The New York State Interfaith Prison Pilgrimage (2002)

December 31, 2019

Continuing the narrative of the 2002 New York State Interfaith Prison Pilgrimage, we come to the 3rd day.  We awake in a church east of Buffalo I can’t recall and witness at Orleans Correctional Facility and then travel on and cross the tracks beating a lonely drum and witness at Albion Correctional Facility. We then travel to Batavia to witness at the immigration jail, which had become full following the xenophobia after September 11, 2001 and remains full following the racist, xenophobic policies of the present administration.  We recall the hospitality of Abraham entertaining angels and multitudes who are “strangers in a strange land” because of climate catastrophe, mass incarceration and imperial militarism. After prayers and witnessing, we take refuge at the Zen center in the rural woods south of Rochester. Over a lunch of vegetables, we speak of meditation in prison. I recall Bo Lozoff’s work to create ashrams in prison and how this inspired our efforts to create seminaries in prison.  Whether we are in or out of prison, we are “all doing time.” Time spent in prayer, study and meditation is scared time. Consumption, war and punishment are obscene time. Service puts sacred time in motion, and so we walk to the medieval imprisonment castle that is Attica Correctional Facility. The name evokes the dread of crucifixion.

At night, we convene at a church south of Rochester I can’t recall to receive hospitality.  We have a public forum where we hear the words of the “forgotten victims of Attica;” the survivors of the murdered prison guards at Attica during the uprising in 1971.  That uprising was a lightning rod for social change and for seeing the humanity of inmates (Jesus was an inmate). The State saw it as a threat to its power and violently suppressed it with indiscriminate murder, killing random people, both inmates and prison guards.  No one is safe from Pontius Pilate/State Governors/President Trump. Jesus healed the centurion guard and Jesus the Liberator participated in the healing of Attica prison guard families. In other words, the inmate rehabilitates the guard. The guard lays down his gun (down by the riverside) and frees the inmate.  The inmate heals the incarcerated nation. This is a vision of Jesus the Liberator.

December 24, 2019

Last week I introduced some of the background and reasoning for the 2002 New York State Interfaith Prison Pilgrimage.  Studying humanitarian and peacemaking efforts is a better use of history than studying the timelines of war and empire; or so some of us believe.   Pilgrimage is an ancient and intentional spiritual search. 

On the first day of the pilgrimage, a core of pilgrims witnessed at Lakeview prison facility in the southern tier of Western New York State.  We then made our way to St. Hyacinths Church to hear the words of David Kaczynski, the brother of “Unabomber”, Ted Kaczynski. Hyacinth is a flower and is tied to a mythology of death/rebirth and love.  David spoke of the moral necessity of turning his brother, who was responsible for the killing of people in Oklahoma City, in to the FBI. A sense of duty to the peace of the world outweighed his familial bonds.  He was assured that his revelation of Ted as the Unabomber would remain anonymous. That he felt betrayed by the FBI adds to the questioning of integrity of law enforcement. Also, some claimed that Ted’s resisting the dehumanizing influence of modern technology, albeit in violent form, was not adequately debated.

This story pertains to the pilgrimage in that the act of David’s conscience does not justify the betrayal and abuse of law enforcement.  Questions of moral peaceful necessity, fairness of law enforcement and dehumanizing aspects of technology were all brought into the fore.  The intersection of law and technology adversely affects poor people, who are singled out with surveillance and facial recognition technology and the super-max technological nightmare of incarceration.

Did Jesus ever say anything about betrayal, the abuse of rich people in power or the dehumanization of poor people?  Jesus the Liberator believes that he did and does.

December 13, 2019

During the New York State Interfaith Prison Pilgrimage in 2002, I met and became aware of many people and issues that affect prison inmates and prison policy.  During the following weeks, I will highlight some of these, particularly in terms of theological outlook.

This prison pilgrimage began in Western New York in the spring –“For as the earth brings forth her bud, and as the garden causes the things that are sown in it to bring forth fruit; so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.” (Isaiah 61:11)The intention was to witness at each of the New York State prisons.  At that time there were about 70 throughout the state. The plan was to divide the pilgrimage into 3 years. The first year would focus on the facilities between Lake Erie in the west and the state capital Albany in the east. The following year would focus on the facilities north of the cities along the thru-way (Albany, Utica, and Syracuse), that is, the great region of northern New York State including the Adirondacks.   The third year would focus upon the facilities south of Albany, along the Hudson, to New York City. Like many great visions, manifesting a part is itself a great victory. We only managed the first year.

In organizing, we set up a network of regional organizers, who planned the logistics, gatherings, themes and speaking arrangements for each set of facilities in their region.  We would drive to within a mile of each facility and then prayerfully or joyfully progress to the facility to witness. We averaged about 3 facilities a day over 10 days. In between each witness or after they were all done, we would receive hospitality from a local faith community.  During that hospitality, there would be a discussion about issues affecting inmates or progressive changes to prison policy. In so doing, we energized and empowered each local community to address mass incarceration and become organizers. We also developed a faith informed dialogue about “crime and punishment.”  

To act and to dialogue and to infuse the creative impetus into social justice while physically walking and spiritually witnessing must bear fruit, for it was an act of faith – “To preach deliverance to the captives” (Luke 4:18). 

Individual stories from this pilgrimage will follow in the coming weeks.  In the meantime, feel free to dialogue with us at St. John’s Grace.