Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Find Your Way Home Prison Tour: Memphis, TN

This past weekend, members of the Magdalene/Thistle Farms community made our way to Memphis, TN to participate in another moving and hope-filled stop along the Find Your Way Home Prison Tour.

Our trip began with a home party hosted by the gracious Rev. Deacon Audrey Gonzalez of Calvary Episcopal Church.

On Sunday morning, Magdalene's founder, Rev. Becca Stevens, presided over two services at St. Mary's Episcopal Church. Along with Magdalene graduates, Katrina and Shelia, Becca shared information on the program, as well as personal stories of their journeys towards healing, during the adult Sunday school.

Monday, we listened to stories of women in the Mark Luttrell Correctional Center, stories that echo the pain of women we have heard in Tallahassee and Nashville, universal stories revealing the pain and despair of incarceration.

Once again, Becca shares her thoughts on the day:

When you stand in front of a sea of blue created by uniforms of incarcerated women sitting on risers, you can't help but become undone. The undoing is the split-second process in which all that you have taken for granted vanishes so that you stand there, feeling naked and vulnerable. When you are undone, you can feel your heart beating and the scope of the world narrow in the view before you.

I think that happened to all of us this past week as we stood before the women in the old gym at the Mark Luttrell Correctional Center in Memphis, Tennessee. The speech I had planned before I came in rang hollow in my head, and the comforting words of hope that were to be our gift felt as though they would be embarassingly meager. So after everyone got quiet, I just stood there for a second. There were a hundred, competing feelings that were trying to take root, and it left me wanting to hold that silence.
To say nothing would have seemed weak instead of respectful, and to stand and just cry at all the brokeness coming out of this sea of searching eyes would have seemed pathetic. Those eyes, including the ones painted with gel pens because the women aren't allowed to possess make up, look so beautiful. When you look back into those eyes, you can honestly see guilt and innocence in their distilled state where they live side by side in the shared experience of pain.

Then the moment passed; breathing in and breathing out, we began. We began by thanking the women for letting us come and for even being open to listen to anything we had to say at all. Then we proclaimed our mantra that love is the most powerful force for social change, and I could feel just how powerful that message is in a place where fear is thick. We explained that we really wanted to connect with the women through letters after we had gone and that our message was just a reminder that all of us need to keep offering hope to one another. Katrina and Shelia, both graduates of the program, spoke about mercy, grace, and time as healing balms that love uses to take hold of a life and fill it with gratitude.

Marcus and Julie sang their hearts out about broken roads and breaking the chains of oppression as women sang along and clapped. I told them about Magdalene, about our book, "Find Your Way Home". I told them about our prison tour, meeting women in Kentucky and Florida, and that we would tell the women in New York how kind they had been to us in Memphis.

When we closed, people hugged and exchanged addresses, and it seemed like it was the right thing to do---to come with our book of hope and not let fear about our own inadequacies keep us apart.

Now we will try to find pen pals for all the women and hopefully make some friends for life. There were several ministers from Memphis present who seemed encouraged to build some homes. Also Patti Blevins, Marlei Olson, Mary Murphy, Carolyn Snell and John Kutsko, all who had helped to organize the journey, made the spirit of love and joy come alive and kept us all on the path to making connections between women in prison and the outside world. Thank you all for letting us keep on this road.

For more photos from our trip, look at our Flickr page. For more information on the tour, visit the Abingdon Press page. Additional thanks to the Commercial Appeal and the Memphis Flyer for covering the event.

Photos by Carolyn Snell

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