Interfaithfully Speaking: Connecting interfaithfully with people in prison
I’ll tell you four stories about Claremont people who connect interfaithfully with people in prison. But first, a note about the word religion. It originally meant “that which binds together,” but religious words can also be used to tear people apart. In Claremont, we commune freely in interfaith gatherings. We move safely between churches, mosques, meeting houses, meditation halls, sanghas and chapels, but in many places religious beliefs divide people. Religious disputes are common at the Central California Women’s Facility, where inmates from different traditions carve out little pieces of truth and hold on for dear life. What eases the pressure and brings peace? Open-hearted listening.
Rick Moore’s story comes first because he was my first mentor in the art of listening. He founded the Prison Library Project in Claremont to hear the voices of those behind bars. I met Rick in 1998, and was touched by his care for incarcerated persons. I became the second PLP volunteer, reading letters, hearing yearnings, and doing my best to meet requests for books. Many want dictionaries. Responding to handwritten letters from inmates is a low-risk form of listening. Several Pilgrim Place residents read and reply to hundreds of letters each month. The Prison Library Project needs more volunteers. Your caring attention can make a big difference.
The second story is about Claremont women. Twenty-plus years ago, I was a newly-minted Quaker, led by the Spirit to befriend a woman sentenced to die for her crime. Rosie requested pen-friends for others on death row, and Pilgrims took up the call. Gail Duggan recruited Presbyterian women to befriend women at CCWF. Carolyn Francis inspired Claremont United Methodist Church women to form a group called JUDI—“Just Do It”—to offer care, prayer and listening ears to incarcerated women. When Rev. Rosemary Davis rented a van, a bunch of us traveled to Chowchilla to visit inmates with whom we’d been corresponding. Before long, Catholic nuns started “Get On The Bus,” and Claremonters of many faiths gave up Mother’s Day weekend to accompany kids eager to share hugs, stories and games with their moms behind bars.
The third story is mine. Early in our relationship, Rosie requested Pepsi each time I visited. I chose grapefruit juice. After a decade or so, she switched from caffeinated soda to apple juice, but the rest of the routine remains the same. Female officers strip-search Rosie, then escort her to the visitor center in handcuffs and ankle chains. I wait in attorney room A or B. Once we are locked in together, she has privacy to speak her truth without being overheard. I’m a Quaker and Rosie was raised Catholic. I’m a pretty good listener, genuinely curious about what matters most to her. I don’t interrupt, don’t change the subject, and do ask open, genuine questions. Our conversations can be painful, confessional, semi-serious, silly or completely hilarious.
When we get hungry, she signals the guard to let me out. While I wait in line at the vending machines to purchase our pre-packaged lunches, Rosie sculpts brown paper napkins into the shape of roses. She sets the table with plastic forks and packets of Tabasco sauce. An armed guard lets me in, locks the door and returns to his station. I place food on the table and sit across from my friend. We bless the drinks, the burritos and the salads, then we share stories. Rosie does most of the talking. Locked up together at CCWF in Chowchilla, two women of different generations and religions celebrate prison communion with food, drink, and vulnerable conversation.
The fourth story is ours. She and I co-wrote “Friending Rosie: Respect on Death Row.” The idea came in 2019 while I was a patient at the Pilgrim Place Health Services Center. Weak from multiple fractures, struggling with rehab, I was awakened in the night and heard “Write a book with Rosie.” First I protested, then accepted the sacred call. Rosie objected to my initial proposal and refused, so I rewrote it. An “anchor committee” of Quakers helped me season it. Once Rosie and I reached common ground on the shape of the book, it took a long time to interweave her letters, my memories and the perspectives of her mother and sister.
“Friending Rosie” is a “porous” book, meant to be opened at any page by readers seeking insight or information. Our friendship story is structured around themes of faith and practice that reflect our purposes here on earth. Rosie wants to speak the truth, seek forgiveness and become a better person. My purpose is to honestly convey the little miracles that can happen spiritually when one friend is locked up and one is free. Seeing things differently, and tentatively expressing our inner truths brings both participants into sacred presence where healing and transformation take place. Prepare to be surprised—mutual gifts await!