarence called together in 1968 to help discern the future developed the idea of making Koinonia into a service organization which featured “Partnership Industries” as a way to continue to build bridges between whites and blacks in rural Sumter County Georgia. Despite the fact that the reorganization of Koinonia did not anticipate the reforming of an “intentional Christian community”, many of those who came to join this service organization in the early 70s were looking for a change and wanted to experience an alternative lifestyle, to challenge the structures of society, to deepen relationships and had been inspired by the stories of the witness of Koinonia during the late 50s and early 60s. There developed a distinction between “Resident Partners” (those who had moved to Koinonia from elsewhere to be part of this ministry) and “employees” (mostly local black folk who participated in Koinonia activities for wages but did not choose to live in community-owned buildings). Although the original design of Koinonia Partners called for all the workers to be “partners” and share in the decision-making as well as the risks (profits or loss), many of the local residents preferred to have a steady income as wage-earners rather than as “partners” in a risky business venture.

The “Partnership Industries” over the years included farming row crops and fruit and nut trees, a mail-order business with a bakery selling pecan and peanut products, fruitcake, and books and tapes of Clarence’s work, a short-lived sewing industry selling shorts and slacks, a handcrafts and pottery industry, an Early Childhood education program with a pre-school and nursery, and a housing ministry which served as the fore-runner of what became Habitat For Humanity.

The organization was designed as a hierarchical structure with a “Director” appointed by the Board of Directors and s/he made decisions affecting the industries and also decided who could stay and do what jobs. As more people arrived who were interested in “community”, this old structure needed changing. Under the leadership of Don Mosley, the Director position evolved into a “Coordinator of Activities” for business and economic decisions, a Residency Committee for determining who could stay, a Fellowship Team responsible for the worship and community life, and a Housing Committee for who lived where-type of decisions. Decentralizing the leadership and helping share the responsibilities became the new model for community.

Expectations for membership as a “Resident Partner” both echoed and differed from the expectations of the previous community venture. Instead of a life-long commitment, prospective partners would commit to remaining “into the indefinite future” (with no plans to leave within 2-3 years). It was recognized that God might “call” people elsewhere so even though departure of fellow Resident Partners was somewhat akin to divorce, it was recognized that a lifetime commitment was not realistic for this community. Instead of total financial divestiture, partners were expected to live off the resources of the community while you were there, not owning their own cars or houses. Although no Social Security-type wages would accrue to them as Resident Partners, those who came with pensions or retirement savings were not instructed to give them up. It was assumed that the community would endeavor to meet your financial and medical needs out of its “common purse”.

Besides a clear expectation that all prospective Resident Partners were committed to a general understanding of Christian discipleship, taking the life and teaching of Jesus seriously, the membership covenant also included five additional commitments:
  • Nonviolence – Jesus’ call to love one’s enemies was seen as a central aspect of the Gospel.
  • Economic Sharing – the common purse (as modified above) was also a central value.
  • Racial Reconciliation – partners made a commitment to work on building bridges over the racial divide. Eating the common noontime meal together was an important public demonstration of this.
  • Simple Living – later modified to be identified as “compassionate living” meant a desire and action to consume fewer of the world’s resources while living in relationship to others with less abundance. Instead of striving for “purity” (eating only organically, vegetarian, biking instead of driving, …), compassionate living also takes into consideration relationship building in the process.
  • Service to others – although some communities are designed for self-help, contemplative or monastic orders, or other purposes, Koinonians were pledged to be engaged in service to others as a primary expression of their Christian commitment.

However, by the early 90s the community struggled with its identity. The original goal of the partnership industries was never realized as most of the people of color expressed interest in working for wages rather than getting involved in the risks and meetings that joint management would entail. Habitat for Humanity became a viable reality thus lessening the uniqueness and need for Koinonia’s housing ministry. The state of GA began to offer public kindergarten programs, making a valuable part of the KCDC (Koinonia Child Development Center) less necessary. The pottery had fallen into disuse after the primary potter left. It became more difficult to inspire new community members to get excited about marketing fruitcake and candy as part of the push for more mail order sales prior to Christmas and the dissonance between running a fall-oriented business and preparing for the advent of a radically socially-justice-oriented Messiah continued to cause tensions between “ministry” and “business” or self-sustaining endeavors. Koinonia always had great difficulty in attracting people of color to join the Resident Partnership so when the Board tried to address this failure in 1993 by ending the common purse and made all those working for Koinonia “partners”, within a few years the community had completely disappeared.

I don’t wish to end on such a negative note because despite, once again, the ideal of community ending in “failure”, the experience of participating in Intentional Christian Community at Koinonia was, for me, a time of deep spiritual formation, challenge, and inspiration for which I will be eternally grateful. One only needs to look at the level of violence and hostility directed toward them to realize how radical Clarence Jordan and the Koinonia Communities were. So I’d like to conclude with a reiteration of Clarence’s key ideas followed by my own “lessons learned” from my sixteen years in community.

Key to understanding Clarence Jordan and the Koinonia movement was taking Jesus seriously. There are four things that I wish to lift up as essential to Clarence’s ideas. Community, economic sharing, love of enemies, and, to steal Bonhoeffer’s term, the cost of discipleship.

Clarence said we have to demonstrate reconciliation by living in Community, by eating together, by working together, crossing all those lines that divide us: racial/gender/educational/generational. Whatever lines are set up, we need to cross them. We need to be reconciled and we need to demonstrate that reconciliation by eating together and working together, worshipping together. Economic sharing: for Clarence, materialism is one of the greatest sins of the American culture. By imitating the common purse of the early Christian movement, Clarence called for a radical disjuncture with the individualistic capitalistic ethic. Setting up the Fund For Humanity, setting up alternative structures, no-interest loans. Clarence even had a “cow-lending “library” where if your cow went dry, you borrowed another cow and you swap them out.  Also, peacemaking, love of one’s enemies: Peacemaking is essential to the character of God so it must be a characteristic of God’s people. It is a critical component of discipleship – especially in a nation which threatens the entire creation with its militarism and “the bomb”. Koinonia’s main contribution in the arena of nonviolence was in response to the attacks and constant threats it faced in the late 50s and early 60s. In the post-boycott era, when there was less physical hostility – there was still psychic hostility – it was some of Clarence’s disciples, especially Ladon Sheats and others took this discipleship commitment to nonviolence to a new level – nonviolent resistance to war and the arms race. Ladon helped mentor me and helped mentor many of us in this area.

I don’t think Clarence was ever thrown in jail for “protesting” (although he may have been jailed briefly while being harassed by the local “law enforcement” [sic] officials – he never deliberately went to jail like Dr. King did in protest - BUT he certainly inspired a lot of others to take those risks. In one of his sermons on “The Mind of Christ in the Racial Conflict”, Clarence questioned the process most churches use in selecting a pastor.
            Actually, we’re looking more for an octopus from the seminary than we are a prophet from God. I think we ought to begin to investigate not so much how many years [one} has spent in the seminary diddling around on a doctoral thesis, but how many years s/he’s spent in jail, because somehow or other a [person] is better able to get up a sermon in a cell than in a church study. (Substance of Faith pg. 111)

And, taking a page from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Clarence always stressed the cost of discipleship. Following Jesus will cost you everything, but in the process, you gain a whole new “family”. Yes, you will get phone calls at 2AM threatening your life, getting threats, you will be visited and questioned by the FBI. Actually, in my case, it was usually Christine who answered the phone at 2 or 3 AM when I received death threats prior to blocking the nuclear train in 1985 when it came through Montezuma, GA. When we took the full-scale model of the electric chair to the Courthouse lawn in Americus every time the State of Georgia scheduled an execution, we would get phone calls at night or people would drive by and yell at you or spit at you. When the FBI came to inquire about why I refused to cooperate for the renewed military draft registration, I politely refused to answer their questions in front of the Koinonia volunteers working with me in the fall of 1982. In Clarence’s time he said if you haven’t been called a communist, you aren’t worth your salt. And so Clarence would say to us today, if you haven’t been called a terrorist, if you haven’t been called a bum, if you haven’t been called an agitator, you probably ain’t worth your salt.

In the community in Minneapolis where I live now, where we have turn-over, you always end up “reinventing the wheel”. We now recognize that people will always “come and go” so we’ve developed what we call a “turn-over file” so the next person who does this job or task has notes to follow how it was done before. So Neela can create such a file for Anniversary celebrations at Open Door so when you celebrate your 30th or 50th Anniversaries, you can see what Neela did to organize this weekend. Well, here is my “turn-over file” for my years at Koinonia – my “lessons learned” that I’ll pass on for what its worth. Not in any particular order, just some thoughts that came to me about my sixteen years in the south Georgia “commune”.

Community is the best way to end the schizophrenia in many of our lives – we have to learn to work and worship with the same group of people – and that’s the key to community is when you worship with the same group of people you work with, you build that bond. Lessons learned (in no particular order- these are the thoughts that came to me this morning): 
  1. Leadership in community must be named, recognized, and held accountable. Every group will have leaders but those who aren’t named and recognized can’t be held accountable.
  2. One must deal with the issue of “leaving community”. In our mobile culture, people come and go but in intentional community this is a hard reality which causes feelings of betrayal, abandonment, failure. And the longer one stays before leaving makes it feel something akin to divorce. When Christine and I left Koinonia – she after 20 years and me after 16 years – we we’re ready for the grieving process that we underwent and that the remaining community underwent. Clarence said it is a demonstration plot. Gandhi said it’s an “experiment with truth”. We have to give ourselves to these experiments and sometimes we are going to fail. Let’s confess it and move on. A community must learn to creatively deal with these transitions. Ritual might be helpful in this process just like when members join.
  3. It is essential to resolve conflict within the community in positive ways instead of avoiding it and hoping it disappears.
  4. The community focus and energy must be kept on the mission or else petty differences will work at your destruction. And that’s one of the bitter lessons for us at Koinonia is when we lost the focus. When Habitat started gaining credibility in the mid-80s and our housing ministry was no longer “cutting edge”. When the state kindergarten program made the KCDC less essential. When we tried to find people to “market” – encouraging people to buy more fruitcake and candy products to sustain us economically, we lost our values. And, in so doing, when you lose your sense of mission, then you focus on discussions over owning pets, how much or little (if any) meat to serve at common meals, whether co-ed use of the sauna is OK, … and those petty differences surface and it will only accentuate your differences rather than draw you together.
  5. Vision and renewal are essential for the long haul. You have to have people calling out that vision, that renewal. That is where the Bible Study, the inspirational teaching, the mentoring, the pastoral help, all is essential for community. Where there is no vision for the future, the community flounders and dies or becomes irrelevant.
  6. Stewardship of common property is difficult in an ownership society. Just because someone has a PhD in an esoteric academic field does not mean one is exempt from checking the oil level on the community-owned car. It’s hard because we are so used to private ownership. When it is common ownership, who takes responsibility for the maintenance, the upkeep? Cleaning the toilets – that’s the common property. 
  7. Intergenerational aspects of community life are both a challenge and a blessing. One of the real blessings of living at Koinonia was being able to raise your kids with alternate grandparents, alternate aunts and uncles, peers – having that inter-generational aspect was such a gift. But, “We tried that - and it didn’t work” coming from a veteran of community (especially a founder) can kill a conversation with newer members. Elders in a community can be a wonderful blessing but can also be a drag on new endeavors.
  8. Be open to change and growth. Gandhi called his life “experiments with Truth”. Beware of complacency and living on the laurels of the community’s past (now mythological) history. Remember, if you are faithful to the Gospel, you will be attacked. The Domination System, the system that runs the powers today, is always threatened by that faithful response to the Gospel. You will be attacked. If all speak well of you, you must not be clear enough about your collective discipleship.

Koinonia gave tangible evidence to the Open Door Community in its founding that intentional Christian community with economic sharing was possible. The Open Door, in exchange, continued to remind Koinonia not to get too comfortable or complacent. I think the relationship between these two communities was one of symbiosis, of giving and receiving. Together, we enabled each other to be more fully representative of the Body of Christ. For that I give thanks to God for you all and celebrate with you your 25 years of struggle and joy.

Letters From Prison 2006 #15- Agony and Ecstasy: Shakedown! And Then Release

Agony and Ecstasy: Shakedown! And Then Release
By Steve Clemens - Federal Prison Camp, Duluth, MN. July 7, 2006

The schedule for day 89 of my 90 day Federal Prison sentence was to go on the “merry-go-round” – the obligatory release program that has you submitting a form to the various department staff to be signed indicating you reported to them before your release the next morning. Included in the release process is turning in your prison “greens” at the laundry and requesting “street clothes” (if you haven’t requested someone on the outside to mail you your own clothes ahead of time).

Budget cuts have changed the BOP. In 1981 when I was released from FPC Texarkana, TX, I was able to pick my set of clothes for “the street” – including suits! - and decent shoes for my release. Twenty-five years later, I’m given a pair of new, very cheap-grade denim jeans at least 6-8” too long, a denim-like shirt with snaps instead of buttons with several noticeable flaws in the front, and a pair of canvas sneakers with no arch support whatsoever. All apparently made by prison labor in China, I suppose.

After procuring all the requisite signatures, I submitted the form to my Case Manager and was then “free” for the rest of the day. So I took advantage of the inmate barber shop and had “Big E” give me a haircut for the price of six first-class stamps, the currency of the inmates in the BOP. After returning to my dorm, I noticed a Corrections Officer (guard or “CO”) standing in the doorway to my room so I just continued walking down the hall as though I was originally headed for the restroom. As I passed by my room, I did what any inmate would do – I looked inside to see what was happening. The Lieutenant (Wilson) had one of my cellie’s (slang for cellmate) mattresses, stripped of its sheets and covers, on the floor. He was prying off the brass caps from the top metal posts of that bunk bed, obviously searching for contraband. After a reasonable time in the bathroom, I returned past the room again and headed out to find the cellie whose mattress was part of the search. When I couldn’t find him at his normal afternoon hangout, I decided to wait out the shakedown of my room in the Activities Center.

I had heard stories around the camp of rooms being tossed by the COs looking for contraband. Less than a month ago, a room in the 209 dorm was completely searched and the scuttlebutt on the compound was that six cell phones, two containers of vodka, and some other contraband was discovered in their lockers and room and the whole room was sent to the SHU (the “hole”) because no one had “confessed” to whom the illegal property belonged. Some inmates complained that it wasn’t fair to lock up one of the cellies who was in his 70’s and regularly attend the chapel “Bible Studies” but others said, “If he wasn’t part of it, why did he let them keep their shit in his locker?” Divide and conquer has always been the strategy of the empire/Domination System.

I had just mentioned to my cellies three days prior that I was about to finish my three months without having been “breathalyzed”, drug-tested, or had my room shaken-down. The COs are given a quota everyday for ten inmates to be given a breathalyzer and on most days several inmates are called over the loudspeaker system to “report to the Captain’s (or Lieutenant’s) Office for a “random” urine analysis drug test.

When I returned to my dorm, several of the dorm mates greeted me “What did they find in there?” “They hauled off a bag of shit from your room, man.” “Nice decorating job you have in your room!” Well, it looked like a tornado had swept through the room. One locker was pulled away from the wall and left in the middle of the room. (The other three lockers are built-in and couldn’t be moved but had obviously been opened.) All the coats and jackets were in a pile on the middle of the floor. All four beds were now stripped of their sheets, blankets, pillows and the bedding was strewn about. One mattress had been ripped open or cut apart along the long edge to “inspect” for contraband. The brass safety caps on the top of the bed were gone. (The other bunk never had those caps which caused a lot of discomfort for me in trying to get in and out of my upper bunk the first month in captivity here.)

One cellie returned soon after me and we commiserated together before starting to clean up the mess and fret over “what’s next?” We remade our beds, replaced the cover shield to the wall radiator, put books and magazines back on the shelf and checked our own lockers. Although all my personal stuff had been taken to R&D earlier in the day to be “inspected” before release, I still had my stash of (illegal) extra pillows (2), and blankets (4) which I use to help alleviate my back pain at night. Although those contraband items had obviously been moved and search, they and my two extra (again, illegal) sheets were left in the room. As the other two cellies arrived prior to the 4PM standing count, we discovered what was taken in the shakedown: a hair/beard trimmer (battery operated) sold at the commissary but without the proper ID name and # etched on it, a home-made “shower caddy”, a “porn” magazine (anything showing a nipple and/or genitalia), some “artwork” which could be designs for potential tattoos, and, the real reason for the search: the cigarettes. Stashed in the pipes of the bunk bed that had the brass caps were both “rollies” (hand rolled cigarettes) and commercial-grade cigarettes. However, what turned this into a major incident was the amount – about 10 more than the threshold amount of 20 which translates this offense into a “100 level shot” with the “advertised” consequence of automatic shipment to a higher security prison, loss of accumulated good time, and loss for one year(!) of commissary, visits, and telephone calls.

But, this being the BOP, anything can happen. Several weeks ago, one of my co-workers on the dish team was caught with 151 cigarettes (!) by “Robocop” (the CO with one of the worst reputations at FPC Duluth). He was “sentenced” to only 50 hours of “extra duty” because he was scheduled to leave for a halfway house within two weeks. His halfway house could have been revoked and he could have been shipped to another prison to finish his 6 months and two weeks but someone must have decided it was too much paperwork involved so Justin left with a smirk on his face – having completed only 3 of the mandated 50 extra hours of work.

However, when contraband of this nature is found not in an inmates locker (like Justin) but rather in the “common area” of the room, the usual tendency is to call all four (or 6) from the offending room to the Lieutenant’s Office to see if someone will “fess up” to the “crime”. If no one cops to the offense, all four (or 6) are sent to the hole (SHU) while an “investigation” is conducted. That way “social pressure” on the “guilty” party can be applied from those in the room who are “not guilty” of this offense. Actually, there is already at least one suspect because the shakedown was almost certainly instigated by a “snitch”. Someone else was caught smoking or in possession of a cigarette and was promised leniency in exchange for snitching on the guy where he “bought” it. Not snitching comes at a great price: I personally met several guys who lost 6 months of commissary, visits, and phones for possessing only 1-3 cigarettes. It’s not a big deal for some who’ve “been down” for 10 years or more and whose family and friends no longer visit or accept phone calls. But for those who still entertain the hope that spouses, girlfriends, or others might hang on with you … And so the shakedown is initiated once the Judas-deed is completed.

It is no “accident” that our room was the target of the search. They knew where to look and what to look for. All the other items taken were peripheral to their main mission. (Ironically, I’ve seen the Lieutenant smoking on the compound at least 3-4 times in the past month or so!) So, does one of us “own up to it” or do we all face the wrath of the BOP? When one cellie steps forward and says (just in front of the other 3 of us with no “cops” around) it was his (there was little doubt since 3 of us don’t smoke cigarettes), I was struck by a different possibility: why couldn’t I “confess” since I was leaving the next day (with no “paper” or halfway commitment) and the worst they could do to me was to throw me into the hole for my last night. I floated this idea like a “governmental trial balloon” to explore the possibilities and the pros and cons (pun intended).

Is it ethical for me to take the rap? Since the possible punishment another faced was (to me) clearly unjust in that it also continues to punish one’s family, could I offer myself as the “sacrificial lamb” to avoid another miscarriage of “justice” in the midst of a system of rampant injustice? Could I lie convincingly? What if they asked me where they were hidden and how many, and what type? Would the real “culprit” get in even greater trouble of they didn’t believe my “confession”?

Two of my cellies (privately) counseled me not to do it. The guy who “does the crime” needs to “do the time” – face the consequences of his actions. He took the risk, now he has to “be a man” about it and face the music. He puts all of us at risk when he has contraband in the room. The third cellie was obviously energized by the prospect of someone else taking the rap – especially because it would be relatively painless for me to do it. If I had a 100-level shot on my BOP record, would there be ramifications if/when I might return as a federal inmate? He gave me the details of what, where, and how many and then said, “Hey buddy, it’s up to you”. I could walk up to the Lieutenant’s Office (I didn’t even know which office it is, just that it is in the building where “Control” is located) and volunteer the “confession” or wait until we were all called to report to his office sometime after the afternoon count cleared. I wanted to wait until after supper so I could consult with my friend and co-defendant, John LaForge on the advisability and ethics of the situation. We walked and talked. I considered confiding in one of the 3-4 Catholic friends I’d made in the Wednesday night group with Sister Timothy but none of them shared the same perspective that John & I shared in “choosing” to go to prison.

No loudspeaker announcement commanded my presence before the 10 PM count and the 15 minute warning prior to it requiring us to return to our (separate) dorms left John and me determined to meet again at breakfast prior to my reporting to Control at 6:30PM to begin my release. One of my cellies had to celebrate my “graduation from FPC Duluth” with some fried rice (his specialty) cooked up in the microwave after the count. It was a welcomed treat seeing that the “beef stew” at supper could have been better described as beef spew. So, we turned off the lights at 11:15 and I laid down, anticipating my last “wake up” in the BOP.

John, Muff, and I chatted very briefly at breakfast and John walked out with me to give me a final embrace (what a gift!) since he couldn’t approach me after I got out of Control since it might allow for contraband to be handed to or from me as I left. Having John to share this time with was a real blessing for me. He has a lot of previous experience “inside” and a wonderful, gentle spirit with a great sense of humor and justice. I hurried back to the dorm to grab my stuff and head to Control. As I entered the room, Jason and Pablo informed me that “I just missed them” – telling me another CO had just completed another shakedown while I was gone - only this time they didn’t rip everything apart. Finding nothing, he had just left. So the situation remains unresolved.

At Control, I waited for the officer to take me to R&D to get my street clothes, hand in my linens, my last uniform and boots, and to be fingerprinted again (but only the right thumb this time). As I was changing, the officer said, “You aren’t planning on coming back here are you?” I smiled and said, “It depends on what next needs protesting and whether it is on federal property or not.” Again, I had a few moments to “witness” about our desire to Close the SOA and educate another citizen about the realities of our misguided – no, really it is a deliberate, determined policy to dominate other peoples here and abroad – national policies.

I insisted that the BOP pay my way home and on the drive to the Greyhound station in Duluth, I asked the inmate “town trip” driver if many other guys left FPC Duluth with “no paper” (reporting to a Probation Officer for X years) and “no halfway house” and he said it was very rare. I couldn’t have “done the crime and done the time” without a supportive wife and sons, a loving community, and a whole “cloud of witnesses” who have both gone before me and presently envelope and travel with me. THANK YOU for sharing this journey with me.

“Free at last” – but with freedom comes responsibility. Please join with me to make the reality of the Reign of God more tangible and visible.