Under The Collar Experiment

Wednesday, April 23, 2014


The soundtrack of my life is deep and varied. I fell asleep to my parent’s popular rock band rehearsing in the next room – think Steely Dan meets Heart.  I have a coveted recording of them playing live to a large crowd in downtown Oklahoma City in 1976.  I fell in love with my parents’ music, including way too much reverb and an overly emotional abundance of cowbell. When I had my own differentiation of musical preference from my parents – the ’80's alternative music of my adolescence – it felt like a personal attack on my father's homegrown three-piece band.  In addition, my grandmother's love of Big Band and adoration of Lawrence Welk made my appreciation for cheesy deep rooted.  My own songwriting started young.  I have been composing with childhood friends for as long as I can remember: rewriting childhood songs and creating rock operas on roller skates a la Xanadu.

At every major transition in my life, I can document one of three signs: a radical hair transformation (usually from red to blond or blonde to red), a new tattoo (more about that later), or a renewed interest, or really a return, to my music.  Music has been home for me.  I was in a band when I left home at 16. It was music that carried me through my exchange student year abroad – it expressed what I was feeling and helped me make friends.  In college it punctuated my philosophical angst.  During my teaching career, music brought me closer to the students and other teachers.  In seminary, it told the story of my deepening personality, helped me make a mediocre sermon memorable worship, and developed relationships outside of the ministry. All through the years my parents’ original music has looped through the soundtrack of my life to support me. And it still does, even though my dad is no longer physically with me.

Last week I was in the studio recording my first *real* album.  I say real because there are hours and hours of live recordings of me playing with a blues band in Chicago, and there is our garage mix of a few of my songs we did while I was in seminary.  But this is the first time I have had artistic control and the resources to record and arrange my music in a way that I imagine it in my head.  It is incredible.  I wrote a song called “Dear Oklahoma,” also the title of the album, that is way bigger than me.  It caught the attention of some musician friends from the East Coast who just happened to be in town and wanted to offer vocals. And so last Friday I found myself in a collar, in the studio, recording “Dear Oklahoma.”  And then later that evening, I opened the show with Emma's Revolution in front of legendary activist folk artist Holly Near.  Last night I recorded a version of one of my father's songs. 

And now Beckett will have my songs as well as my father's added to the soundtrack of her life.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tour of Duty

My first assignment as a chaplain intern at Stateville Maximum Security Men’s Prison was in the receiving and classification unit.  I was wearing my newly bought fresh out of the package clerical collar and shirt. There was often no electricity or running water.  It was January in Illinois, and it was drafty and cold. In many of the cells I could feel the breeze pass into the hallway from the window slits in the cells that were stuck open.  Instead of the traditional bars found on the regular units, there were steel doors with a 2 foot wide rectangular pass through for food plates at knee level …and a wire mesh covered square opening at eye level.  

If the lights were on in the cell, I would talk through the eye-level wire mesh that was oddly reminiscent of a confessional.  I could just make out the inmate’s shadowy faces.  Most of the time, however, I would kneel down on the floor in front of the chuckhole.  The inmates would do the same on their side and we would talk face to face with nothing between us, through a hole in a steel wall.  I was terrified until I began to hear their stories, moving from cell to cell, and meeting them eye-to-eye.

I spent a lot of time the first few weeks explaining my faith tradition in sentence or two.  I spent more of my time convincing them that I was not there to convert them.  Unfortunately the role of chaplain is often considerably warped behind the prison wall.  There is a monopoly of fundamentalist Christian volunteers. The inmates’ default perception of a religious person outside their door, is someone whose modus operandi is to convert them. 

There were actually many converted fundamentalists at Stateville.  They built their walls with Bible verses.  For those men, walled in by literalism, if I couldn’t site a particular verse, I immediately lost credibility.  (I must admit, I lost a lot of credibility with those men.)  The majority of the inmates, however, were intrigued by the fact that I would carry a Bible, a Koran, the Kabbalah, and the Tao te Ching together in my clear plastic backpack.  The Muslims were confused when I greeted them with As sala'amu alaikum.
Religion not only comforted the afflicted, it was used as a tool to separate.  The inmates intentionally separate themselves into religious communities and were segregated by the institution.  Inmates must identify their religion upon entering the institution.  If they do not choose an approved religion on arrival, NONE is inscribed on the back of their ID, denying them all religious privileges.  Religious services are provided based on what they have indicated on the back of their card. Changing religious preference often requires an interview with an outside representative from that religion, which is not easy to do.  The inmates learned to use the system.    Catholic Mass often turned into a gang meeting.  And if you are a vegetarian, the only way to receive a vegetarian meal was to become a Hebrew Israelite.  My tradition was not an option if you wanted any services at all.

The men who coped best with the religion issue were those who had negotiated a rough theological compromise that all religions might have some threads in common.  They often identified with a major religion in order to attend a service.  Initially this compromise was often forged of two men of different religious traditions placed in the same cell.   In this 6 by 13 foot space, they were forced to work out their differences in order to live together.  They questioned the wall between them and put down a few of their stones.

That first day as a chaplain, I have a picture that could have been on the cover of LIFE magazine emblazoned upon my memory.  I had just made my way down the corridor, talking with the 30 or so new inmates.  They were scared.  They wanted into general population where there were blankets and heat, and the routine was more familiar.   You see with the rate of recidivism in the United States, the majority of the men I met in the classification had been to prison before. 

After talking with nearly thirty of these men, I realized that they were desperate for reading material and especially calendars. One way to cope with detention is to live in the past prior to incarceration or to live in the future focusing on an out date.  A sense of time offered a sense of place that nothing else did.  There is a reason it is called doing time. That day, I remembered that there were plastic wallet sized calendar cards in the chaplain office provided by the Salvation Army. 

I told the men on this unit that I would be back.  When I returned, I announced “chaplain on the wing” as I was instructed to do and the cover of Life magazine unfolded before me.  I looked down this corridor of 13 steel gray doors on each side. A narrow window lit up the hallway in a hazy glow.  Then, I saw, hands and arms: grasping, stretching for the calendars that I was offering them.  They were mainly brown hands and brown arms… extending all along the length of the corridor from the chuck holes on both sides.

We are part of a society who primarily incarcerates minorities.  We are part of a society who mainly incarcerates the poor, the addicted and the mentally ill. I am part of a state who incarcerates more women than any other state in the United States.   We cannot let the society that we live in, a society that we are a part of, wall off suffering.  I wish every religious conflict could be worked out... maybe by finding some greater common cause like cohabitating in confined space.   I wish that every voter, every elected official, every lawmaker, lawyer, prosecutor and judge would take a tour of duty behind the wall and experience life and the people there. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Pumpkin Eater

I cheated in school only once and I was caught. 

I had this marvelous teacher named Mrs. Gouldy who was my English and French teacher my Freshman year of high school.  I had both classes on the same day and on this particular day, I had an exam on Golding’s Lord of the Flies in her English Class and a vocabulary quiz in her French class.  I stayed up most of the night before reading all about human kind’s base status of savagery and evil, how the innocence of children was a mere myth, and how in the end individualism would replace comradeship and lead to our complete destruction.  Human kind may have been deemed a complete wash, but I was ready for that exam.  I was also prepared to argue with Golding, because I believed then as I do now that humanity is inherently good.  Rampant individualism might indeed lead to humanity’s destruction in the text and in real life, but I was (and am) optimistic that in community our goodness will prevail.

That morning, French class was first and to my horror I had forgotten about the vocabulary quiz!  So, I begin frantically writing out the words to help me remember them.  Before the quiz began I hurriedly stashed the pile of papers I was using on the floor.  As I shifted in my extremely uncomfortable seat, not knowing the answers to the first 3 questions, I realized that my study sheet had slipped ahead of the others and was visible to me from the floor just in front of my desk.

I was usually such a good student, normally such a well-prepared student, even an overly conscientious student and yet, how could I not look? Likely, No one would believe my good intentions at this point anyway, not even me.  The paper was way too conveniently placed. I knew even then, that the right thing to do would have been to move it out of view.  I didn’t. Three or four questions of taking advantage of the opportunity and I was busted.  I was left to writhe in my own discomfort, devastated and embarrassed as I awaited the Scarlet C for cheater to be emblazoned upon my breast.

She was my favorite English teacher, ever, and the only French teacher at my high school. 
I would be forced to not only face her regularly, but she would also accompany me through the pages of Hawthorne, Camus, and Sartre.  Her curriculum and the way I saw her seeing me would shape my behavior for years to come: from my own exploration of atheism and the influence of existentialism to my desire to be an exchange student and a French and Philosophy teacher.  But at that time in my 14-year-old mind, one mistake and now I was a cheater.

“Label[ing] individuals [is] shorthand [when] trying to deal with people who are always complex, and [People] always pop out of the boxes we put them into”   Sister Helen Prejean, writes.  “Like [the way we view] Mother Teresa, we will attribute nothing bad to her. Then, when somebody (else) has done a terrible thing, we say that's all there is to them…Suppose there was a way that the worst thing you had ever done could be projected on a screen for everybody to see. Then suppose you were told, "That is all you are." You'd say, "But…I've been kind to my grandmother. I was honest most of the time.” 

My value as I understood it then, was entirely dependent on my mistake. How on earth would I be able to argue just two class periods later for the inherent goodness of humanity, with the same teacher? Maybe, Golding was right. Maybe even in Paradise, even in idyllic circumstances…when there is plenty of food and water for everyone, and no real threats, humanity will inevitably find a way to war against itself: project our fears onto the world, fail to live up to even our own moral standards.

Since that young age of 14, I have not just cheated. I have stolen, lied, gossiped, misconstrued, omitted, been unfaithful, been greedy, boastful, envious, gluttonous, angry, lusty, and lazy…  And I still believe people are inherently good.   In our nature we are good.  We are also inherently fallible, because we are not God. 
I believe in redemption.   Our value does not rest on a single event, nor does it merely rest on the sum of our actions.  When we have a desire to be held accountable and a diverse community who will do so, healing of all kinds is possible. It is in community we glean what is right and wrong and so it is in community our redemption and mercy are found.  

Tis the season to be redeemed.