Finding Compassion Behind the Walls

18 04 2011

by MARTI RESCH, Independence, Missouri

Because of my long volunteer history in prison, I wanted to complete my degree. I dreamed of one day working in a prison. Toward the end of my career at AT&T I finished degrees in criminal justice and addiction studies.

Not long after being downsized, my opportunity came. The Kansas Department of Corrections hired me as the volunteer coordinator at the prison in Lansing, Kansas. My office was with the chaplain. We had 350 volunteers, and my joy was to coordinate and train them.

My first Wednesday morning on the job, I looked out the window of my office. My view was of the prison wall with razor wire on the top. We were four floors up with no elevator.
At ground level directly below me was the chow hall. I could see the entrance to B-cell house across the way. A guard was smoking at the entrance of the cell house, and a couple of inmates were talking.

Then I noticed a young man edging his way down the ramp. He was stooped, and his legs were bent. He used a walker. He went so slowly—it took him 10 minutes to go a short distance.
A strong inmate came up to him, took the walker, and flung it over the railing to the sidewalk below. My first reaction was, “What are you doing, he can’t even stand without that walker!”

I had my hand on the window to open it and call for help when I noticed what the strong inmate really was doing. He picked up the young man and carried him to the chow hall.
At this, my thoughts changed to “he ain’t heavy, he’s my brother!” Prison is not a place you normally think of seeing compassion.
At this moment, it didn’t matter that they were in prison, that one was black and the other white, one was weak and the other strong. The strong inmate simply carried his brother, who could not carry himself.

I am sure at that moment both of those men felt a healing spirit. It might not happen often enough, but compassion exists behind the walls. I saw it daily!





Resurrection—Witnessing a Transformation

11 04 2011

By GREG SAVAGE, estate and financial planning

In 2006, as the new pastor at the Stone Church in Independence, Missouri, I went through the membership list and came across an out-of-town address: Moberly Correctional Center, Moberly, Missouri.

Checking Google maps, I discovered it was about 30 miles north of Columbia, Missouri, just off U.S. 24 with no Community of Christ presence. I asked others in the office who this person was. They said, “He is in prison for abusing his child.”

That answer piqued my interest because I had spent 10 years as a director of foster care services for a private, nonprofit agency in Kansas City, Kansas. Each day of those years I dealt with abused, battered, and abandoned children, and often their parents, social workers, and other related services.

I wanted to meet Jay. I wrote a letter of introduction and asked if he was interested in communicating. He responded immediately and sent an application form for visiting clergy. Once I received clearance through the bureaucratic channels, we began monthly visits that continued until his February 2011 release.

The prison had a large, common visitation room. Among the crowd, we found each other. We talked about our families and ourselves.

Jay had many questions about what was going on at Stone Church, with Seekers (the Open Arms Congregation in Independence), and throughout the World Church. He talked about the charges that led to his prison sentence, the impact on his life, and classes he took to help him control his anger and behavior. We talked until the room’s blinking lights signaled the end of visitation.

Recommitting to Christ

This young man already was experiencing transformation before my visits. Tony and Charmaine Chvala-Smith set the foundation with their visits while he was at the Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, Missouri. They also started a pattern of sharing the sacrament of Communion. I continued offering this ministry because of its importance in Jay’s spiritual life.

Most of our three- to four-hour visits focused on religious and social issues affecting the church. Toward the end of each visit, I opened the Communion kit to prepare the emblems.

We sometimes reflected on a theme from our discussion, or I might share a message from the previous Sunday as preparation. I offered the prayers on the bread and wine, and we ate and drank, reflecting on what Christ was doing in our lives.

One month, I replaced the cracked plastic wine vial with a glass one. When I got to the first prison checkpoint, the guard reminded me of the rule against anything glass. So instead of grape juice that visit, I poured soda into our cups, and we celebrated the Lord’s Supper. I reminded Jay that God looks at the intent and attitude of our hearts, rather than the form or symbolic elements used for Communion.

It is my testimony that during these last couple of years, this young man has changed. Jay has moved away from a self-centered, “it’s all about me” attitude. He engaged in the struggle to discover how to use his talents effectively in service to others.

Using the We Share document (www.CofChrist.org/discernment/weshare), Jay was inspired to write music and lyrics for new songs. He sent the compositions to the Hymnal Committee. He also wrote a drama that expresses the need for our faith to be more inclusive of marginalized and left-out people in society.

He offered valuable suggestions for the new resource, Prison Ministries: A Guide to Resources (www.CofChrist.org/peace/PrisonMinistry.pdf).

Restoring Community

I am concerned that even though Jay has changed his attitude and behavior, others may not recognize the changes. People in the community, and some in the church, will see only his previous behaviors, attitude, and conviction.

To help overcome these images of difference, I firmly believe the restorative-justice programs can help. These programs offer opportunities for people to own their past criminal behavior and explain how they have changed.

Restorative-justice meetings can help people understand their behavior has affected not only the victims but their immediate families. The behavior also affects the church and community. The purpose is to explain, understand, learn, forgive, and eventually restore the community.

To “Be vulnerable to divine grace” (Doctrine and Covenants 163:10b) is what restoration is all about.





Resurrection—Now I Know

9 04 2011

By OTIS HARDY,
retired World church Minister

I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.—Matthew 25:36 NRSV

A woman who knew me from 1979 was my motivation to write this article. My wife and I were invited to Burlington, North Carolina, in 2001 to provide ministry at a Baptist church. After I shared my testimony, an elderly woman walked up to my wife and me.

“You probably don’t remember me,” she said. To my surprise, I didn’t. She continued, “I was the woman who testified against you.” Then she said, “Now I know God can change anyone.”
She kissed me on my cheek and walked away.

I thank God and Community of Christ (my church family) for giving me the opportunity to make a better person of myself and giving me another chance to change my path in life.
In 1979 I went to prison with double life sentence for robbery without a gun.

My eligibility for parole wasn’t going to come up until 2069. In 1998, I started attending Community of Christ inside prison walls. Without knowing, I began to change.

I met Elder Don Elliot from the Cary Congregation in North Carolina. He asked if I would attend his congregation. He explained the members’ efforts to begin prison ministry and wondered if I would be interested in getting involved. I was released from prison on February 15, 2000. Ever since, my wife and I have been heavily committed to Community of Christ throughout the community we serve.
I want to share with you about the importance of prison ministry, because like me, many souls in prison (some church members) are blinded by things they’ve done. They have the mentality of loners and outcasts.

Some may feel God abandoned and rejected them. Some may think no one is there to help them find God.

But prison ministry can help them. It can guide women and men to find God and change their outlook in life.





The Making of a Table

9 04 2011

by PAUL DAVIS, Presiding Bishopric

When does the making of a table begin—if you’re the woodworker making the table—and when does it end?

Does it begin when you carry the wood into your shop, when you have the design firmly in mind, or when you begin to work the first board to discover what shape the wood needs to take as part of the table?

And when does the making of a table end? Does it end when the last coat of finish is dry, when you carry it from your shop, or when it is used for the first time?

I can’t find the moment a table begins. It begins in the forging of the iron to make the tools that will be used, someday, to make the table. It begins in the grandparents of the table-maker, and in his kindergarten teacher. It goes back to the soil and seed that became the sapling that became the tree that stood for longer than it will be anything else.
Jon Wallace asked me once how long a table I made could be expected to survive. I said, “It depends how it is used.” He said, “In a room in which no one touches it and the climate does not vary.” I said, bragging, “Hundreds and hundreds of years.”

I now understand that the right answer—the answer for which he posed the question—was, “It wouldn’t be a table, then.”

Of all of the threads that lead from the beginning through the making of the table that Jon’s question pointed to, the most important was the one that tied him into its making.

Jon and Nancy’s home is one of my favorite spaces in the world. Everywhere my eye rests, there is something lovely to behold: the shadow lines of the ceiling meeting the wall, the contour of the pond meeting the woods, the hand-thrown clay pots waiting in his living room.

The only odd discontinuity, the gap my eye always wished to make full, was the empty space around which couch, reading chair, and fireplace were arranged.

After some years of silently troubling over this space, all the while turning over Henri Nouwen’s idea about hospitality—that it is the creation of a space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy—it occurred to me that this one empty space, above all others lovely and full in their home, was the gift Jon and Nancy were giving to me.
So I asked if I could make a table for that space.

The making of a table carries past its delivery to the home where it will live, I can tell you for sure. Our house holds several of “my” tables (I really don’t think of them as mine at any part in their making).

Years of living with them qualifies me to say it doesn’t bother me much when they get scratched. I don’t think I would bat an eye to see one broken in half. I’d take it back to the shop and fix it or make something else from it. It was only on its way to becoming a table, after all.

The death last October of my longtime friend, Jon, created a space. I’m really searching for words now, not having seen any of this coming—his death or, after his death, any words I could write about it. I will not say any good is coming of his death—as if it is a deal you would make. I will say that his death has brought me friends that I can’t find the beginning of.

No one, not even Jon, could have known how many people loved him. No one could have known how many had learned important things from him—like how to be the sort of friend who will start up again in mid-sentence after a year’s absence, or how to write a sentence that draws breath and lives on. No one could have known, or would have known, if the end of his life hadn’t brought us all into the space his absence created.





It’s All About Relationships

7 04 2011

by RON HARMON,
Council of Twelve Apostles

Doctrine and Covenants 164:6a COMMENTARY
Explore more deeply what this scripture has to say about relationships in this seven-month series. How can we let Section 164:6a guide and shape us with new understanding in a world that is often more characterized by fear and separation than connectedness and hope? Send your comments to
Herald@CofChrist.org and we may print them in a future issue.

As Doctrine and Covenants 164, preamble to paragraph 5 suggests, “Serious questions about moral behavior and relationships continue to arise in many nations.” The reality is that men, women, and children struggle in unhealthy relationships in every part of life and in every corner of the world. As a church rooted and grounded in Christ, we are called to promote and embody relationship principles that uphold the worth of all persons and protect those most vulnerable (Doctrine and Covenants 164:6a).

This article is the first in a series that will explore the relationship principles in Doctrine and Covenants 164:6a. This counsel calls the church to a deeper understanding and application of these principles to questions of moral behavior and relationships in all nations.

These questions are not easy. They will require our willingness to engage in challenging conversations. As we approach this exploration together, we expect the Holy Spirit’s guidance in our study, discussion, and discernment.

The behaviors we exhibit in our relationships are of concern to God. Doctrine and Covenants 163:2b counsels, “The restoring of persons to healthy or righteous relationships with God, others, themselves, and the earth is at the heart of the purpose of your journey as a people of faith.”

This focus is not new for disciples of Jesus Christ. Jesus said it plainly in Matthew 7:12 NRSV, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and prophets.”

How we live out the gospel through our relationships is central to our mission. Jesus counseled his disciples in John 15:12 NRSV, “This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.” In this passage Jesus reveals one of the most-powerful forms of witness for the early Christian church—how we treat each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Doctrine and Covenants 164:6a builds on this foundation. It counsels us to go deeper in our understanding of healthy relationships and strive together to embody the behaviors of Christ–like love, mutual respect, responsibility, justice, covenant, and faithfulness in all our relationships.

This work begins in our families and congregations, where we work to create a foundation for healthy relationships that informs all areas of our lives. How can we more intentionally build that foundation by creating learning opportunities and modeling healthy relationship principles in our congregations and families?
I recently shared with a person who was struggling through a separation from his wife. As I listened, it became clear that at some point they stopped working on the relationship. Living out the principles in paragraph 6a of Doctrine and Covenants 164 requires intentionality and commitment.

As I travel throughout my field I find unhealthy relationships in congregations as a significant barrier to mission. In working with congregations I discover broken relationships that have existed beneath the surface for years for several reasons.

I often am told the issues have long been forgotten. Yet they surface in multiple conversations and behaviors. Without trust, it is difficult to have conversations that matter, and the congregation typically avoids discussing issues that may result in conflict. Over time the congregation becomes a place that looks OK on the surface but fails to meaningfully live out the gospel in sacred community.

Doctrine and Covenants 164:6a–c challenges us to use the relationship principles in the counsel as the standard for evaluating and in some cases changing behaviors so our relationships are rooted in Christ-like principles.
This means we are called to critically evaluate cultural norms of behavior and relationships through the lens of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This at times will place us in the uncomfortable position of challenging what the majority considers acceptable. This majority sometimes will include those who claim the name of Jesus Christ but are so close to their own culture they struggle to critically evaluate behaviors and relationships that clearly are not consistent with Christ-like principles.

As we explore these complex issues together, we turn to the example of Jesus Christ, the Living Word, as contained in scripture and experienced in our relationships with God and each other. Paragraph 5 of Doctrine and Covenants 164 provides the foundation for our journey of becoming a new creation in Christ:

It is imperative to understand that when you are truly baptized into Christ you become part of a new creation. By taking on the life and mind of Christ, you increasingly view yourselves and others from a changed perspective. Former ways of defining people by economic status, social class, sex, gender, or ethnicity no longer are primary. Through the gospel of Christ a new community of tolerance, reconciliation, unity in diversity, and love is being born as a visible sign of the coming reign of God.

When we are truly baptized into Christ we begin to see ourselves and others from a changed perspective. The Apostle Paul bore witness to this transformation in 2 Corinthians 5:16–18 and Galatians 3:27–29. I have experienced this changed perspective when I have opened myself to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. It is not a one-time transformation but a process as I release old ways of thinking and allow room for a new vision to emerge.

*        *        *

It was early on a Saturday morning as I walked into the waiting room. All the times I had visited her in the hospital, she never had shed a tear. But this morning the tears flowed. She allowed herself to ask aloud the questions she had tucked away for months. Our life experiences were very different, but in those moments we were drawn together in the raw reality of a mother’s love for a dying son.

I listened intently to her questions and resisted the temptation to offer hollow phrases of comfort. I simply was present. The walls that divided us because of life circumstances, gender, and political/religious perspectives faded into insignificance.

I was aware of the Spirit’s presence as my perspective changed. She no longer was a young mother with a son struggling with a life-threatening illness. They were now part of my family. My love and sense of pain took on intensity that disrupted my ability to keep the relationship at a distance.

Through the gift of the Holy Spirit I saw deeper and responded more fully to a beautiful person very different than myself. A new understanding and experience of being in relationship through Christ emerged for me that day. I glimpsed the potential we have to transcend societal barriers and truly become brothers and sisters in Christ.

As we discuss serious questions about moral behavior and relationships it will be a challenge to resist engaging in the polarizing rhetoric that divides families, congregations, communities, and even nations. Because of the complexity and emotionally charged nature of the issues before us, some simply may decide to withdraw from the conversation.

As a people of faith we have a responsibility to rise above these temptations and come together with common purpose to discover God’s will for our time and place.

In her book, Truly the Community, Marva Dawn states:

How we belong to one another in the Christian community is a sign of God’s unfolding love, which is sufficient for all the times of loneliness or fatigue or pain or grief that we might have to bear. What would it look like if the Christian Church were truly a community that thoroughly enjoyed being itself? It seems to me it could change the world!

Developing and maintaining healthy relationships are challenging but central to our call to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ. When we fully understand and live out the principles of Christ–like love, mutual respect, responsibility, justice, covenant, and faithfulness in all our relationships we demonstrate how we belong to one another in Christ.

I believe this example is urgently needed in our neighborhoods, towns, and villages. I believe it can change the world.





“Come and See”

5 04 2011

Steve Jonesby Steve Jones, presiding bishop

Are you a “see and come” person?

Or are you a “come and see” person?

The terms, used by William Willimon in the January edition of A Pulpit Resource, refer to life today. We live in a time when our culture is leading us—some would say demanding us— to live our lives as “see and come” persons.

If we want to know something, we simply Google it on our smartphone, iPad, or laptop. If that proves unsuccessful, we look it up on Wikipedia. If that still doesn’t inform us adequately, we go on Facebook and ask a friend, or we “tweet” someone.

We are becoming a people who need to know before we go.

And yet, everything about Christ’s birth, baptism, life, death, and resurrection calls us to live as “come and see” persons. The resurrection of Christ calls us—like Mary to the tomb, or like travelers on the road to the dinner table in Emmaus, or like disciples hunkered down in a dark room and fearful for their lives—to come and see our brother and savior raised from the tomb.

Our faith journey really can be understood only from the “inside out” as disciples invited to love and follow the one who loved us first.

I want us to experience the life-giving spirit of Christ’s resurrection daily because we are willing to “come and see.”

What does it mean to be a “come and see” disciple?

Be Vulnerable

Doctrine and Covenants 163:10a–b says: “God yearns to draw you close so that wounds may be healed, emptiness filled, hope strengthened…Be vulnerable to divine grace.”

We must be willing to come to one another with our wounds exposed, willing for others to see our brokenness.
As a family, we have experienced the pain of children struggling with depression and attempted suicide. But God said, “come and see,” and as we were vulnerable about our brokenness to those who loved us, we experienced Christ’s resurrection in our family.

Experience Mutuality

When we’re vulnerable to one another, the Holy Spirit can be present in these experiences of resurrection, and we can have a sense of oneness with the Divine.

The poet, David Adam, wrote:
God above us
God about us
God beneath us
God within us,
When we lose our grip, keep your hold on us.
When we stumble and fall, uplift and support us.
When our faith wavers, Dear Lord keep faith with us.
When our vision is dimmed, in love, Lord, look upon us.
In our darkest hour, Lord let your light surround us.
When far away we wander, you are never far from us.
God above us
God about us
God beneath us
God within us.

Peace Be with You

In the 19th chapter of John a very-frightened group of Christ’s disciples were hunkered down in a dimly lit room, fearful they were about to be hung from a cross. In that moment the resurrected Christ had every right to be both angry and disappointed, yet he comes to them in love. He enters the room and stills their fears by saying, “Peace be with you,” and the scripture goes on to say Christ, “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”

Christ’s resurrection is a daily opportunity to experience his peace in our lives and to be assured that God’s Holy Spirit goes with us, so that we, too, can invite people to “come and see” for he is risen.

A blessed Easter to each of you.