The Henry David Thoreau congregation's three programs with prison inmates show how building community with prisoners can be transformational for all.
Product Code: 7334
ISBN: 9781558965386
Format: Paperback
Publisher: Skinner House Books
Published Date: 05/27/2008
Pages: 92
Size: 8.5 x 5.5
Availability:In stock
Price: $14.00
In 2003 members of the Henry David Thoreau Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fort Bend County, Texas, began a letter-writing program with prison inmates. Soon afterward they launched a creative writing workshop and then a program that allowed prisoners to serve as writing mentors to college students. Speer describes how these programs started and evolved, sharing details about what worked, what didn't and how the experience was transformational for all involved.

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Finding Freedom with Prisoners

The Programs

The Letter Project

The Writing Workshop

The Writing Mentor Program

What Prisoners Can Teach Us

UUA 2005 Statement of Conscience: Criminal Justice and Prison Reform

Our church community is called to work with prisoners for personal, political, and spiritual reasons. At least a fourth of our 150 members has provided direct service to prisoners, and many more have been involved in advocacy or indirect service of various kinds. Some of us have family members in jails and prisons. Some are most interested in public education and advocating for policy change. K. Limakatso Kendall (known by friends as Kendall) and I have been the primary facilitators of our congregation's work with prisoners. We are drawn particularly toward direct contact with individuals. We like real letters in envelopes with stamps on them and face-to-face meetings and volunteer workshops held in prison classrooms. We like to touch the lives of specific human beings whose stories we can learn, and who have time to listen to us and help us grow.

This book describes three projects initiated and supported by our congregation involving direct contact with prisoners: a letter-writing program that allows us to foster relationships with prisoners; a creative-writing workshop in a prison classroom, that spawned a literary journal called Midnight Special; and a program for college teachers that allows prisoners to serve anonymously as tutors and writing mentors to college students. In these pages, I describe how we set up these programs, examine some of the mistakes we made in the hopes that others will not make the same ones, and discuss how other congregations could start their own programs.

Less practically, but even more important, I discuss how our prison work grows from and contributes to our religious practice. This work is important for our congregation, for Unitarian Universalism, and for the inner lives of those engaged in the effort. I focus especially on two concepts: building community and finding freedom.

Community is a group of individuals stumbling toward our better selves with mutual respect. Community requires acts of courage like laughing together at our dumbest mistakes, reliving our losses, admitting our shame, asking hard questions, and accepting each other's praise. As we build community with prisoners across differences of class, race, and background, we are lifted out of our ghettos of privilege or struggle. We meet each other, hear each other's stories, and exclaim, "I never knew anybody like you before." Or, we say, sometimes, "We are so much the same despite our differences." The wonder of revelations like this tickles us into sheepish grins and then rips our hearts open.

Healthy communities of trust, support, and mutual respect nurture and encourage good decision making. These assets are glaringly absent from prison life. Creating relationships with prisoners improves the likelihood that they will grow personally and spiritually. But just as importantly, prisoners offer gifts to us. Members of our congregations have learned about themselves in surprising ways through interactions with prisoners. In certain moments, those of us involved stumble upon freedom. Building community with prisoners helps free them from the dehumanizing routines of prison culture and helps us on the outside overcome our preconceptions and aversions.

Working with prisoners helps free us from cynicism and despair. If you want to learn how to keep hope alive, involve yourself with the voiceless ones, with the infinitely oppressed. Involve yourself with the desperate, the unloved, the wretched, the thrown-away souls. There you will find hope and compassion; you will find astonishing art and wisdom. Prisoners will remind you that even here, even now, even in the darkness, the spirit is strong, the spirit is free, and the dignity of being human is alive with possibility in every moment. You will be reminded that is self-indulgent to lose hope in your relatively privileged circumstances. You may even be inspired to create a better world for free men and women to step into once they are released.

Praise for Uncommon Community:

"Uncommon Community is the best kind of guide. In clear, direct language Speer describes prison programs developed and supported by his congregation in Texas. He shares stories of human sharing, personal testimonies and observations about our national prison crisis, while also giving useful advice to others wanting to do similar work. I look forward to sharing this excellent account with people across the country-inside and out-involved with prison issues and programs."

—Judith Tannenbaum, author, Disguised as a Poem: My Years Teaching Poetry at San Quentin

"These projects cut right to the core of our faith. Transformation is never easy, yet it is necessary to heal our bruised and hurting world. In giving a voice to the voiceless, the unimagined possibilities for hope in this world are made manifest."

—Bill Clark, minister, First Parish in Lexington

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