D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

Filtering by Tag: perspective

War Photographer: Ed Cyzewski

War Photographers is a curated mix of stories from people working on the front lines: how do we share the hard stories that aren't our own? To learn more about the series, click here.  

Today we get to hear from Ed Cyzewski, famous to many in the blog-world. He himself would say it wasn't all that radical to feature the voices of women in ministry on his highly succesful blog, but the truth is that he is one of the few evangelical men who are outspoken in their appreciation for diversity in dialogue. I have always loved how Ed constantly uses his "platform" (again--a word he hates) to let others speak. Today he writes a bit about a world that many of us no nothing of, yet contributes to the broken stories of many. I appreciate his honesty in detailing the way we choose to write off, or ignore, that which we don't understand.

 

 

What I Saw in an Inmate’s Eyes

What chance would you give a middle-aged African American man who has been imprisoned five times and is about to be released again?

I used to write this type of guy off. I mean, he just can’t get his act together. At least we’ve got a prison to keep him off the streets.

Stan changed my perspective. I met him while volunteering for an Alpha course in a prison.

All of the younger inmates were drawn to him. He shared advice, encouragement, and whatever lessons he had learned. He wasn’t proud or arrogant. In a prison culture where you need to act tough and together, he was the odd man out with his humility and compassion for others.

How did this guy end up in prison five times already?

Stan and a small band of inmates regularly joined me to pray for about 20 minutes at the end of each Alpha session. I quickly learned their stories.

Abuse and neglect from their parents started things out. Then impoverished neighborhoods with few opportunities for success took over. With no mentors and no visible opportunities for work, they turned to drugs and alcohol. Relationships with family members and friends were already under tremendous strain, but substance abuse made things worse.

By the time these men broke the law, they had been broken in so many ways. Prison only served to break them further with the extreme hostility and tension among the inmates and guards.

Where does someone go to pick up the pieces? If you don’t have a stable family to return to, you’re going to return to the same old neighborhood where all of the same demons are still haunting you.

I can’t do justice to the stories of these inmates, but I want to tell you about something I saw as we prayed.

I saw men with fear in their eyes. They wanted to make it. They wanted to get their lives in order. They knew the odds were stacked against them and that failure is almost inevitable.

At least two men said it bluntly, “I’m afraid of being released. I’ve got nowhere to go, and I’m afraid I’ll just get into trouble again.”

They were specific with their prayer requests. They knew what would trip them up.

As we sat down to pray in our battered folding chairs in a dirty all purpose room lined with old televisions and rusted folding tables, I felt the weight of their past, the shame of their present, and the despair of their future.

These men came to God praying that God would save them from themselves, helping them become better people who stopped inflicting pain on others. For all that I know about God’s salvation, I’ve also never faced something quite so daunting as what these men carried with them.

Make no mistake, there are some horrible people in prison, people who delight in the power of causing others suffering. Some are mentally ill. Others have been wounded first and learned that way of life. There is no excuse for violent crimes.

I just want you to see their eyes for a moment. I want you to see the pain and the fear. Their eyes don’t change the past for anyone, but they tell us a deeper, more complicated story. They show us that there are some trapped people who can’t find an escape hatch. If they could, they’d use it in a heartbeat.

I like prison ministry because it cuts through all of the grandstanding Christians are tempted to do. A guy in blue prison scrubs can comb his hair nice and wear a cool pair of sneakers or sport an impressive tattoo, but even a prisoner on top of the inmate pecking order is still in prison. You can’t act like you’ve got your act together for long—especially if you’re going to open yourself to the Holy Spirit.

While volunteering in that prison I never felt like I could write about it. I didn’t want these men to become a writing project. As I look back on them, I think of their struggles and uncertainty. I pray for them. The reality is that many of them will end up back in prison. Change can take time.

I don’t know how Stan’s story ended. I moved away and then the prison closed. But let me tell you what I hope...

During one of our last conversations, Stan shared his plan. He’d been in touch with a pastor, and the pastor and his church were going to help him find a job. Once he saved up enough money, he wanted to start his own business. His plans were far more detailed than anything I’ve ever done in my life. I’m sure he was one of the few inmates with a legal career path mapped out for his release.

I pray that Stan connected with that pastor.

I pray that this church helped Stan find a job.

I pray that Stan will launch his business someday.

These are wildly optimistic prayers that fly in the face of common sense. They make about as much sense as ordering your entire life around a man convicted and killed for treason 2,000 years ago.

 

 

Ed Cyzewski blogs at www.inamirrordimly.com where he shares imperfect and sometimes sarcastic thoughts about following Jesus. He is the co-author of Hazardous: Committing to the Cost of the Following Jesus and the author of Coffeehouse Theology. Find him on twitter: @edcyzewski and on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/EdCyzewskiWriter.

The Migrant Mother

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it. --Dorothea Lange (From: Popular Photography, Feb. 1960).

dorothea-lange_migrant-mother-composite

The other day our car was broken down (again, again) and we walked to the free art museum which happened to be 1.3 miles away. No matter the snow, or the biting wind--we had bags full of snacks and a blanket to wrap around the toddler. As we walked through the streets, past now familiar sights--the corner where all the deals go down, the popular cigarette shop, the statue made of melted-down guns kitty-corner against the park where people still get shot--we eventually found a tree-lined park, and the majestic columns of the art museum. We wandered in, unsure of how we had found this haven of calm, order, and beauty.

Between chasing our daughter (under the stern eyes of the guards) and wandering the many rooms of ancient art, we finally made our way to my favorites: the photography section. There, I was struck by a high-quality print of a photo I have seen time and time again: Dorothea Lange's iconic Migrant Mother, shot in 1936 in Nipomo, California. The look in the mother's eyes, the way her children shun the camera--hair tangled, eyes never meeting our gaze--made me stop in my tracks and look long and hard.

I was gratified to read the above quote by Lange, which accompanied the photograph. The stories behind the photos are increasingly becoming more important to me. When she says there was "a sort of equality about it", I want to believe her. I do believe her. I think Lange knew what she was doing, that she herself had been changed by the landscape, the shifting nature of migrant work, the way it bound and enslaved families in a desperate struggle for survival.

I went home and did some research. I found another article, talking about the photo from a different angle--that of one of the children in the picture, the girl huddled to her mother's left. She talks of how ashamed they were of their situation, how they didn't want anyone to know it was them in the picture. She talks about how ultimately, the photo did and did not come to define her mother (who died in 1982 and whose gravesite reads Migrant Mother: A Legend of the strength of American motherhood.). When asked to describe her childhood, the girl in the picture sees a fuller perspective: "50% good times and 50% hard times."

That last bit struck me. When I see the photograph, all I see are the hard times: the people starving in the work camps, the way the depression settled like dust in the lines of your face, the strain such nomadic and unstable lives put on the children especially. What I don't see are the other times--the music they loved (yodeling, it turns out), their fierce bonds, the normal imaginative play of childhood. But now I do, and it makes the picture even more impactful, makes it less of an exotic mystery (something I read about in a Steinbeck novel, for instance) and brings it directly into focus with the lives of the people I live next to every day. Lives full of hardships, lives full of joy. Moments of desperation buoyed by gratefulness, sickness tempered by celebrations, always the hope that the next crop will come in, that next year will be better.

This is just me; I have no thoughts on what exactly Ms. Lange would have me feel about the photos she took that day--but I do know that they changed her. They also changed the lives of the family in the picture, and deeply connected with the rest of the country. And the world has not changed all that much; Les Miserables are still all around us, dreaming for a better future, working and fighting and dying for it. And so, pictures like Migrant Mother continue to speak to us, and hopefully draw us along to something more inspired than pity, stir in us a curiosity for relationship and a longing for the kingdom to be fulfilled.

I'd be curious to know of other pictures/art that have moved you in such a way that you needed to know the back story behind them. For more information on the thought behind this series, go here.

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