Letters From Prison 2006 #6- "Be Not Afraid"

"Be Not Afraid"
By Steve Clemens. FPC Duluth. April 28, 2006

Last night at Catholic Mass we sang "Be Not Afraid." I haven't sung that song in a while but as soon as I started, I was immediately transported back 25 years ago when Larry, Kathy, LaDon, Vince, Mary and I sang it on the cold February 10, 1981, morning in Amarillo, TX as security guards from the Pantex plant stood pointing their automatic weapons at us, telling us not to move--waiting to be arrested. "Be not afraid, I go before you always; Come follow me, and I will give you rest." Somehow, those words were meant to be sung in the jails prisons and paddy wagons as people of faith choose to resist the powers of death and domination.

The three months in Potter County jail followed by three months at the Federal Prison at Texarkana were a time of profound spiritual growth and renewal--a "mountaintop" experience is the term often used in Evangelical circles. I think that phrase must be analogous to the transfiguration story of the gospels where the disciples experience Jesus in a new way. In prison one experiences the crucifixion every day, yet there are also glimpses of resurrection and transfiguration as well. As my friends at the Open Door so often proclaim: "Christ comes in the guise of the stranger, the homeless, the prisoner."

Acts of kindness and generosity abound--even in the midst of the daily grind, the hassles of the guards or even worse, the "counselors." I think of my wonderful friend, Mardi, and I cringe at the bastardization of what the "corrections system" identifies as counseling. Just yesterday, my "cellie" Beetle had his long-awaited meeting with the Unit Team--the Unit Manager, the Case Manager, and the "counselor." He's been waiting for weeks for this meeting in hopes of getting word that he would be going to a halfway house soon since his 18 month sentence expires in August. Often inmates get a 6 month transition into a halfway house at the end of a longer sentence and a somewhat shorter period for Beetle's relatively short incarceration period.

If this wasn't a men's prison, I think he would have returned in tears but that expression of emotion isn't in evidence very often. (The place I'd look for it is at 2:45 pm in the visiting center when it is time to say one's goodbyes). Beetle was told that due to his medical "issues" (he's been on SSI disability for the past 12 years since he was run over by a combine and has tried to resist being assigned to a work placement here because prolonged standing causes his ankles to swell), he would not be sent to a halfway house nor be released with an ankle bracelet for electrical home monitoring. This came the day after he was called to the chaplain's office and given a call because his mother had just been taken by ambulance from Mason City to Rochester's St. Mary's Hospital because her cancer had spread to her bowel.

In a healthy society such news might prompt a visit from the chaplain, a counselor, or even a member of the Psychology Services here. But Beetle is left to fend for himself and at least he was able to share some of the pain, hurt, and fear with me.

The powers of death and domination are strong in here --yet Wednesday evening the drumbeat and the voices of the "Gospel Choir" came spilling out of the chapel so loudly that the Catholic Scripture discussion group in the room down the hall had to close the door to be able to hear each other as Sister Timothy, a blessed nun in her 80s, encouraged us to focus on the resurrection appearances of the Christ. So, the battle continues between the forces of darkness and the forces of liberation--and, at times, we can remind one another, "Be not afraid...come, follow me."
- Steve

PS: I'm reading The Word on the Street by Stan Saunders and Charles Campbell about doing theology in the context of the city streets with the homeless. A perfect book to be reading “in the belly of the beast.”

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