A friend emailed recently to say she’d woken with her stomach feeling a little unsettled, but that it might simply be a result of vodka, meatloaf and the physical challenges of mining. I put on my glasses and reread the sentence, having never seen those three words in such close proximity.
Vodka, meatloaf, mining. I laughed out loud.
As part of the Revisioning Justice in America conference at Vanderbilt, we were to host a community reading of monologues from men sentenced to die in prison. The conference’s opening speaker was Bryan Stevenson, author of the beautiful book “Just Mercy.” Bryan began his talk by reminding us, powerfully and repeatedly, that to redress injustice, we must first get proximate to it.
The very things that disturb us most are the things we must get close to. Here, in our country, we have sentenced 13-year-olds to die in prison. Can we get close to that? In 13 short years we allowed a baby to be born and develop into a child we then sentenced to death in prison. Does that unsettle our stomachs?
When I was little our pediatrician’s office had an illustrated book of Bible stories. The drawings were dramatic, at least the ones I recall, full of rich colors and violent scenarios. They mostly terrified me. I couldn’t stop staring. One showed Jacob wrestling an angel – an angel that looked remarkably like Jacob, except with uncomfortably top-heavy wings and minus the fur loincloth. I don’t remember why Jacob was wrestling with the angel or God or whoever it was, but why not? Life gives us plenty worth wrestling with.
For more than a year, while we worked on this project with incarcerated men, we struggled with the question of proximity. How could we develop a community conversation without access to one of the parties? Finally, we had an idea. A call and response. We would bring the men’s voices and stories into communities and then carry the listeners’ responses back inside. We would take monologues and create dialogues. We would offer audiences the opportunity not to avert their eyes.
What’s possible when we refuse to back away from what troubles us but instead throw down a challenge, to ourselves and the better angels of our nature? On Sunday morning at 8:30, the conference participants did just that. They showed up to give voice to men they had not and would never meet. They got up close and personal with some hugely challenging stories. They could not tear their eyes away. They wept a lot.
At the close, I asked the audience to write two things, a sentence beginning with “I feel” and a question that arose as they listened to these stories.
One woman wrote, “I feel the same feeling in my stomach as when I was at the lake with my family and we looked up and couldn’t find our 5-year-old son.”
Who hasn’t felt that gripping anxiety? Who’s willing to experience it again?
“Hearing your stories has changed me,” another wrote. “Please know I will carry you with me into the classroom. All of my students who I love deeply and care for, maybe in some way they will hear your story, too.”
When the men read the responses, they were quiet. Sober. They had worked steadily for more than a year to offer their life experiences into the world on a wing and a prayer that they might find a place to land. As one man explained, they hadn’t dared hope anyone outside would care.
And then one man asked, “Why didn’t they sign their names?”
Truthfully, I never thought about it. I hadn’t wanted the responses to seem like a school assignment: “Write two complete sentences and then sign your name.” Many respondents had signed anyway. Amber, Naomi, Charles, Ndume.
I understood then that a name is proximity. Each incarcerated man had received letters from outside that arrived unsigned. Often from faith communities. When the men wrote back and apologized for not knowing how to address the writer, the writer would explain that the letter was unsigned in case the current inmate “ever got out.” Now, there’s a gut punch.
No wonder that after a single reading of the audience responses, the men recalled every signed name.
Vodka, meatloaf, mining. My friend had gone to the mountains to dig for gems. Isn’t that what we’re all doing? The men, the audience, each of us, swirling, panning, mining for the hidden, connected heart we know is there.
Jacob won. He demanded a blessing from the angel and was given not only the blessing but a new name. Because showing up changes us. Getting close reveals our own hidden capacities. A new name. A new vision. Revision. Justice. America. Who knows, maybe that’s the blessing we were seeking all the time.
Lynden Harris is the founder and director of Hidden Voices. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org