Building an Ecclesiological Response to Mass Incarceration / On Faith and Soul-Suffering

by Matt B. on November 24, 2011

I recently got the chance to write about two of my remarkable classmates at Harvard Divinity School.  The article which resulted – originally published here – is reposted below.

In 2010, HDS students Willie Francois and Helen Kim were named ministry fellows by the Fund for Theological Education (FTE), an honor bestowed on young leaders who demonstrate exceptional gifts for ministry. FTE fellows are selected by a national committee of theological educators and church leaders from a highly competitive pool of applicants across the United States and Canada.

The program, funded by the Lilly Foundation, is designed for rising second-year master of divinity students. HDS Dean William A. Graham nominated Francois and Kim for the fellowship award. They received stipends of up to $10,000 for educational expenses to enrich their formation as ministerial leaders. 

Building an Ecclesiological Response to Mass Incarceration

Willie Francois is a man of quiet intensity—eloquent, passionate about social justice, and profoundly self-reflective. Following his recent year-long FTE fellowship, the Baptist minister and third-year master of divinity candidate has returned to the HDS campus with an ever deeper focus.

Francois was an FTE fellow as an undergraduate, and he had already attended a range of FTE conferences and other structured discernment activities. However, last year’s fellowship was his most intense FTE experience yet.

According to Francois, participants spend a year engaged in a series of activities “designed to push the individual into deep reflection about where God is calling them and how God is calling them to act.”

Some of this discernment was communal: some fellows were split into groups of five and participated in quarterly check-ins under the guidance of a mentor pastor. For the first of these check-ins, fellows were asked to create a narrative that would help to explain their personal attraction to ministry.

Francois’s story centered on capital punishment. In September 2010, the state of Virginia executed the first woman in that state in nearly a century, and Francois recalled hearing a radio broadcast in which a prison chaplain described the condemned woman by saying that she was not the same woman who entered the prison years ago.

For Francois, the situation prompted deep reflection. He began thinking about redemption and narrativity in relation to the death penalty.

“For people who purport to be invested in redemption, how does capital punishment fit in?” he asked himself. “How can one maintain a Christian identity while also being invested in practices that belie that commitment to redemption?”

The outcome of his reflection process was clear. “For me, I think it’s impossible to claim a Christian identity and not appropriate the signal virtues of Christianity.”

Those signal virtues inevitably seeped into the way he looked at the world; they also helped to form his political views.

In summer 2011, Francois had the chance to apply his blossoming theological vision by organizing a weekly discernment group in his hometown of Houston for 12 formerly incarcerated men. Recommended to Francois by local pastors, these men met each week to discuss faith and religious identity. Each participant was Christian, and most had served time for nonviolent drug offenses. As Francois tells it, “Most of them conceive of what they’ve done in sin terms.”

The bulk of the group’s reflection work centered on the challenges the men faced upon leaving prison and their reentrance into society, including not being able to vote, access food stamps, or obtain public housing.

Collectively, says Francois, these challenges function as a kind of radical disenfranchisement and dispossession. They also serve to perpetually remind the men of their “sin.”

“This label of ‘felon’ can be spiritualized or theologized as a scarlet letter,” he explained. “These men live with this guilt in their social existence.”

For Francois, then, the goal of the group was to provide these men with resources to enable them to tell their stories—to support them to live beyond a label of “spiritual failure.”

In group sessions, participants would read their own personal stories alongside Biblical narratives. In the process, they would often come to see the ways that their “internal” guilt and their “external” guilt didn’t track one another, and that while participants may have been willing to forgive themselves, “social stigma fed their personal guilt.”

The group met at least once a week—and sometimes up to three times—for a period of two months. In addition, Francois met with parole officers, pastors, and chaplains in local jails to try to understand the challenges the men were facing. His own pastor, Marcus Cosby of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church in Houston, proved a powerful listening resource, providing a willing ear as Francois grappled with what the men were telling him.

Over the course of the project, Francois’s faith in the liberatory value of narrative deepened.

“Telling our stories is a ministry,” he said. It’s a way of working through “the tension of what it means to be a Christian and a felon.”

In order to share the power of the group’s experiences with a larger audience, Francois created a 40-minute film entitled When I Was In Prison…: A Journey through the Lives of God’s Sons.

The film, which consists of in-depth interviews with men from the group, is designed to help viewers “inhabit the assumptions [the men] live with.” As Francois points out, “Knowing these assumptions is crucial for folks who want to minister to them.”

Before returning to HDS, Francois connected the group’s participants with local church groups and prison ministries who could provide ongoing support. Now, back in the Boston area, his work has become the foundation for his thesis, which will build an ecclesiological response to mass incarceration in the United States.

Through all of his work, Francois does his best to apply the vision he has developed over the last year: “As apostles of compassion and sensitivity, human beings appropriate the grace of God in the world in the form of restorative justice. By storying the lives of the forgotten and rejected, we establish the Kingdom of God and acquaint the person with the other and God.

On Faith and Soul-Suffering

Helen Kim is a Methodist in the early stages of the ordination track. Her FTE fellowship project, “The Art of Praxis: The Contemplative and Stories of Soul-Suffering,” centered on the relationship between mental illness and faith.

For Kim, the project began when fellows were asked to think about a gratifying experience in their lives. She thought back to a summer she had spent doing clinical pastoral education in the neurosurgery and psychiatry units at a hospital in Palo Alto, California. There, she encountered people who had been to the limits of the human experience—limits that she suspected had a lot to teach us “about what it is to live this life.”

As the fellowship discernment process unfolded, Kim realized that she had two goals: “to engage in contemplative spiritual practices, and to engage in conversations with people who have struggled with mental illness while trying to understand how their experiences have interacted with their understanding of faith.”

Over the summer, Kim pursued these goals in two different settings. The first was at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado.

Officially Cistercian/Trappist, the monastery is known for its emphasis on centering prayer and other Christian mindfulness and meditation practices. According to Kim, these practices have attracted a variety of visitors who were disappointed with their own religious upbringing, but who have found spiritual sustenance in meditation.

Trappist monks began reviving the ancient tradition of Christian meditation in the 1970s, specifically through a practice known as centering prayer. Centering prayer is a kind of contemplative prayer centered on a sacred word and is akin to some forms of traditional Buddhist mindfulness practice that focus on the breath.

A practitioner of centering prayer herself, Kim sees Christian mindfulness practices as an important contributor to personal spiritual growth—one that, she explains, has become lost in today’s focus on belief versus practice. Such centering prayer practices are important for Kim’s professional work as well.

“In my work with people who have gone through trauma, the type of spirituality that sustains me in being able to hear people’s stories and make sense of it all is to engage in this type of practice,” she explained.

Kim’s 10 days at St. Benedict’s were held mostly in silence. She spent three hours in prayer each day, attended Mass, and followed a regimen similar to that of the monks. She also encountered a powerful religious perspective on mental illness.

“I think the monks understand it in light of soul-suffering,” she said. “It’s a physical illness, but there’s an element of emotional and spiritual agony for people.”

In Kim’s view, the daily regimen of monastic life helped to center the spiritual and emotional aspects of mental illness.

“You’re under so much discipline where you’re away from the world, and all you have is your mind,” she explained. “The spiritual journey is you and yourself, or you against your mind, and how are you going to deal with that?”

As it turned out, Kim had to deal with a surprising turn of events at the beginning of her stay. She became sick with strep throat upon her arrival. She then spent much of her time at the monastery considering her own goal- and- results-oriented personality.

“How do you respond to the unexpected or things that throw you off? How do you stay grounded? How do you maintain equanimity in the face of things not working out?” she asked of herself.

Learning to live well, she thought, has something to do with being present to life. “If you’re thinking about how life sucks, and how it’s absurd, you’re resisting what life is.”

Upon her return from Colorado, Kim’s reflections took another form. Inspired by a close friend who’d been diagnosed with a very serious mental illness a few years prior, Kim began conducting interviews with mentally ill people. These interviews, arranged through contacts she developed during volunteer work with the National Alliance for Mental Illness, were not formal or hypothesis-driven. Rather, they were about hearing and learning from her subjects’ extraordinary spiritual journeys.

She describes one person who told her that his illness had taken him to a place where he did not think he could experience love, and that, if God is love, then how could he access God? These conversations, Kim said, deeply informed her spirituality and theology.

“For me, faith is not just about a religious experience. Life is too impermanent.  One minute you might think that there’s a God, and the next you don’t. One minute you might be healthy and the next minute you might be extremely sick. Sometimes life just is.  And that is perhaps where we meet God—in just being.”

Since returning to Cambridge, Kim has given a talk about her experiences for an alumni gathering, and she has written a sermon about her experience.

She is used to doing “the results-oriented thing,” but she’s inclined to let this experience continue to form her. “It keeps yielding,” she says.

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