Our friends at School for Conversion down in North Carolina work to make “surprising friendships possible.” Since 2009, their Project TURN has invited students from outside prison to study alongside incarcerated students, hearing one another’s stories across prison walls. SFC’s Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove recently wrote the story of how Project TURN came to be for Sojourners Magazine. We’re glad to share this moving letter from Meghan Killingsworth, SFC’s Anne Braden Fellow, who learned she was pregnant during a Project TURN class this fall.
By the time you read this, it is possible that some of your earliest friends will have been incarcerated for decades. Surely, you were around a lot of voices before you were born, but some of the earliest voices that you heard weekly came from the mouths of incarcerated men wearing jumpsuits. You went through metal detectors each week and through frigid hallways to a wing of a local prison to learn about life and suffering and hope from some of our often-forgotten neighbors. But the way things are right now is not the way things have to be. Our new friends have helped me to believe that. It’s why I want you to remember them.
Before you were born, you heard stories of great misery, like the recounting of Rodney who spent his childhood playing solitary confinement because those were the stories he was told as a child. You heard stories of great courage, like Leroy’s insistence on resisting the identity given to him by the prison. You heard Chanton’s powerful short story about a character struggling with being transgender, a brave story to write in our current cultural context. You heard a room full of men essentially left for dead by the state bellow out, “The only chain that a man can stand / is the chain of hand in hand. / Got my hand on the freedom plow, / wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now. / Keep your eyes on the prize, / hold on. Hold on.”
In your first three months of life, you heard wisdom about writing and sharing a creative story, something I thought myself to be no good at before I got encouragement from Green Eyes and Gregory and George and Raheem and Paul. While the God of the universe was knitting you together in my womb, your dad and I were learning what it costs to know the names and faces and gifts and skills of unique individuals who all have been rendered worthless by the state. You need to know that most of the faces in the room were black and that is no surprise to a country that in 2015 still views black skin as inherently guilty. In a play your friends put on this week, one character asked, “How can anyone prove his innocence when he is cloaked in skin assumed to be guilty?” You need to know that much of your family would have exploded with anger if they knew “the kind of people” you were sitting next to, not only because they fail to see how ironic such fear is alongside a God who crosses boundaries, but also because many of us have been programed to believe those boundaries are drawn for “our protection.”
You will be taught some day about the history of this country. I hope you pay attention, not because you’ll be given grades for how much you know but because we are shaped by the stories that came before us and the stories that we are told. Listen well to the voices that are given their own holidays, but listen also to the voices of the people in the footnotes and in the stories of the little old ladies in the church and the grocery store and the neighborhood. Our friends have taught me that wisdom is not encapsulated in the walls of institutions with special names. It’s also in the writers who try to tell the unspeakable and it’s echoing in the walls of unspeakable places.
We live in a world that believes strongly in order, and the church has not helped to redefine that order according to God’s ideas. You’ll probably be taught in a Sunday school class somewhere that God, through the power of Christians, is bringing order from chaos, a particular telling of the creation story that served people of power–especially white colonists–well, making the pillage of native lands easier to digest. It’s the same story that said civilizing Native peoples was the great call of the church, and that teaches us a society with crime simply needs more law and more order. It’s a power hungry world out there, baby, and power is threatened by freedom and imagination.
What you did every week was witness an act of resistance. There were no guns or shields or marches, but it was a fleeing from the way things are and an imagination of the way things could be. You heard a group of people resist the stripping of their individual identities. JT is not just another grey haired guy who will have spent nearly his whole life in a prison cell. He’s an avid reader and a quiet source of wisdom and a hipster who managed to turn a state-issued green hat into a fashion statement. You heard a group of people living out lives pursuing meaning through writing, and renarrating, and wrestling through some of the world’s great art like Beloved and Zong! and original short stories. Given the opportunity to easily fade into a life of distraction for the rest of their days, some of our new friends work instead on a magazine and new verses to freedom songs and Lyle ponders the ways the criminal justice system should provide education so that younger men don’t leave the prison without resources to succeed. In an act of refusal to be segregated from society and forgotten, they have written and dreamed and invested in each other and risked investing in us.
You were there to learn from great believers in freedom, even while they suffered under the chains of being told by society that nothing redeemable was left in their living. Robin Kelley says, “The map to a new world is in the imagination, in what we see in our third eyes rather than in the desolation that surrounds us.” If that’s true, and I think it is, you have been given a map and the means to keep drawing it. You have learned about what it means to flee toward freedom, even when that fleeing is within one’s consciousness. You have learned about seeing the abundance around you, in the giftedness of people, and in the beauty that can be made with items from the canteen, and in the dignity of telling of one’s own story. You can witness to the truth that “each of us is more than the worst things we’ve ever done.”
You are not just a product of your DNA and the citizen of a certain country and the child of two quirky parents. You are a witness to glimpses of the world as it could be and that gift comes with responsibility. I’ve told you the names of these early friends because they are not merely incarcerated citizens of a certain country; they are the children of parents and someone’s friends and the carriers of stories. They are unique individuals who, despite the church and society’s ability to ignore the fact, are created in the image of God, gifted for the blessing of others, and made to be in community.
There will be days when you and I both forget what it means for all people to be made in the image of God, and on those days, I hope we remind each other that such a fact does indeed change everything. It will be possible because of your skin color and some of your family and the way things are now for you to live comfortably, forgetting these early friends if you wanted to, and that’s why I want you to have this. I want you to know that before you were born you were already wrapped up in friendship with people who would challenge your comfort behind societal lines and barriers. They taught and encouraged and shared stories with you long before you ever earned or deserved it. When you learn about grace, I hope you remember that on Tuesdays it was given to you by the hands of men wearing jumpsuits who have the courage to sing, “Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.”