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Alyssa Azul Faith Formation Ink Slingers Lent Liturgical Year Prayer

Behind the Cinder Blocks…

Behind the Cinder Blocks, jail, ministry, corporal works of mercy, www.catholicsistas.com

A few months ago, I joined a program in my city called the Rosary Project through one of the parishes I serve at. It’s a service where all volunteers visit the Edmonton Remand Centre once a month to pray the Holy Rosary with the inmates. Initially, I was under the impression that I would be be praying with the inmates through a screen of some sort.

Imagine the look on my face when I walked into the pod for the first time to see an ocean of orange bustling around. The guard announced that the Rosary would begin right away for those who wanted to join, and I wasn’t expecting to see more than 5 people walk into the program room. The room filled up quickly, and men were sitting on the floor because there were not enough chairs. There were many from different, or no-faith backgrounds. We had men who knew nothing about Jesus, and men who recited stories from the Bible with clarity.

Before praying, we ask for every person’s intentions. Many men asked to pray for their fellow brothers and sisters in prison, but I was particularly touched when one older gentleman, who had been at the centre for a long time, said he wanted to pray for us, the volunteers.

Interestingly, I was told by one of the men that I shared the name of his daughter. This happened not once, but on two different occasions by different men. It was spooky since I never considered my name to be all that popular, yet it was sobering. I could see that these men were fathers that made real sacrifices, and were carrying a real penance. It struck me even more deeply that one of those men could have been my own father, telling a complete stranger that his daughter’s name was Alyssa.

From my experience so far I realize just how intentional the Rosary Project is. Spending up to years at a time locked away from your loved ones, with your freedom taken from you is a kind of rock-bottom I can’t even begin to understand. Deacon Joseph prefaces the project as a way of visiting those who cannot come to visit us at church.

I recall the verse in Matthew 25,

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

~Matthew 25: 34-40~

I was in prison and you came to visit me.

We are simply called to serve those in prison by visiting them — no more and no less.  I can understand now why Mother Teresa had such a fervent longing to serve those who were vulnerable, undesirable and outcasted in society. Touching those people with her heart was how she encountered Jesus; how she was able to see His face. These people are our brothers and sisters, and we can not turn our backs on them, despite everything that they’ve done.

I am aware that I am walking into a world that is unfamiliar to me, and I am surrounded by people that come from backgrounds of violence, substance abuse, and a great lack of love. But I am surrounded. These people have the humility to walk into this room and recite five decades of our Holy Mother’s prayer with us. I can’t ask for a greater miracle. What a privilege it is for me to encounter that. Deacon Joseph said it to the men we were praying with in such a beautiful way: “When I hear us praying together in rhythm in this room, it sounds and feels almost identical to when I am praying the Rosary with my brothers in the clergy.” Prayer ties all voices together in unison, forming a brotherhood that is powerful and unbreakable.

It’s incredible how quickly the Holy Spirit works – the tiny, single-decade rosary beads we hand out afterwards are received with careful and appreciative hands. For many, it’s the pocketful of light that they will need to face another day inside of those cinder block walls.

As we all move into this Lenten season, I encourage us all to simply visit.

Find a way to visit:

Your local correctional facility through your parish.

A senior’s home.

A shelter.

A food bank and spend time with those doing the Lord’s work in the most basic of ways.

Your parents who may live miles away.

Your neighbor whose dogs might be loud sometimes. Invite the young couple with a newborn at church over for dinner.

Kingdom work starts with a simple visit.

Read more about the Corporal Works of Mercy

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Elle Stone Respect Life Testimonials

Visiting the Imprisoned – An Encounter With An Inmate

Visiting the Imprisoned

Disclaimer: This post is about my correspondence with Dahvie Holmes, with whom I run the blog Housewife // Savagelife (www.housewifesavagelife.com).  This post for Catholic Sistas has been edited for a general audience, including only a brief description of violence. 

Because Housewife // Savagelife shares Dahvie’s unique voice and experience, the blog contains adult content, including violence, sexual content, drugs, and language.  Discretion is advised if you chose to access Housewife // Savagelife.

 

yoooo

I have a friend who’s…different from my other friends. For one, we communicate via letter (basically a medieval undertaking). Second, on the return address where the name should be there’s a number: 20141008200.  Third, when I open this letter, it’s not uncommon to read something like this:

yoooo what’s up Elle? you crazy, man.  I be laughin like a MF whenever I think about this.  I always look at the “other side” (outside of jail) and wonder…how do they think.  How do they kick it?.

My friend’s name is Dahvie Holmes, and he’s an inmate at Cook County Jail.  Over the past year and a half, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know him, attempting to understand his world, and starting a blog with him. Through encountering his experiences and thoughts, I’ve “visited the imprisoned”–which has radically changed my life.

I could get into how we met (a crazy story with a couple of miracles sprinkled in–if you’re curious, you can read it here: https://www.housewifesavagelife.com/blog/2017/6/8/a-housewife-encounters-the-savagelife).  But I want to give Dahvie the stage. 

“I love her to death”

Dahvie doesn’t play pleasantries.  He gives such a raw insight into his life.  He sent me a letter which started with this story:

So I call the house, first my mama was talking to some dcfs (Department of Children and Family Services) agent so she asked me to call back.  That blew me to hear who she was talking to because I already have 2 siblings in foster care.  Well they adopted now but it’s the same thing to me.  They not with they birth family.  I don’t even know them.  Never meet them either.  It’s a sad story.  

Now to hear she talking to the dcfs again while she in custody of my baby sister scares the eff out of me cuz that’s my heart.  I love her to death.  I would never forgive my mother if she loses her.  But the guilt really eats at me because I’m in jail and can’t do a darn thing to help.

It gives me chills to read that.  I can’t help but think about my family.  How heartbreaking would it be to call up your mom and hear that? That your mom was sending one of your siblings into foster care?  And you couldn’t do a thing about it?

A little backstory: Dahvie’s mom is addicted to crack.  She was probably using it while she was pregnant with Dahvie.  Maybe all her kids.  I couldn’t help but to think: wouldn’t foster care be good for his sister to get out of a bad situation?

His response:

My mom isn’t the best parent but at least she has support.  My sister needs to be around family.  Her family not no darn strangers.  SO I believe it isn’t best for her.  But if it was, of course I would want the best then yeah.

The thought of having a sister disappear while your away, into the hands of strangers.  It’s hard to even wrap my head around it. I had reduced Dahvie and his family to equations and statistics.  But in this, I experienced his pain. 

An inmate doesn’t just become a cold representation of his crime. They still encounter devastating heartbreak.  They still encounter brokenness.

“I’m actually numb to it.”

This next letter completely underscored the discrepancy between Dahvie and I.  We live in two completely different worlds. It’s eye-opening and devastating:

To see your homies on the news.  Mama cryin and stuff. It’s a effed up feeling.  I wake up to the deck screamin my name sayin my block on the news.  I jump up to see two brothers was gunned down at the restaurant. Face shots.  Them was my lil bro’s too. Even though we had some differences I still loved them.  It hurt me to found out like this. This war stuff real. 

Another huge emotional knockout.  Knowing those people, and seeing it on the news…I couldn’t imagine.  And I told that to Dahvie, I really could not imagine. I knew exactly zero people who had been shot at. Zero. Zilch.  Nada.

He responded:

It’s everyday life for me.  I’m actually numb to it. It’s weird to me hearin how y’all live.  I believe you know somebody who been shot they just ain’t tell you or embarrassed to admit it.  If you really don’t know someone (besides me) then my life, my cellie life, and everybody around me life really been messed up.  Darn SMH. Darn. That would be so hard to accept.

Dahvie couldn’t even imagine a world where people hadn’t been shot at, where this wasn’t a regular occurrence.  He couldn’t imagine my comfortable suburban life, my violence-free, gang-free existence.

This got me thinking. What if I grew up in a neighborhood where people had been shot at, all my friends had been shot at or were shooters?   How would my life be different? Pope Francis said:

Each one of us is capable of doing the same thing done by that man or woman in jail. All of us are capable of sinning and making the same mistake in life. They are not worse than you and I!

I have not committed a crime which could land me in jail. But I’ve been so guarded from making mistakes like that. Let’s say that I commit sin 30% of the time (I had a tough time coming up with a number so let’s go with that).  That means that three out of ten times I’m turning away from God. 

What if for those mess ups, instead of being in my safe little apartment, I was in a neighborhood like Dahvie’s?  Personal choice is a big part of it, but I personally choose to do all kinds of evils. I haven’t had the same opportunities for evil as Dahvie.

Pope Francis says:

They haven’t had the opportunities that I have had of not doing something stupid and ending up in prison…This makes me cry inside. It is deeply moving.

“I had failed to love that child…”

From the start, Dahvie was vulnerable with me, but I put up walls.  I’m very guarded. It took me months to open up to him, to share with him about my life.  Finally I sent him this:

My period is late.  I think I might be pregnant.  Which, to be honest, I don’t know how I feel about it.  I had a miscarriage a couple of months ago, and that process was tough.  Like, the whole thing from start to finish. 

The pregnancy was a total surprise, and I really struggled to be happy about it.  It just was so not my plan, so much not what I wanted my life to be. I wanted my independence for a little longer.  Which I was ashamed about because I knew that I was being called to love that innocent little life. 

And then, when I had the miscarriage, I was heartbroken, because I had failed to love that child as much as I should have.  I wanted to learn how to love the child (my husband named her “Poppy”), and I lost that shot. Seems like I might have that shot again.

I was in a really broken spot.  I had failed, I was wounded. I needed true rehabilitation in my heart.  Pope Francis underscores the need for rehabilitation, saying some people:

…do this in their own homes and in their own professions. Others, like you, do this in a prison. But all of us, all of us — anyone who says they do not need to go through a process of rehabilitation is a liar.

I needed something that Dahvie knew well.  A process of rehabilitation. A time of focus and change.  I could do this hidden in my home, but he does this behind bars, every day.  Perhaps this is why his response was moving, filled with understanding and care:

I’m confused at your reaction.  I thought you was ready for a football team of kids? Haha you thought you was.  But you was really scared. That’s how it be for everybody who think they ready for a responsibility whole time when the situation present itself we freeze up.  Get nervous. Don’t worry that’s normal. Love always grows so don’t think different. I’m sorry y’all had a miscarriage. God knows best and your chance will come again.

Dahvie gave me something that I had almost given up on.  In my self-loathing and self-pity, I had given up on the chance of change, the chance of things getting better.

Pope Francis says that those in prison: 

…are serving a penalty, a penalty for a mistake committed…But let us not forget that, for punishment to be fruitful, it must have a horizon of hope, otherwise it is enclosed within itself and is only an instrument of torture, it is not fruitful.

God never encloses us in our sin and brokenness.  He always gives us a horizon of hope, a chance at forgiveness and true change.  In the face of Dahvie’s broken world and mistakes, in the face of my miscarriage, Pope Francis says it best:

…the horizon is bigger than the problems, hope goes beyond all the problems…

Quotes from Pope Francis come from: https://www.ncronline.org/news/vatican/there-grace-god-what-pope-francis-thinks-prisoners and http://www.lastampa.it/2017/08/24/vaticaninsider/pope-francis-to-studentinmates-punishment-must-have-a-horizon-of-hope-gKo3YCXEVTnLJclJO4hvGL/pagina.html\

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Ink Slingers Lent Leticia Liturgical Year Spiritual Growth

Time to Walk the Walk

From the moment I watched Pope Benedict leave the Vatican for the last time and speak for the last time as Pope, I had a feeling something big was about to happen. My opinions about popes has been a conversion in and of itself. Having been a Baptist most of my childhood, I had Protestant views of the papacy, but there was something about Pope John Paul II’s face that really made it hard to believe that he was the anti-Christ. As he grew older and suffered more and more I loved him and yet I still thought it was crazy that people would believe he was actually running the show. When he died I was one of those people who watched the conclave only in passing on the secular news outlets.

Then there was Pope Benedict. I did not think that I would ever really care for him. Like ever. But then I saw him in Rome. He won my heart. The thing about Pope Benedict is that in person he looks nothing like his pictures. In person the fact that he is an introvert is very clear. But what else is clear is that he is a kind and gentle soul. I don’t really know how to explain it, but from the moment I laid eyes on him, I loved him. I read his writings and loved him even more. I cried the whole time I watched him leave the Vatican. I long to see his face and to know what he is doing now. And I hope he knows how much we all love and miss him. I really do miss him.

And now Pope Francis. *sigh* What is there to say that hasn’t already been said in a million blog posts? He’s his own Pope. And I like it. My inner rebel is cheering him on, getting involved in liturgy wars that I have no clue about, talking when I shouldn’t, and making rash judgments against people I love and consider friends. (All of which, I just wrote a blog post about and I said not to do that. I need to take my own advice sometimes.) But all of that came to a screeching halt when I read the news that he will being celebrating Mass on Holy Thursday in a juvenile detention center. That was the beginning of my conversation with God today. He did not hold back either.

I’ve been to jail. Not just once, but 12 times. The longest I’ve been in jail is 16 days. It was in the Amarillo City Jail, which is old school. There are no TVs, no outside, no nothing. Just sleep, books, cards, and crappy food. The thing that sucks the most about being in jail is you feel that everyone else is going on with life on the outside and they aren’t even thinking of you. It’s as if you’re dead but nobody is mourning you and there is nothing you can do about it except wait. You wait until you get out so you can do better next time, but really you know that you will always hold a grudge against them for living life and against yourself for being the loser who got locked up in the first place. And the cycle continues … it’s like a circle of hell. You know that you put yourself there, but you make excuses. Everyone is out to get you. Life is out to get you. The people who are supposed to care about you don’t, because if they did, they would get you out. The thoughts of self-loathing in jail are intense. From where I sit now I know exactly where the voice of those thoughts comes from: the accuser. His voice is loud in jail: telling you how terrible you are, how much of a failure you are, how everyone is a liar, how they don’t love you, how you are worthless, how you have a right to hate everything, and on and on. You start to adjust to it and start making friends and trying to make the most of your time. And then comes Sunday. The church people come in and stand there and preach at you about how you’re a sinner. I would always just pretend to be asleep with a towel over my face but under the towel I was crying. Because I knew what I was, I didn’t need anyone else telling me, I had that voice in my mind that wouldn’t shut up from telling me. What I needed to hear was about Jesus and how Merciful God is.

Today, I cried thinking of what it would be like to be in prison and have the Pope say Mass and wash the feet of prisoners in there. Currently I have two cousins in prison, my oldest son’s uncle is in state jail, and my kids’ father is in jail. All of them are there because of bad choices they made. Regardless, I know all of them are loved by God. Who is going to tell them that while they sit in there with that voice accusing them of being nothing and unloved? The evil one is there no matter what. Who is going to take Jesus to them? Many people have opinions about what Pope Francis is doing. Some of those opinions are rooted in selfishness of wanting the papacy to be run their way to make them feel better. (Anytime people center their opinions based on their feelings it’s rooted in something that is not virtuous.) But as someone who has been in jail and knows what goes through the mind of someone in there, I think what he is doing is showing the rest of us, by his example, that the time for talk is over. It is time to walk the walk.

That is what Holy Week is all about, isn’t it? Jesus walked the walk. He spent three years talking, on Holy Thursday He instituted the Eucharist and the Priesthood, and the following day he walked the walk carrying His cross all the way up until He was crucified on it. What scares me is that this is what Pope Francis is all about. He is all about the Cross and I am all about talking about it. I’m not about carrying it and letting anyone hang me on it. But isn’t that the point of Lent? To die to self? Some of us need to die to our feelings, some need to die to self by not making rash judgments of others, and some of us need to die to self by giving up the talk and start walking the walk.

I would suggest that we all follow our Pope’s example this Holy Week and practice some Corporal works of Mercy:
feeding the hungry
giving drink to the thirsty
clothing the naked
offering hospitality to the homeless
caring for the sick
visiting the imprisoned
burying the dead 

May God use us to take Christ to those who need him the most.