Walls and prison breaks

Sermon 20160103 – Epiphany Isaiah 60-1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Eph 3:1-12, Matt. 2:1-12

Walls are a worry for me – they seem to be everywhere – and there are ever-new insights into how dependent upon walls is the holding and exercising of power and what can often appear to be “good order”.

  • I think of the divide between the 1 percent and the 99 which has been delineated for us in the last couple of years;
  • I think of the walls of colonialist political and cultural domination which surrounded residential schools here in Canada with similar projects in Australia;
  • I think of the walls of occupation which left me reeling when we visited Israel/Palestine 18 months ago, walls which cut up territory and choke possibilities for livelihood of whole communities;
  • I think of the walls outside of which the homeless exist here in our city, and in others;
  • I think of the walls which exclude and create refugees;
  • I am daily preoccupied with the walls of prisons that cut up our society, often irreparably, and here I refer not simply to the physical walls but to the mental, spiritual, moral compromises which they both express and impose, depending upon who is building and who is blocked by them.

Perhaps the image in the online post of a cartoon I noticed this week will bring this home today – at Epiphany:

In the cartoon image, Bethlehem is surrounded by towering, continuous cement walls, facing which we see Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, our three wise men or kings from the East, with their camels, but who are blocked by the walls from reaching their destination over which the star hovers. Another person is just barely visible with a shovel digging a tunnel under the wall….   Clearly, Herod the Great did not erect this wall but in the cartoon showing the Bethlehem of today, the wall looms darkly just as the menace of Herod looms in the account of the visit of the Magi in Matthew’s gospel today.

Somewhere in this picture there is a story about two very different kinds of kingship… and of how walls express the enormous gap there is between them.

Most of you will know that at the centre of my ministry as a prison chaplain and community chaplain is an organization, MSCM (Montreal-Southwest Community Ministries).   The pivotal activity of MSCM is the weekly gathering called Open Door which, thanks to your hospitality, takes place in Fulford Hall. I should also say how grateful are the members of MSCM, beneficiaries and volunteers alike, for the generosity of Christ Church Cathedral, for your recent donation in support of our work.

We rejoice at MSCM that in these ways, the Cathedral is with us in the challenges we face in a ministry that is truly on the margins.   We rejoice also that you are with us at the heart of the Gospel which informs what we do in exercising its radical hospitality – radical in its resemblance to, and dependence upon, the kingship we celebrate today, kingship launched in a crib, in a Bethlehem stable, and whose ultimate sovereignty is proclaimed from the cross.   It is radical also because it is a foil for the appetite in us for control, that resists a kingship of power, the kind of kingship that has always, and yet still, holds sway in human affairs.   This model of kingship which is persistent in us is based on concupiscence, on war and officially-sanctioned killings, on punishment, on imprisonment…   the kind of kingship carried so well the paranoid menace of Herod the Great which casts a shadow on the mission of the Magi, in today’s gospel.

Using the principles of Restorative Justice, MSCM accompanies and assists the reintegration of those who have been in prison, those who have crossed their wall and who are somewhere along the path of personally-chosen repentance and reconciliation, and at Open Door.   We provide opportunity for learning, for personal development, and for acquiring social skills, in exchange and solidarity with others at different stages of the reintegration process, and with volunteer members of the wider community in support of this kind of “prison break”.

In our more than 15 years of community-making that is intentional, compassionate, and effective, we have accompanied hundreds of those who have been in prison while a similar number of volunteers from the community. Our style of “prison break” does not the seek the undermining of good order- but rather a better way of supporting good order in the community.

The walls we would make permeable, make disappear, are so many, not only physical, but also administrative and figurative, both psychological and emotional that our retributive justice and correctional system succeeds in normalizing. And as we do so, we challenge ourselves and our complicity in the erecting of these walls which divide us — and of asking just what it is that Jesus and his Gospel are saying when they speak of setting the prisoners free, of visiting those in prison, of breaking down the walls? Just what kind of kingship is it that Jesus the Messiah is establishing, from his Bethlehem cradle, and from his cross?

In Federal Training Centre where I serve as chaplain, a prison of multiple security levels in Laval where the inmate population has risen from about 220 to nearly 600 in the last few years, there are some 55 Inuit men whose separation from their people, from their communities in the far North, can easily be understood in terms of the high stone walls of the prison, or of the great distance between here and the land of their culture and deeply ingrained way of life and of perceiving reality.   But the enormity of their experience of being cast out, of disorientation, of isolation, is difficult to grasp unless one takes time to be present, to respectfully listen to them.

A few Inuit men participate in mixed chapel gatherings where often we are uplifted in engaging gospel texts together in a way that encourages personal authenticity and faith sharing and consolidation that is very concrete, and that also provides moments of experiencing true community, through common respect for the diversity of the members.   However, a couple of them have said to me, individually, that they would like to have “communion”, the communion which they longed again to experience such as they had known in the birthing and growth of their faith at home with their own families (interestingly for us, in Anglican expressions in their native settings).

We are fortunate to have an Inuit priest in our Diocese of Montreal who was agreeable to visit the prison with me for an exploratory meeting with the Inuit men. The meeting was a watershed occasion, the result of which, a month later, was, to my knowledge, the first communion service celebrated in a federal prison, in Inuktitut, by an Inuit priest, a woman. It was just ahead of Christmas Day, using the Christmas readings, and was an extraordinary event, especially for some 40 Inuit men who attended, among whom there were noticeably “hearts that thrilled and rejoiced” and tears of joy which flowed. – I have carried with me since then, the sense of having been powerfully, inexplicably graced, by being present at that playing out of a Bethlehem experience…. a sense of having been incidentally implicated in a communal, and deeply personal embodiment, enfleshing anew, again, of The Good News of the Love of God … and I still marvel at the humble majesty of God, the terrible beauty and love of his willing to be present where we doubt that there is anything at all….

I am captivated and lifted up today, as we look into the season of Epiphany, and what it has to say to us about continuing incarnation, about continuing to implant, to embody, to live out this Good News, participating in that initiative of God in Bethlehem for our renewal and salvation.   –   I am captivated by the image of the stable, the stable in which the totally vulnerable, dependent, even fragile new life is visited and honoured by the three MAGI, even with the menace of Herod not far away…

I am captivated by this image of the stable, and of the experience of blessing I have had this Christmas period in the chapel at Federal Training Centre.

I am still captivated by the experience of the Bethlehem of today, where I visited with fellow pilgrims 18 months ago, deeply moved both by the sacredness of what we were privileged to see there of the place of Christmas, which lives in us NOW, but deeply disturbed also by the ubiquitous walls, enormous walls that divide people there, apparently to protect some from others.   The protection is questionable but the domination and diminishment is not. Those walls continue to be built today, residents continue to be uprooted and displaced, and the stable of Bethlehem becomes less accessible, more vulnerable, and all-that-it-represents more marginal because of these walls.

Federal Training Centre in Laval is close – it is part of our community.   I am grateful for the providential irony by which the Good News which the MAGI carried to the wider world from Bethlehem was re-seeded among us, for renewal at this time, even in the unlikely and inconspicuous “stable”, behind the prison walls we have built, and through the agency of those colonized people whose “criminality” can be attributed significantly, to walls of colonial, cultural and political dominance in which we have some complicity. I am grateful for the new life seeded there, albeit in its fragility, not only for a group of Inuit men but for us also. And I am humbled to recognize that we are as much the mission field as we are the missioners and missionaries.

Peter Huish

3 Jan. 2016


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