D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

Filtering by Tag: prison ministry

Upside-Down Art: Prison, Beauty and Common Grace

I'm so excited for this first guest post in this Upside-Down Art series. RO contacted me about an area she is passionate in--prisons and their inhabitants, whom she views with such grace and love. I had heard of writing/oral history classes with prisoners, but never art projects. This post eloquently explains the horror of incarcerating people and withhold from them the beauty of the world--while still showing that God is still there. A challenging, thoughtful post for us on the outside.   

 

 

 

Prison, Beauty, and Common Grace by R.O.

 

There have been times in my life where depression and anxiety have walked every step with me. Their weighty bodies cemented to my shoulders like gargoyles, mouths permanently open-wide, hissing into each ear: “You are not good enough. You don’t work hard enough. You will mess up everything good in your life.”

But even in the midst of these lies, God finds ways to remind me of his truth. So often he does this through the beauty of the world around me. I see pink light from the setting sun angled on a grey building, hear something as simple and amazing as an echo, feel cold air sting my cheeks. And I think, “even if I fail at everything, no one can take this away from me.” This everyday beauty of the world, available to me in some form no matter my circumstances, is God’s common grace to all people. It is our Father reminding us that his love for us does not depend on our good performance.

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It seems sort of simple when compared with all the atrocities of prison— the state’s misguided idea that trading violence for violence will end violence— but the profound indignity of denying a person God’s common grace of this world’s everyday beauty is striking to me. Prisons are designed for exactly this. They replace the beauty of creation that God would give to every person with cinderblock walls, artificial lighting, a stainless steel bowl acting as toilet a foot from your bed, access to an “outside” patch of concrete surrounded by walls for maybe thirty minutes a day—day in and day out, all the same.

And still there is beauty.

Prisoners become artists, creating the beauty that prison denies them, and I consider myself blessed to have heard some of their stories. There is the fourteen-year old boy who wrote poems in his cell, the man who is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole who paints scenes of the world he hasn’t experienced in over thirty years, the girls at the youth prison who wrote and performed in their own musical, even the tough-looking young men who draw intricate and delicate designs on the backs of their letters.

These are people who are often excluded from that popular new category “creatives,” but they still are made (and are making) in the image of our Creator God. They create because there is no beauty unless they make it themselves. They create for the same reasons we all do: to comfort, to entertain, and to tell their stories. There are still more imprisoned people who are without the support of prisoner-arts programs, some without even pencil and paper, some in solitary confinement; let’s not forget that they are creatives, too. This is God’s common grace, which no one can take from us, that he has made us in his image; he has made us all creatives.

“For his participatory project, Some Other Places We’ve Missed artist and photographer Mark Strandquist held workshops in various jails and prisons, and asked prisoners, ‘If you had a window in your cell, what place from your past would it look out to?’ Along with the written descriptions, individuals provided a detailed memory from the chosen location, and described how they wanted the photograph composed. Strandquist then photographed and [an] image is handed or mailed back to the incarcerated participants.” from Prison Photography:

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R.O. is a Midwestern law student who will soon be a Southern public defender. She loves to talk (and learn) about justice and mercy, living in the upside down kingdom, and criminal justice reform. Her Enneagram type is 5 and she is an INFJ, if that means anything to you.

 

For more information on the Upside-Down Art series, click here. And submit your own essay!

 

 

 

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.

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