Reasons for Despair and Hope

This year, Holy Week  marking the crucifixion of Jesus coincides with the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder on April 4, 1968, with some Christians seeing many reasons to despair and a few reasons to hope, as Kathy Kelly explains from her cell in a Kentucky federal prison serving a sentence for anti-war activism.

By Kathy Kelly

Here in Lexington federal prison’s Atwood Hall, squinting through the front doorway, I spotted a rust-red horse swiftly cantering across a nearby field. The setting sun cast a glow across the grasses and trees as the horse sped past.

“Reminds me of the Pope,” I murmured to no one in particular. “What’s that?” Tiza asked. I tried to explain that once, when I asked a close friend his opinion of the Pope, shortly after Catholic bishops had elected Pope Francis, my friend had said, “The horse is out of the stable! And galloping.”

Pope Francis. (Photo from Casa Rosada)

Pope Francis. (Photo from Casa Rosada)

I love the image. Here is a Pope who, upon learning that a chaplain in a Chinese prison couldn’t afford to buy the traditional “moon pies” for every prisoner to celebrate the harvest moon, cut a check to cover the remaining cost. This Pope loves the tango dance. On his birthday, tango dancers filled St. Peter’s Square at the time when ringing bells call on believers to kneel and recite the Angelus.

In September 2015, Pope Francis will visit New York City, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. Tiza and I wondered if he would visit a prison.

“If he does, he should come here,” Tiza insisted, “and not go to some showcase place!”

I don’t think he’ll be able to put Kentucky on his agenda, but it’s not outlandish to imagine the Pope visiting a U.S. prison. He consistently emphasizes our chance to choose the works of mercy rather than the works of war: to visit those who are sick, those who are in prison; to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, bury the dead. Never to turn our heads, say “it was their own damn fault”; never to choose wars and weapons, the burning of fields, destruction of homes, slaughter of the living.

Women here pray for the Pope every week, their prayers guided by a Jesuit priest, a tall, balding man with a long, white beard and a kindly manner. “He’s the one who looks like a mountain man,” Tiza once told me.

At the beginning of a 40-day season of atonement called Lent, the priest’s message was stark and simple: “Our world is very sick.” He asked the women before him to recall how each might feel, as a mother, if her child is sick. “Nothing else matters,” said the priest. “You’re focused on your child.”

He urged us to focus on healing an ailing world with just as much fervor. Following his words, we joined in prayer for the Pope, a symbol of unity, collecting our desires for a world at peace, where people’s basic needs are met and all children can thrive.

A few evenings later, while walking up the stairs toward my third-floor room, I heard a woman wailing. “Not my baby!” she cried, in pure anguish. “Not my baby!” She had collapsed to the floor in the middle of a phone call telling her that her four-year-old child had been rushed to the hospital, unconscious. Her closest friends were soon at her side, holding her, soothing her.

Word spread through the prison. After the 9:00 PM “count,” women did what they could. Dozens of women filled the first-floor chapel, praying for hours for the prisoner, for her child, for the child’s caregivers, for the hospital personnel. Word arrived, the next day, that the child had regained consciousness.

The good priest had chosen a metaphor that women here could readily understand. Gypsi, one of my roommates, saves her funds for phone calls, twice a week, with her small daughters, age 3 and 5. Prisoners can make 15-minute calls, at 21 cents per minute.

One night, Gypsi came back from her call, red-eyed but smiling. Meekah, her younger daughter, can trade song verses with Gypsi. “Momma, let’s sing one more!” Meekah had cried. “Please sing another song!” But, instead, a loud beep signaled that the call was over.

I just finished reading an exquisite book, Yashar Kemal’s Memed My Hawk (2005, NYRB Classics 50th Anniversary Edition), with a subplot about two women wrongfully imprisoned. Iraz thinks longingly of her son Riza, while Hatche remembers Memed, the young love of her life.

“As the days passed, Iraz and Hatche shared everything, including their troubles. Hatche knew Riza’s height, his black eyes, his slim fingers, his dancing, his childhood, what he had done as a child, with what trouble Iraz had brought him up, the whole story… down to the last detail, as if she had lived through and seen it all herself.  It was the same with Iraz. She too knew everything about Memed, from the day he and Hatche had first played together as children.”

Yes, it’s like that among women in prison. Tremendous focus. And yet, as Kemal adds, “Anyone going to prison for the first time is confused on entering so different a world. One feels lost in an endless forest, far away, as if all ties with the earth, with home and family, friends and loved ones, with everything, have been broken. It is also like sinking into a deep and desolate emptiness.”

Broken. On empty.

Worldwide, impoverishment shackles women to unspeakably harsh conditions and makes them vulnerable to predators. Lacking protection, they are sold into human trafficking rings, subjected to forced labor, forced prostitution and forced removal.

Widows and orphans find themselves penniless and defenseless. More than 115 million widows live in extreme poverty around the world, with a half billion children dependent on their care and support: Gary Haugen, in The Locust Effect (2014, Oxford University Press), presents in careful and disheartening detail a discussion of the sea change needed to uphold the rights of impoverished women and children. Sadly, in many places, traditions and customs regard women as being less valuable, subordinating them and treating them as property.

Sometimes, we have to interrupt ourselves in our relative comfort and estimate how we can bring to bear our best resources in the name of changing criminal, wrongful patterns.

Pope Francis faces an extraordinary possibility. He could rely on Catholic teaching which proclaims that humans are all part of “one bread, one body,” emphasizing that women and men are equal to each other; and he could promote an exemplary practical consequence of this teaching by embracing “the priesthood of all believers,” welcoming women as well as men to follow a vocation into ordained ministry.

It would be a dramatic change, an arrow pointing toward new expectations and possibilities regarding the status of women.

Coretta Scott King said that in the moments after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, turned to her and said, “This is what is going to happen to me also. I keep telling you, this is a sick society.”

She could only agree that he was right; and he was. Yet his service to equality and his fierce courage to reject violence couldn’t be killed. He took us with him to that mountaintop, entrusting to us a new vision and a way forward.

Pope Francis must indeed feel the challenge of the past century’s social justice visionaries, many of them cruelly vilified and rejected – many sent by violence from the world. Assassination is on the rise: the “kill list” is now an openly acknowledged part of U.S. policy. I know that women here will continue to pray for a sick society, and for the Pope, long after I leave.

I will continue to feel deeply moved by our “mountain man’s humble, direct plea, asking us to focus for 40 days on our very sick world. Lent ended on Thursday. Then came “Good Friday” and Saturday is the anniversary of our loss of Dr. King.

On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his death, Dr. King told us that “we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.”

In just a few more weeks, I’ll be moving on from here. The other members of our congregation will remain, and, along with so many of the world’s most expendable people, will remain nearly invisible to corporate forces driving humanity to nightmarish war, horrifying inequalities in wealth and education, and the irreversible destruction of natural resources nearly as precious as the squandered hopes of these women.

Where you stand determines what you see. Transformation of the Jericho Road must begin with actually stopping there. In Atwood Hall, our “mountain man” earnestly spoke to us as the people with whom the transformation starts, as people both vital and central to the healing he yearns for. If it comes, it will have started in a million places like this one.

Recognizing our need to support one another, to overcome the scourges of our time, to pick up a pace commensurate to the needs of those surrounding us, focused on our sick society with the same determination to heal that we would bring to a very sick child, we all have the task of going beyond our places of comfort, of escaping the stable and trotting if we can’t manage to gallop, of building new affinities in which to imagine and then co-create a better world.

I hope the Pope will pick up the scent of spring renewal, maybe even imagine a Kentucky Derby, as he prepares to speak a clarion and expansive wake-up call, calling us to sing another song, a new song: just as we’ve called to him.

Kathy Kelly, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence is in federal prison for participation in an anti-drone protest. She can receive mail at: KATHY KELLY 04971-045; FMC LEXINGTON; FEDERAL MEDICAL CENTER; SATELLITE CAMP; P.O. BOX 14525; LEXINGTON, KY 40512.

9 comments for “Reasons for Despair and Hope

  1. Gregory Kruse
    April 7, 2015 at 17:24

    The church, the whole church, in all its years of existence, in confession of all its frailty, foibles, crimes, and abominations, is and will be for as long as it continues to exist, the institutionalized resistance to empire. Its only purpose is to remember what resistance is, and what are the consequences of it.

  2. Evangelista
    April 6, 2015 at 21:10

    The more or less recent fiscal attacks on the Roman Christian Church for alleged failure to engage in secular policing of erring priests, etc. is ironic in more than one way.

    It is ironic, probably first most because the Roman Christian Church is a religious institution, and the first duty of all religious institutions, whatever their denominations, or constructions for intercessionaries, is intercession, aid and succor to wrong-doers, whatever their wrong-doing. It is, in fact, exactly the ‘shielding’ that commenter ‘Bill’ attacks the RCC Pope for allegedly doing. If the RCC Pope did not engage in secular punitive activities, the RCC Pope was acting correctly as a religious, not a secular, leader.

    For any to take religious leaders, ‘pastors’, they are called, to task for not usurping into secular domain, in effect, overstepping their separate positions, is stupid. It is also dangerous: It is an invitation, if not an order, to religious leaders to interfere in secular affairs, to engage in theocratic activities, to ‘thunder’ the ‘Will of (each’s interpretation of) God. Look where that is being done, today primarily in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Da-esh Caliphate (‘Islam’ means ‘submission'(to the will of God), which there is none of in the Caliphate, for which we should deprive it of its pretend-cover), and look at the examples in Christianity, the Qur’an burners and the aggressive protesting Baptist Church. Is that a can of worms that should be opened?

    Another reason challenging the Roman Christian Church to be more secular, to wield the sword of ‘justice?’ instead of the crozier of mercy, is the history of the RCC, which was doing just what is today being demanded, by mindless idiots, for well over a thousand years, with efficiency and efficacy, producing phenomenal slaughter. Really, it was only in the eighteenth and ninteenth centuries the RCC began turning, officially (there were always lowest echelon priests who adhered to religious, instead of secular precepts), away from using ecclesiastic authority for secular purpose to representing a deitic entity.

    By the time, in the twentieth century, the Roman Christian Church was attacked by lawyers, and bigot-hyenas, seeking, not justice, but carrion, the church was fully domesticated. It was operating not as a secular authority, but as an interceder and interpleader. Jesuit ‘warriors’ and Dominican ‘inquisitors’ had put their weapons and torture apparatus away.

    The Roman Christian Church, having become a real and responsible church, was recognized defenseless, vulnerable, ‘ripe for slaughter’, a church whose parishioners could be fleeced through convincing juries to condemn separation of church and state. Lawyers and unscrupulous system-players saw opportunities.

    Another irony lies in the fact that legally, especially in the United States, with its defined separation of church from state, the correct, and available, remedy was for the complainants to take their complaints to the secular authorities, if the offenses to be alleged actually bothered them when being committed. How many did? How many plaintiffs were truly upset? Answer, as many as went to secular authorities and made complaints. How many plaintiffs were greedy? Answer, as many as made complaints when they saw a chance to get money.

    Where there is no irony is in the degeneration of our societies, in the subductions of church-state separations. Unless history does not follow from cause to effect and from stupidity to consequence, as it has always in the past, the future is bringing religous war to a resurgence. Those who, in bigotry and in activity have helped undo separation, be they secular or religious ‘moralists’ may not be happy with this future, but they have nothing to legitimately complain of.

  3. Barbara
    April 5, 2015 at 19:20

    To Zachary Smith: Unfortunately comment by Bill
    does refer correctly to this Pope, who has taken the name of Francis

    See Harper’s Magazine August ’14 article by Mary Gordon: Francis and the Nuns

    • Zachary Smith
      April 6, 2015 at 00:31

      Thank you for the reference. Unfortunately I can’t read it because I don’t have a subscription to Harper’s.

  4. Paul Grenier
    April 4, 2015 at 21:51

    This timely essay focuses, for my money, on just the right theme: “I was in prison and you visited me.” That is what Christ said was the test of whether or not someone is following him. The essay opens with the pope acting in just this spirit. I hope he does visit you. Thanks for your writing and your work.

  5. Bill
    April 4, 2015 at 19:09

    It is interesting that she didn’t write about his efforts to shield those representatives of his church who have admitted having sexually molested children while performing their religious functions in a position of trust.

    • Zachary Smith
      April 4, 2015 at 21:49

      I hadn’t heard that one. Are you sure you’re talking about the correct Pope?

    • ahf
      April 5, 2015 at 23:24

      I’m not sure he has made an effort to do that—your attack is that of a bigot-read the article and don’t react negatively to the word “Catholic”

      • Derek Knoeckel
        April 6, 2015 at 16:06

        Why not? That goes for all religions; they are all patriarchal cults, full of psychotic perverts.

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