While our series is called “Letters from Prison”, I have to say that getting letters to prison is not always simple. The first letter I sent to Jason, who is in a minimum security facility in Illinois, was returned. When I inquired with Jason’s wife about this, she said, “Oh shoot. No stickers allowed, not even return address labels, only stamps – which are stickers.” She said she learned this after sending a whole bunch of letters when he first went in and having them all returned.
As hard as it is to get letters to prison, it is really important to those who are on the inside. Hear this poem about waiting for a letter.
No Mail by Deante (from The Untold Story of the Real Me: Young Voices from Prison)
I’m alone, held captive, confined within these walls
Listening to Mail time! every time the guard calls
I haven’t received a letter yet and I know nothing going to change
But still I rush to the front of the line, hoping he calls my name
Inmates’ names are being called and I’m watching smiles appear
But Deante is a name I never hear
Quickly I turn away, on the verge of tears
Wondering why no one wrote me, do they even know I’m here?
Moving quickly, I got back to my cell, ready to cry myself to sleep
Praying that I’ll receive a letter
Days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months
I listen, listen and listen but don’t hear my name once
Still haven’t received a letter yet and I know nothing going to change
So I’m done listening to mail call, they’re never going to call my name
On Friday the 13th, my cellmate tells me Today’s your lucky day
Ten minutes later, Deante you have mail, is what the guards say
I open the letter, eager to read it, smiling from ear to ear
But when I open the envelope and see indictment papers, my smile disappears
Now it seems for a long time, I’ma be stuck in a cell
Held captive, all alone, still waiting on my mail
Sending letters to prison might be compared to a mustard seed. A very small thing on one hand, but it can mean so much, it can grow into something so much bigger. It is like a vine that grows to connect the person on the inside with the person on the outside.
Writing letters is old fashioned, but it remains a powerful means of communication, even transformation.
Think of Paul’s letter to Philemon. Paul is in prison and meets Onesimus, the former slave of Philemon. Onesimus, (which means “useful”) becomes a friend, companion and fellow Christian with Paul in prison. We don’t know if Philemon wrote to Paul in prison, all we have is a short letter from Paul. We don’t know why Onesimus is released and Paul isn’t. All we know is the formerly enslaved Oneismus smuggles a letter from Paul, who is still in prison, back to Philemon, the slave master.
From Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother.
To Philemon, our dear friend and co-worker,
to Apphia, our sister; to Archippus, our companion in the struggle; and to the church that meets in your house: Grace and peace from Abba God and Our Savior Jesus Christ.
I always mention you in my prayers and thank God for you, because I hear of the love and faith you have for our Savior Jesus and for all the saints. I pray that you’ll be active in sharing your faith, so that you’ll fully understand all the good things we’re able to do for the sake of Christ.
I find great joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother. Therefore, though I feel I have every right in Christ to command you to do what ought to be done, I prefer to appeal in the name of love.
Yes, I Paul, do this as an old man and now a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I appeal to you for my child of whom I have become the parent during my imprisonment. He has truly become Onesimus – “Useful” – for he who was formerly useless to you is now useful indeed both to you and to me.
It is he that I am sending to you – and that means I’m sending my heart!
I had wanted to keep him with me, that he might be of service to me in your place while I’m in prison for the Good News; but I didn’t want to do anything without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.
Perhaps he was separated from you for a while for this reason – that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave – a beloved brother, especially dear to me. And how much dearer he’ll be to you, since now you’ll know him both in the flesh and in Christ!
If you regard me as a partner, then, welcome Onesimus as you would me. If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to me.
I, Paul, write this in my own hand: I agree to pay. And I won’t even mention that you owe me your very self!
You see, brother, I want to make you “useful” to me in Christ. Refresh my heart in Christ. I write with complete confidence of your obedience since I am sure you will do even more than I ask.
There is one more thing. Prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.
Epaphras, a prisoner with me in Christ Jesus, sends greetings. And so do my colleagues Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke. May the grace of our Savior Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
Can you see it? Onesimus standing there as Philemon reads this letter, hoping that Philemon will do the right thing, will take him back as a brother and not a slave.
Onesimus must hear how much Paul loves him: “I appeal to you for my child of whom I have become the parent during my imprisonment.” Onesimus hears how Paul appeals to Philemon’s faith and capacity for love: “…you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave – a beloved brother, especially dear to me. And Onesimus hears how Paul turns the tables and calls Philemon the “useful” one, reminds Philemon how he himself serves Paul. What must the hopeful Onesimus feel as he hears Paul’s words to Philemon?
Like when he writes to the church in Philippi, Paul uses his imprisonment to amplify the message, and emphasize his own faith. And, let’s be honest, Paul is also guilting Philemon into welcoming Onesimus back not as a slave but as a co-member of the house church. The irony is that Onesimus meets Paul in prison and there finds freedom. The next step is for Paul to convince Philemon that Onesimus is a new person in Christ. If Philemon truly is a new person in Christ himself, he will see that slave master and formerly enslaved are equals and on equal footing in the eyes of God.
What is new to me as I read this letter to Philemon this time around is that Onesimus, in the language we use today, is a “returning citizen.” He is coming out of prison and he needs a place to land, a safe place where he is respected and part of a community. Leaving prison can be as hard as arriving. Paul writes that he will need this for himself when he is released: “There is one more thing. Prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.”
Paul appeals to Philemon to remember his faith commitments, the love he has been trying to cultivate in his heart. How can he say no when the letter comes right out of the hand of Onesimus?
Paul’s appeal is a reminder that looking out for those returning from prison is not new, it is part of our faith tradition. Perhaps this overlooked small seed of a letter should be read more often by people on the outside.
I want to share excerpts of some letters I have received from my cousin Jason. Jason is a college educated, business man in his 40s who loves golf and was reclaiming and restoring an abandoned golf course in his free time before he went in last September. He is married to a successful businesswoman and has two sons, ages 11 and 18. His is not the profile of the “typical” prisoner who is stripped of their humanity by the system. And he is getting to know the men who see too many of their family and friends enter the system. While he is inside Jason is writing a book about how messed up the prison system is. And he writes to friends and family. He wrote this in February.
I started a yoga class which has been well received, that now meets three times per week. I volunteered to start a book club and to assist with teaching a Business 101 class, both of which will get underway in the next week or so. When opportunities to be of service arise, I try to step up.
I am finding that the little things matter just as much as these bigger projects. When I was in quarantine, an inmate called to me while I was on orderly rounds. He explained that his cousin was in the cell next door, and was headed to the (prison) camp with me. He asked that I look after his cousin, and since this was a large human being making the request, I agreed. One morning, I heard Isaiah (the cousin) talking about how he was bummed that the commissary didn’t have oatmeal because that’s the only thing he likes to eat for breakfast. I went to my locker, grabbed an extra box I had and gave it to him. He asked what I wanted for it, and I said nothing.
Fast forward several months to our prayer group one night a week or so ago. Isaiah was talking to one of the other guys and I heard him say, “J is all good with me. He gave me oatmeal.” I laughed and told him I had forgotten about that. He replied, “That was the first time that anyone ever gave me something without wanting anything in return. I actually called my mom about it and said, ‘A white man gave me oatmeal.'” We shared a chuckle, but inside I was deeply moved. You never know which act will be impactful.
When I send letters to Jason I include copies of the prayers we use for ‘morning prayer’ with HMC folks. It is a way to pray together from afar. In March Jason wrote:
Last night the guards came in to search lockers on one of the ranges. (a range is a grouping of about 20 beds) They were hunting for a particular cell phone apparently. In the process of searching, they made quite a mess which is typical. We had been sent to wait outside throughout this process. When they came out to get us, one of them was eating a pizza roll which was part of the dinner that some buddies and I had prepared. We came to find out that they had eaten a good portion of our food. This made me angry, it still does.
When I read the prayers though it got me to thinking, What kind of man steals another man’s dinner and then rubs his nose in the theft? What kind of man puts on a law enforcement uniform and believes that gives him license to make up his own rules? I’m not sure, but I can make a pretty good guess that he is not a healthy man (spiritually) or a happy man. An AA friend of mine used to say “Hurt people hurt people.”
The prayers of forgiveness strike me as a means to freedom from the sickness that infects that man. I can meet his pain with compassion. He chooses to express his suffering by stealing our food. I choose to forgive him for it, in the same way that I know God forgives me. I don’t want to live on the wavelength with these officers. I want to live on God’s.
It is easy to read Jason’s letters and marvel at the discipline, compassion, and generosity that he demonstrates on the inside. I imagine the day to day reality, even for one with clear advantages, is more excruciating and frightening than he lets on. So far he has served 9 months of an eight year sentence.
We don’t know what happened to Philemon and Onesimus, if Philemon accepted Onesimus back as a member of the household and house church. But I like to think that Philemon’s heart was moved, that his faith was deepened. I like to imagine that the change in the house church was so great that the letter became important in the tradition so was included in the canon.
I don’t know any more of Deante’s story, other than the poem I read at the beginning and the fact that it was published in 2015. I hope he received mail and is out by now.
And the mustard seed and the cedar tree, what of them? These metaphors, these visions of Ezekiel and Jesus hardly seem substantial enough to take on the largest prison system in the world. But everything starts from a seed or a new sprout of an idea. As a congregation we are part of small seeds that are growing as we relate to LAR, Court Watch, Congregation Action Network, as we help Liliana and AnaIsobel. And we do see growth, incremental in the system and a bit more with individuals. Perhaps it is we ourselves who grow the most as we nurture seeds to grow into trees of justice.
The reign of God is like a mustard seed which people plant in the soil; it is the smallest of all earth’s seeds, yet once it is sown it springs up to become the largest of shrubs, with branches big enough for the birds of the sky to build nests in its shade.