I vividly remember growing up in the sixties. It was a very cool time – with peace movements, love, and flower power, but it was an awakening for me, as well, with protests and leading figures that fought against discrimination. I remember Martin Luther King, Jr., Black Power, the 1967 riots in Detroit, and stories about Rosa Parks and segregated lunch counters.
One of my cousins married a black girl. It caused such furor within our Polish family that my cousin and his new wife moved to Hawaii, where mixed-race couples were less of an anomaly. I attended an all-white parochial school. Our first black student arrived when I was in high school…the school was then able to claim it was integrated.
I recall being appalled at the way people treated people – just because their skin was a different color. I became drawn to the underdog. Great changes happened in the sixties. Naively – and most unfortunately – I only thought the world had gotten better.
Sadly, today I am seeing more discrimination. It is being expressed in ways than I never dreamed of as a teen. Bullying. Homosexuality. Transgender bias. Racial discrimination. Human trafficking. The death penalty. Abortion. Even religious intolerance and extreme measures of persecution. Huge disregard for the wonders of life. How did our world get to this place?!!
Where are our leaders? To whom can we look for inspiration, or to know right from wrong? My growing cynicism tells me it isn’t Congress. Television seems to have placed its focus on sex, off-color attempts at humor, and show after show of “reality” TV. Whatever happened to the television characters and movie stars we used to see as heroes and role models? I think they are very hard to find these days.
Daily experience shows me that many operate on principles of materialism – money, possessions, power. Inequity is everywhere. “Keeping the faith” has become harder and harder to do in this material world.
My growing focus on prison ministry has allowed me to discover my own small way of making a difference. Weekly, I see men struggling to grow in an impervious environment, and in an outdated system where punishment and control are the only rules. There is little leadership to make an effort to actually HELP these men and women learn to cope as the law-abiding citizens we hope they will one day be. They learn few job skills. Instead, the crushing thumb of the Department of Corrections smashes them down time and again, charging them with ridiculous penalties for ridiculously inane behaviors that only someone with a need for exercising control would feel compelled to address.
Where indeed are the heroes?
Strange as it might sound, my heroes have become the prisoners I meet each week. There, I observe and interact with men who are attempting to grow, change, and to get along with one another. They are bolstered by having a “safe” place to meet once a week, and to worship in their own way, encouraged by volunteers who come weekly. Through these prisoners, and simply by entering prison gates, I see how a perceived need for control, the need to judge, and suppression in all manner of forms affects these men. The effects of discrimination and control is often apparent. But, as these mean approach their release dates, it is also heartwarming how they work through adversity that has become their norm. I often find myself silently applauding them and am encouraged by what I see. (It is regrettable that the prisons’ plans never seem to focus on rehabilitation from the outset. Were that the case, I believe there would be many more success stories, and far less recidivism.)
Also, as we read and discuss various books of the bible each week, I have been reminded that Paul was once a prisoner, too. On those days, I take a closer look at each prisoner I meet….