New York State Interfaith Prison Pilgrimage (2002)

February 17, 2020

Continuing the narrative of the 2002 New York State Interfaith Prison Pilgrimage, we come to the 10th day, the final day.  We spend the day meeting and speaking with legislators about many of the issues that I have written about in this column.  

Any changes in law start out as grassroots initiatives.  Spiritual practices such as fasting, prayer and pilgrimage unite with pragmatic efforts of networking regional communities into a statewide collective.  In addition to this is the uniting of faith communities with politically progressive ideas thereby spiritualizing democracy or democratizing spirituality.  Jesus was inherently progressive in that he wanted to profoundly alter the order and conception of the world – the “king of the Jews” was a poor homeless itinerant preacher who claimed “power” was not with the King/emperor of Rome.  He claimed that the blessed were those who were “poor”, “mourning”, “hungering”, “thirsting” and “persecuted.” Jesus led a pilgrimage of egalitarian poor people into Jerusalem. Similarly, we as ex-offenders and advocates led a pilgrimage into Albany.  

Personal faith and sacrifice fused into collective progressive advocacy of justice is an essence of pilgrimage.  History is made from these efforts even when political “leaders” claim credit.

“The myriad creatures rise from it yet it claims no authority,
It gives them life yet claims no possession;
It benefits them yet exacts no gratitude;
It accomplishes its task yet lays claim to no merit.
It is because it lays claim to no merit That its merit never deserts it.” (Lao Tzo, Tao Te Ching 2:7)

February 11, 2020

Continuing the narrative of the 2002 New York State Interfaith Prison Pilgrimage, we come to the 9th day.  

We meet with Father Young.  He has initiated a way of “creating taxpayers” by using the threefold pillar of housing, education and vocational training.  He has helped to find housing and jobs for ex-offenders and addicts with this approach. We visited a hotel that was mainly staffed by ex-offenders.  If people are given dignity and vocations, without the stigma of judgment and excommunication from the social contract, then we heal both the individual and society.  If “saving people” is not a motivation for American Christians, then saving money surely must be. In other words, someone becomes a “productive citizen” rather than a ward or prisoner of the state, thereby saving taxpayers.  As one of the corporate C.E.O.’s once said, “the business of America is business.” Father Young and Father Baker have understood this and put a spiritual and compassionate spin on this uniquely capitalistic approach to reality. 

Afterwards, we strategize about the upcoming legislative visits.

February 5, 2020

Continuing the narrative of the 2002 New York State Interfaith Prison Pilgrimage, we come to the 8th day.  In the morning, we go St. Francis de Sales to speak about the pilgrimage to the congregation, which is filled with large numbers of Vietnamese and Sudanese people.  During the service, a Haitian baby is being baptized.

I am asked to give a speech about the pilgrimage in lieu of a priestly sermon.  I quote the old spiritual “My feets is tired but my soul is free.” This is an introductory way of evoking some of the marches in the south during the modern civil rights era; from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama and James Meredith’s solitary satyagrahi (truth seeking) “March against Fear” from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi.  I also reference the “Longest Walk” of the American Indian Movement (AIM), which carried a sacred pipe from Alcatraz Island off the coast of San Francisco across the United States to Washington D.C. in 1978. A second walk occurred in 2008 to address climate change and native sovereignty. In 2016, runners from Standing Rock, North Dakota spread the message of the “water protectors” resisting “oil/fossil fuel protectors.”  The earth and people of the earth are incarcerated by oil, extractive, exploitative economies, militarism and social control.

Afterward, we go with some church people to witness at Coxsackie and Greene Correctional Facilities.

At the end of the day, we travel to Bruderhof, a German Anabaptist community just west of the Hudson River, south of Albany.  

January 29, 2020

Continuing the narrative of the 2002 New York State Interfaith Prison Pilgrimage, we come to the 7th day.  We wake to the sound of waterfalls in Ithaca.  It rains and continues all day. We pass thru Onondaga Territory, keepers of the fire for the Haudenosaunee, the people of the Longhouse, the native people of what is now called New York State, on the way to Rome to meet families of inmates.  Afterwards, we witness at Oneida and Mohawk Correctional facilities in the pouring rain. It is a cruel ironic reality that the names of patriarchal punishment centers are taken from a people who have lived for 1000 years in a peaceful democratic society.  This matrilineal, matriarchal society inspired the constitution of the United States. We sang and drummed in the rain and prayed for the spirits in the land to free the land and the people in bondage to the owners on the land; the prison industrial complex society.

Within the gospel accounts of Jesus, we read of the colonizing forces of Rome “lording over” the peoples of the Middle East.  The courts of Pontius Pilate maintained the laws and prisons and the centurion guard enforced the laws, occupied and colonized places like Nazareth and Bethlehem. 

At night, we receive warmth and hospitality from the Felician sisters and stay at their convent guest house.

January 22, 2020

Continuing the narrative of the 2002 New York State Interfaith Prison Pilgrimage, we come to the 6th day.   We pray and witness at Elmira Correctional Facility, then we go to South Port Correctional Facility.  South Port is an ultra modern facility of punishment. It is a technological wonder of super max oppression.  It is an example of one of the most important moral questions that need to be addressed –how to undo the conjoining of hateful, oppressive ideology and irresponsible, greed driven technology.   

We faithfully process in a single serpent line of nonviolence witnessing.  I am in front with the rattle, drums echo off the hills.   Inside this solitary confinement facility in these Finger Lakes, I pray for the men inside and wonder why such natural beauty need be despoiled with hateful oppression and punishment. We are stopped at a road block; we pass the first one and move on.  We are stopped at a second road block and I empty my shoe of dust, give my peace and walk away. We drive to Ithaca to give a news conference. We then travel to Cayuga Correctional Facility and walk up the hill to bear witness. We have a commitment back in Ithaca for a dinner and discussion and so we did not have time to witness at Pharsalia Correctional Facility.  This is the one facility of approximately 30 that we could not witness at and so we pray intentionally longer for the people there, but it remains in my mind the empty ghost of this pilgrimage.   

  At night we sleep at a large Quaker house next to a waterfall somewhere in Ithaca. 

January 14, 2020

Continuing the narrative of the 2002 New York State Interfaith Prison Pilgrimage, we come to the 5th day.  We awake in a wood cabin at a Franciscan center in the hills above the Finger Lakes, eat oatmeal and head to the Calvary Church in Auburn to hear speeches against the death penalty and old black women singing spirituals “ain’t no dog gonna hold me down…” And we process out onto the street to witness at the city jail and gather at Harriet Tubman Park to honor the memory and pray before heading out to Five Points Solitary Confinement Facility, which is a contaminated area because of the U.S. army dumping toxic waste there.  In other words, the largest, wealthiest, most destructive organization in the world is dumping toxic waste on inmates and low income housing, which also shares the road with Five Points Solitary.  The U.S. military and prison systems are enemies of poor people and inmates both here and abroad.  So when God blesses America, he is cursing the poor.  Jesus was a poor inmate.

We then head on to Willard Correctional Facility where I kneel down in front of a guard, simultaneously sincerely concerned for his soul while theatrically mocking the power structure.  I am a “fool for Christ.”  The fool mocks the king in the emperor’s court without losing his/her integrity, humor or insights into truth.

At night, we meet in a church or community space to listen to talks about the solitary confinement and the Rockefeller Drug laws.  Since then, the Rockefeller Drug laws have been greatly chipped away at and the “war on drugs” which was inspired by these laws has begun to be questioned and altered.  Solitary confinement is still persistent.  There is a HALT Solitary bill in New York that is waiting to be approved.

January 7, 2020

Continuing the narrative of the 2002 New York State Interfaith Prison Pilgrimage, we come to the 4th day.  We awake and do our morning devotions outside the prison walls south of Rochester.  At each prison we pray and leave a paper butterfly to mark our flight.  On the way to and fro, we drum, carry banners and process as if pilgrims in search of a golden chalice.  But the chalice is the liberation of Christ incarcerated early 21st century Empire State. 

In the afternoon, we go to the Quaker house in Rochester to hear from Cephes prison ministry. Personal confessions like unto St. Augustine emanate from witnesses of comrades in prison.  Off we go to St. Lucy’s in Syracuse, to hear and support a presentation of reintegration services.  I remember how Paul directed Philemon to accept Onesimus upon his release prison; reintegration services.  At night we sleep at a Franciscan center in the hills of the Finger Lakes. 

Up in the hills at night, I recall the speech by the stone I gave in Niagara Square, how we were anointed by “66.6% of African and Native blood and bones beneath the prisons poured out into the cup of Eucharist…”  Now we sleep in the mystic poverty of St. Francis.