A Place at the Table
Sunday, September 1 at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Clifton Heights, PA
I’m so happy to be here with all of you this morning. My name is Mary Button and I’m a student at United Lutheran Seminary here in Philadelphia where I’m in my last year of coursework. I’m so very thankful for the opportunity to be with you this Sunday. Pastor Ness reached out to me around a month ago about preaching and when I saw our Scripture readings for this morning I was thrilled because our passage from Hebrews has been deeply important to my own spiritual journey.
Preparing to be with you this morning has been an opportunity for me to reflect on one of the most formative summers of my life, the summer of 2011when I first began working with incarcerated women. I had just finished a Master of Theological Studies and I was hired to be a member of the summer faculty in a prison theology program at Lee Arrendale State Prison for Women in Alto, Georgia -- a rural town about an hour-and-a-half from Atlanta. It’s an incredible program in which incarcerated students are able to take any number of courses designed and taught by graduate students and professors from a consortium of seminaries in Atlanta, including the Candler School of Theology at Emory University where I had just finished my studies.
The prison theology program is a two year commitment for students, it’s still in existence almost a decade later. It has many of the same course requirements that seminaries have, students take a balance of coursework in systematics, pastoral theology, Biblical studies, homiletics, and more. The class that I taught was on liturgical art, a particular area of interest for me, which meant that my class was less papers and systematics and more finger-painting and poetry.
In Georgia -- and many other states -- inmates can only take continuing education or vocational classes while in prison if they’re within a certain number of years before their release. This means that people facing life sentences without the possibility of parole are often unable to access the already limited opportunities for education while in prison. Because the prison theology program is part of the ministry of the chaplain’s office those rules didn’t apply to us. Which meant that many of my students were women serving life sentences, women who were considered the highest of security risks in a high security state prison that has a reputation as a place of incredible violence.
Entering Lee Arrendale on that first day was a somewhat terrifying experience. The prison campus itself looks enough like a depressed, grey and aging, military school for wayward teenagers to not be all that menacing. Except for all of the razor wire. Everywhere. Before the prison dormitories are even in sight, there is razor wire. Razor wire and heavy chain-link fences around every building. Guards are everywhere and inmates are marched from one building to another with their heads down. Entering the prison for the first time was an anxiety-producing experience to say the least.
But whatever ideas I might have had about who my students were evaporated the second they walked into our shared classroom. In spite of the very rigid rules laid out by the Department of Corrections that stipulate that there must not be physical contact between teachers and inmates, one after another of my students hugged me by way of greeting and thanked me for teaching the class. With each embrace, I was forced to confront preconceived ideas about my students that I had been unwilling to admit to myself. In spite of the fact that I started my work at the prison, convinced of the structural injustices of the justice system, I had not yet fully accepted my students for who they are: my siblings, bound to me in the kinship of the family of Christ.
My experiences teaching at Lee Arrendale and, later, in the Shelby County jail system in Memphis, TN made our reading in Hebrews a mandate on my life:
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Heb 13:1-3
What Hebrews implore us to do -- to visit the incarcerated -- is something that transforms the life of our communities. It expands our understanding of God’s presence in the world because to visit the imprisoned is to be reminded that just as nothing can separate us as individuals from the love of God in Christ, nothing -- not even the highest razor wire -- can separate anyone else from the love of God in Christ. We are bound to one another by Christ’s love for us. We are loved by Christ and the people we find the least loveable are just as beloved.
At the time the Letter to the Hebrews was written, the realities and attendant fears of imprisonment were immediate in the community and great importance was placed on visiting the imprisoned. Prisoners of the Roman Empire often died of starvation, relying as they did on food being brought to them by outsiders. In his Baptismal Instructions, the early church father John Chrysostom characterized the Christian practice of visiting the imprisoned as one of the ‘sweetest tasks’ of Christian devotion. Chrystotom laid out his instructions for visiting the imprisoned in a text titled Baptismal Instructions because for him, and for the early church, caring for people in prison was a part of our baptismal covenant, a covenant that reminds us that in the waters of baptism we are each of us claimed by Christ just as we are, wherever we are.
And Chrystotom is clear that Christians must not visit only fellow Christians, but also ‘murderers, and grave-robbers, and purse snatchers, and adulterers, and libertines, and men weighed down by many crimes.’ Expounding on this directive, he writes, “For we have not been bidden to show mercy to the good, and to punish the wicked, but to show this kindness to all.”
Today, Christian communities concerned with the growing number of Americans imprisoned in county jails, and state and federal prisons and detention centers live in a state of paradox: the fear of incarceration and detention is immediate in many of these communities, yet there is a clear and palpable disconnect with the realities of the day to day lives of the incarcerated. The American prison system is a world unto itself, deliberately and intentionally designed to strip its inhabitants of their humanity by removing them from what my former students call “free world.”
During my summer teaching at Lee Arrendale, I was allowed glimpses into what the daily realities of life in prison are for many women. To a person, each of my students experienced violence during their incarceration. For my students who are parents, separation from their children devastated them and their families on the outside, where their children are more likely to face incarceration and experience violence themselves.
My classroom in the vocational building at Lee Arrendale was across the hall from where one of the parenting classes was taught. In the mornings as I prepared my lessons, laying out paints and brushes, markers and construction paper, I heard the chaplain lead classes for new moms. Women who had given birth in jail awaiting trial, or after arriving at Lee Arrendale. I taught Friday mornings and Saturdays were often visitation days at the prison. I’ll never forget one morning as I was carefully laying out my bright and colorful supplies, planning in my head what I hoped would be an afternoon of art-making that could take my students away -- for just a few hours -- from the grimness of life inside an American prison.
As I did all of this, I could hear -- even as I willed my ears to stop listening -- the lesson being taught across the hall by the chaplain in the parenting class: “It’s difficult,” she said, “But, you must prepare yourself, those of you with babies. Prepare yourself for the chance that your baby won’t recognize you tomorrow. Your baby might not want to be held by you. They might cry for the person who holds them in your absence.”
Then there was a shuffle and an angry shout and a woman in her prison jumpsuit running out of the parenting class with hot tears pouring down her face. Those tears, of a frantic and scared young mother separated from her baby, humbled me that morning. They taught me something about the type of humility that Jesus preaches about in our story from Luke. It’s a humility that reminds us that we are, each and every one of us, beloved by God and that the love we have for each other, binds us to one another as much as it binds us to God, whose love follows us even behind prison bars.
It’s not a humility that says, “let me humble myself so that I can get what I want -- that place of honor at the banquet table,” but rather the humility that teaches us that the banquet table is big enough for all of us. It’s so big, in fact, that there’s room for each and every one of us in all of our trauma and our triumph. Room enough for our feelings, even the ones we want to run away from. Room enough for our resentments, room enough for our relationships, even the broken ones. God claims each and every one of us and invites us to a table where there is room for all people because the force of God’s abounding grace makes room for all people. Even you. Even me.