Not according to our sins does he deal with us, nor does he requite us according to our crimes Psalm 103:10
On Wednesday February 16, 2011 a group of women in baggy blue-grey pants and tunics held a classroom filled wall-to-wall, captive to the stories of their captivity.
The room was packed with budding entrepreneurial students, professors, and friends of the Hogan Program at Chaminade University. Under the guidance of Pat Clough, Teacher of the Prison Writing Project in Kailua, these women used humor and tears, verse and prose, skits and song to tell cautionary tales of the bad choices, often repeated bad choices, that had led them to prison. Not free themselves, they gave freely of lessons learned, of the price paid in irretrievable loss: of loved ones, of family, of time, of self.
But every story of loss was also a story of redemptive promise. Over and over again, these women from the Women’s Community Correctional Center (WCCC) in Kailua, Oahu affirmed their commitment to giving back to the community. They do so by recounting their bad choices and touching other people’s lives in ways that might keep others from taking the same wrong turns they had:
I have come to keep and honor them
The only true mistake
Is the one you do not learn from
That evening that left few dry-eyed, came to mind on Sunday morning at the Mystical Rose Oratory as Fr. Timothy Eden read the Gospel in a way that challenged the frame through which we look out on the world.
Gesturing with both arms stretched out as if he were pushing back invisible walls on either side, Fr. Tim reminded the congregation that Christ challenges us to do very hard things. Near impossible things, it seems. To turn the other cheek. To walk the extra mile. To pray for those who persecute us. “For he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” (Matthew 5: 39-45) Christ invites us to get beyond the too small confines of how we view the call of faith, even the very commandments. Too small, said Fr. Tim, over and over again, pushing against those walls.
Pushing Back Against a Church Grown Small
As much as Fr. Tim challenged the congregation in that beautiful chapel, lay Catholics everywhere are called to challenge the institutional church. More than ever we need to ask the Church if it has become too small, too narrow, trapped in the suffocating closeness of its bureaucracy and its old, old, old power structure. Too small to admit women to the priesthood. Too small to welcome LGBT Catholics to full participation in all the sacraments and full recognition of their human identity. Too small to be pro-life in ways that transcend the obsession with authority that Bishop Olmsted at St. Joseph’s Hospital, Phoenix recently displayed.
Pope John XXIII provided the kind of leadership that resisted smallness, that encouraged inclusiveness, that threw open the windows of the Vatican so that the fresh wind of real Christ-like compassion and understanding could give its musty interiors a good airing. It’s time for much more of the same.
The women from WCCC use their writing and school presentations to get beyond the walls that confine them. In so doing they help realize the vision that Warden Mark Paterson describes as one of transforming “not just the lives of women inmates, but lives in the community as well.” It wasn’t surprising that their message resonated with the Hogan Entrepreneurial Program. The Program charges every student with “doing social things that make business sense and business things that make social sense.” Helping the homeless prepare for their job searches is as much a requirement for a Hogan student as listening to successful entrepreneurs tell their stories. Both prepare them to push back on the walls of the classroom and the jobs that await them so that their world is never “too small.”
Daily we encounter opportunities to push back on the walls that might otherwise close in on us. The challenge is recognizing those opportunities in the smallest of spaces, in the midst of the worst kinds of confinement, to “find the sun within myself” (Royce, Federal Detention Center, Honolulu).
The Prison Writing Project is one initiative to help address the problem of the alarming growth of Hawaii’s female prison population. You can help by making a tax-deductible donation or arranging for a presentation of “Prison Monologues.”
Write to Pat Clough at firstname.lastname@example.org