Trust in the jail

William Morales, Patron of Prison BreaksThere is not a single inmate who should be trusted. We should stop using the word trustee in the prison. Not one of them is trustworthy, not even a trustee. In my notes from our ACRJ orientation, I’ve written this line. It can be attributed to some lieutenant at some prison in some cold city in upstate New York. Unfortunately, though, that opinion reaches far beyond that singular sentinel, frozen to the bars of some freezing New York prison. The whole prison system is built within a vacuum of trust—every crosswire window, blinking camera and slick tile floor. The house has long been prepared for attack.

Of course, an environment perfectly devoid of trust is a feat too great even for the American penal system. No one can actually create a jail that exhausts all precautionary measures. Outfit the guard with bigger guns. Strip the visitors down to nothing. Force every inmate into solitary confinement. Threaten, like the God of Luther’s dark imagination, every misstep with death.

Once, spending the night at a friend’s house in high school, we decided to watch one of those documentaries on Netflix that no one ever watches. So we furiously scrolled backwards, like Cameron Frye’s dad’s car, into the forgotten annals and found a National Geographic film called Russia’s Toughest Prisons. In the most masochistic sleepover ever conceived, we watched the whole movie. All 44 minutes.

In case you were wondering, Russian prisons are nothing like Tina Fey’s portrayal in the latest Muppets’ movie. The documentary begins with a look at a prison known as Black Dolphin on the boarder with Kazakhstan. There, every guard wields an automatic rifle and every inmate is transported in the same position: hands bound behind the back, bent over at a forty-five degree angle, followed by a snarling German shepherd. They respond to every command with yes, sir. Every cell has a video camera. There are light and motion detectors. Every fifteen minutes a guard goes through the cells. They are not allowed to sit on their beds for sixteen hour stretches. Inmates share cells of fifty square feet in which they eat. And each cell is itself within a cell, behind three sets of steal doors. “All prison operations maintain the highest level of isolation.” (39:42)

ACRJ sports nothing close to this level of security. Inmates walk, unchained, escorted by guards—most of them less physically fit than their charges. Nathan and I walk unescorted in the facility, sealed with a badge: no escort required. My oxford button down and jeans, though, get me access into the break room, where the food accounts for the physical disparity between staff and inmate.

I recently was in a seminar discussing Kierkegaard’s Works of Love. In it, he gives a puzzling little reflection on love for the dead as the purest form of love. “When one wants to make sure that love is completely unselfish, one can of course remove every possibility of repayment. But this is exactly what is removed in the relationship to one who is dead. If love still abides, then it is truly unselfish”(349). Love he says is purest where there is no possibility of reciprocation, where the fault line between life and death becomes the one-way mirror across which we reach out to the Other.

One of the other students, particularly unsettled by the idea, began to talk about his brother-in-law in prison. He saw a striking similarity between the state of the dead, as Kierkegaard would have it, and the relational possibilities of an inmate, namely the inability to reciprocate. I do not recall the point he actually made. But I do recall getting excited…because we were talking about my thing now. “I actually taught in a jail this summer…” I do not recall the point I actually made. I do recall people looking at me with their eyes: he just wanted to talk about his thing now. I’ve since thought about the other student’s comparison—the jail to the dead. I am not entirely sure what I think about the love bit, or the purest form of love. But these three remain: trust, isolation and love.

Jürgen Moltmann in The Crucified God writes, “It is true that in a technocratic society all human relationships are reduced to the level of things, and general apathy is spreading on an academic scale. It is true that in a world of high consumption, where anything and everything is possible, nothing is so humanizing as love, and a conscious interest in the life of others, particularly the life of the oppressed. For love leaves us open to wounding and disappointment. It makes us ready to suffer. It leads us out of isolation into a fellowship with others, with people different from ourselves, and this fellowship is always associated with suffering”(62-63).

I hope it comes through here, as it did to me only upon rereading this paragraph, that the basic relationships between trust, love, and fellowship come through here. Love demands fellowship. Love demands that people come together in trust. Love demands the environment in which it thrives. Love draws us out of isolation, because it requires fellowship, and it opens us up to wounding, overcoming mistrust. We cannot remain alone—either in isolation or in self-concern. If we do so, we fight against love.

The jail fights against love. The jail is cold. It pours mean into their separate cells and binds them there like water in an ice tray. It sets them to the back of the societal icebox until they freeze alone. Love then comes like a flame. We cannot be kept apart, even when we forget our ID. A force among us begins to draw us together across the thin cracks in the wall.

I believe, then, that the task of the Christian in the jail is to learn to love the mistrusted in an environment of mistrust. Whatever this means, its does not mean that we take a system of mistrust as given. We go like a burning man into a fortress, a bush aflame in the desert. Perhaps though, simply being there is the first step.

Peter Hartwig is blogging this summer for the Summer Internship on Lived Theology. Learn more about Peter and the internship program here, and read more internship blog posts here.

Image information:

William Morales, Patron of Prison Breaks

David Wojnarowicz
(American, Red Bank, New Jersey 1954–1992 New York)

Date: 1983
Medium: Acrylic on Masonite
Dimensions: H. 48, W. 48 inches (121.9 x 121.9 cm.)
Classification: Paintings
Credit Line: Hugo Kastor Fund, 1983
Accession Number: 1983.586

Crash into me

AtticApril 12013 was a Monday and, like every other Monday I’ve spent in college, I spent it in Newcomb auditorium at Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship’s Monday Night Live worship service. All of Chi Alpha gets together for your average 600-person, evangelical, college fellowship meeting: we all say hi to each other until 8:05, then someone says a short ‘be quiet now’ prayer, songs, sermon, send-off, then we all say bye to each other until 9:45. Call it the Passion City model. I do not recall whether I was expecting an April Fools disruption in the liturgy; I do not recall being particularly vigilant. But in the “everyone sit down now” transition between worship song #4 and the announcements, a gorilla chased a banana across the stage.

My friend Nick, dressed as the gorilla, chased my friend Matt, dressed as the banana, down the right aisle, across the stage and back up the left aisle. It took everyone a second to catch on. I heard gasping and laughter and then a beam of yellow struck my periphery. Matt can really move. But as he turned the left corner of the stage, the hood of the banana costume slid over his face and blocked his eyes. For some reason, perhaps the gorilla, he decided not to take the time to fix the hood and continued to run, now blind, around the corner, up the aisle and headfirst into the concrete column at the back of the auditorium.

Usually, when a crash is immanent, there’s a moment of realization, a “this is going to happen now.” Before the players collide, they close their eyes and wrinkle their mouths. Before car strikes car, the brake lights flare. Before the bomb goes off, someone yells “Get down!” But the poor banana was not afforded the luxury of that reflective moment.

Matt ran right into the pole. There was running. Then there was pain and, a second later, blood—a slight disruption in the liturgy.

The difference between Matt and me is that when I ran headlong into the jail, I maintained a certain willful blindness. In the blog post called, Here’s How We Got Started, I talked about the moment when the idea was hatched in me to teach in a prison and about the year-long process of badgering a bureaucracy to let us into jail. Over the summer, I have had to retell the story a thousand times. “Oh, really? What an odd summer job. How did that happen?” By the end of August, it has gotten pared down to one-thousandth of its original length. “Um…I got this terrible idea to teach in a jail and someone funded it! It just worked out.”

I fear that there might be a note of arrogance in there or the glory of the victor. Veni, vidi, vici. I fear that you might hear me saying, “We did it on our own. We did it. (Well, actually I did it. Don’t tell Nathan).” I hope that is not true and that whenever the voice of pride has crept up on my shoulder, I’ve brushed off the insect.

But in retelling the story, even as it’s gotten shorter, I’ve been struck by how I was certain of uncertain things. From its conception in the Starbucks at Gibson, I believed that the project would work out somehow. And I’m not really sure where that came from or what to call it: faith or arrogance or naiveté?

As a theological point, giving “it” a name—my certainty that the project would work—means determining an object of certainty, the thing trusted-in. Faith means God; arrogance means the self; naiveté means no object, failure to consider the need for trust, failing to comprehend the possibility of failure. I am not sure if any single one of these has been true of my time as an intern. It is very possible that, in fact, the object of my trust has changed daily, or that other objects have arisen at various times.

At first, I attributed my failure to speak with theological specificity on this point to a lack of theological knowledge. “If only I’d read more Bonhoeffer I would know how to describe my summer. If only I could finish out this framework of trust, then I’d be a better blogger.” But the more I think about it, the less I think it is true—not that I am trying to let myself off of the task of theory. I am however more convinced that the problem is one of perspective.

My attempts to find and isolate the object of my trust decay into a confused navel-gazing. Counter-intuitively, the search turns introspective. I hoped to find out where it was I thought I was traveling by looking only at the direction of my feet. Instead, I’ve just got a good look at my toes. Because now that the event is over, now that we’re no longer teaching, now that we’ve actually been into the jail—I can’t imagine that the thing, whatever it is, I was trusting has stuck around, still visible and material. When I let go my fingers in relief, having gotten into jail, it feels as though the thing I held on to, like a dream, vanished.

In high school, I had read enough Jungian and Freudian theory to offer fairly entertaining dream interpretations all about guilt and sex and your parents. When I came to college that fact was leaked on my first year hall—in a momentary lapse of my own ego, I’m sure. During the fraternity-pledging season in the spring, one of the other residents came to my dorm at the end of the hall.

“You can interpret dreams?” Morpheus asked me.

“It’s not like a magical power. I just read The Interpretation of Dreams by Freud. It’s more of an intellectual exercise.”

“So in this dream, I’m just walking on the street and this guy comes up, this ugly guy. And he tells me I need to kill someone or he is going to kill me. So I just start running around trying to find someone. And I find one of the other guys in my pledge class just randomly. So I like kidnap this guy! And the cops are searching for me and they’re all after me. And I like put the kid in my basement at home. The cops are outside and I tie him up in a chair and leave him there for a whole year—it doesn’t feel like a year. But it’s a whole year. And it was like everyone had forgotten. The cops leave the house and after a year I just let him leave. He just walks outside and then I wake up.”

“How are you feeling about pledging?” I asked.

“Good. I think. I do stuff that I’d rather not do, but it’s good.” In other words, awful.

“Well, I think—and I’m not like an expert—I think it’s about pledging. I say that because of the pledge brother. So the guy on the street, the guy that says ‘unless you compromise your morals, I’m going to kill you’ would be the fraternity. Maybe you’re afraid that if you don’t pledge, you will die. Socially, you know. So in exchange for social life, the frat demands you compromise yourself. It’s important, I think, that you kill one of your pledge brothers, because he is you. If you killed one of the brothers in the frat, you would kill the frat. But instead you tie up the thing that’s most like you, one of your compatriots. You know? But you know that if you can just wait out this spring and keep everything under control that you won’t die, you won’t lose your social life. So you just keep him in the basement for a year. You don’t even kill him. Just leave him there for a little bit. And on the other side, it’s like it never happened. Except you know better than that.”

He fell eerily silent and looked at my like I was some kind of gypsy. So to try and soften the moment I said, “But, you know, if you don’t think that’s true, then it probably isn’t. Dreams are just your subconscious speaking to you, kind of. This could really all be nothing, just sort of an intellectual exercise.”

He said something like “Yeh right, haha.” And walked away. I just remember him walking away.

I don’t know what he did for the rest of the spring. I think he stuck with it. The last I saw him was at a sorority date function where he looked especially fraternal. So, I guess he just waited out the year. After all, the dream was right: on the other side of the year, the pledging season, it is all practically a dream. It’s almost like it didn’t happen. The cops leave your house. You let the pledge go. And the only person who remembers your captor-hood is you.

I feel now—now that the moment of trust is over, now that we are in the jail, now that everything will work according to the godless mechanism of bureaucracy—as though I have the answer to the question for which I was trusting. We are already sailing. And searching for that original object of our trust would be like searching for an anchor at the bottom of the sea. We are cut loose now.

I do not like this position, this self-centered, self-focused orientation. Without the externality of a trust-object, I feel like I am the only fossil I have to examine. It feels like my perspective is quite small. It is perfectly fit to the shape of my own very self. A shroud the exact shape of my world is blinding me.

The problem with my perspective is that it is mine. So, how do I get out of it? Running headlong up the aisle, blinded by my own costume, eventually I might hit the pole. Hopefully, harshly, hurtfully, and without the luxury of the reflective moment, I might just bust my skull on the pillar of the jail. But, it is, I think, worth the moment of pain.

Peter Hartwig is blogging this summer for the Summer Internship on Lived Theology. Learn more about Peter and the internship program here, and read more internship blog posts here.

Image information:


Willem de Kooning
(American (born The Netherlands), Rotterdam 1904–1997 East Hampton, New York)

Date: 1949
Medium: Oil, enamel, and newspaper transfer on canvas
Dimensions: 61 7/8 x 81 in. (157.2 x 205.7 cm)
Classification: Paintings
Credit Line: The Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman Collection, Gift of Muriel Kallis Newman, in honor of her son, Glenn David Steinberg, 1982
Accession Number: 1982.16.3
Rights and Reproduction: © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Wide awake

Woman Asleep at a TableMy father swears he doesn’t snore. I can’t tell if he’s lying—not because he doesn’t snore. He does. I know. For years I slept in the room next to my parents, and we shared a hotel room a few weeks ago at my cousin’s wedding. But I don’t know if he knows that. I have tried to convince him. But he’s never awake for it. He goes on snoring in an epistemological slumber, denying awake his crime in sleep. If only I could wake him up to him snoring.

Teaching a class is like being woken up by your own snoring. You slave and slumber away over your syllabus, piecing together a skeletal booklist by some unseen logic. Let’s put Colson first because he’s kind of innocuous, accessible. Ya know he doesn’t have an edge to cut on. And then make sure we have Baldwin after Malcolm X so that we don’t end angry. You shoot from the hip and think from your gut. There we were in Para Coffee, creating a syllabus, when Nathan suggested we read Blue Rage, Black Redemption by Tookie Williams.

I had never heard of Tookie Williams before, much less his autobiography. But I had heard of the Crips, which Tookie started. His is an inglorious story: high-school-drop-out on the crack-ridden streets of LA to the high priest of the “Crippen religion.” With barely a high school degree, he built the nation’s largest crime organization. He fought the systematized racism built to keep him and his kind down. Until, at the height of his career, he was arrested and incarcerated for four murders to which he pled innocent. At the end of his story, he finds, in his words, “redemption.” But that part wasn’t on the syllabus yet.

We split the Tookie readings into two sections so that the class would spend a week with Blue Rage, Black Redemption. The first reading was all about, well, blue rage. It chronicled his life up until his arrest. We isolated the redemption part. It felt right when we were writing the course in Para. But, as Amy Winehouse sang, “I wake up alone.” The day we started discussing Tookie, Nathan was not in class.

I need to get two points across. First, Nathan did not abandon me. This was planned. Nathan had a wedding to go to. Second, I had the wrong idea. For one day, it would be my classroom. No training wheels. This would be my first moment into the long tradition of great teachers. Just like Dr. Simeone and Dr. Matthews and Mr. Evans, just like my favorite professors, I would be theirs. When the discussion went off without a hitch, I would be responsible! I walked the line between confidence and hubris with all the grace of a drunken giraffe. Wrong idea.

When I sat down in East 1, all the students were already assembled and discussing. Discussing might be a generous term: venting maybe, calmly ranting, anxiously ironing their intellectual creases. The room was not loud…yet. I had been nervous that they were not going to speak. They were already talking when I arrived.

The first recorded note I have on my legal pad:

Sophocles says “Do you know what Crip rage is?” Every time he repeated the phrase ‘Crip rage’ he hissed out the voiced uvular fricative with deeper anger. He talks about Crrip rrage. Have you ever known Crrrip rrrage? Do you know anything like that? Crrrrip rrrrage.

I asked, “Why don’t we start off with a broader question?” Bad idea. “What are the forces that shaped Tookie Williams as a child? What dynamics are at play in the community?” That was my attempt to control class, to drive this train, without training wheels. To the broader question, I got broader answers. All yelled.

Sophocles: I don’t know what black community this is. This is not my black community.

Mars: It’s the urban black community. That’s THE black community.

Pluto: It’s the poverty, brother. That is the currents that run this place to be all, all dysfunctional, to get stuck in the social downspirals. Because poverty has only one door in and out. The gangs have only one door in and out.

Sophocles: Poor? You don’t know poor! Where are you from? DC? Baltimore? Atlanta? You don’t know poor. I am not from this country. I have seen real poverty.

Famus: I’m telling you. This is the Crips and the Bloods man. This is the truth! My mama told me this! She was in Baltimore when all this when down! It was the government! They put the crack in the hand of the Crips! They were the ones trying to break up the black community! They were the ones, I’m telling you man! This the truth!

Me: Mr. Famus, I can tell that you’re very passionate about this subject. My arms slowly rise like an astronaut tuning an orchestra. But we are not privy to the conversations you’ve had with your mother. All we have in common here is this text. Any of your observations, if not brought back to the text, are over our heads. You’ll be talking right past us. Does that make sense?

Was that the right thing to say?

I have no idea! I had not prepared for this scenario. I had not at all expected the class to react so strongly on the text. I am embarrassed to admit it.

Teaching the class was a rude awakening from the soundless side of the syllabus. You construct this syllabus over two hours of chai lattes in Para coffee and at the end of the afternoon you think, I’ve made class.  But that’s not true. You haven’t made a class. You’ve got the symbol of the skeleton of the class. You don’t have students. You don’t have content. You just have titles and your reading of the texts.

Maybe that was the thing I woke up to—how narcissistic the syllabus was. When I read the texts in preparation for the class, it never crossed my mind that this would be vitriolic, that the autobiography of an ex-gang leader would anger and impassion a classroom made up of jail inmates. Because it did not anger or impassion me. Williams told me a heartbreaking but unrelatable story. And it didn’t occur to me that anything should occur to me beyond what immediately occurred to me: variant readings or, you know, other people.

That class was also a rude awakening to other people, to humans in the full sense of that word. Now, now that I am awake, given the choice between our students—our real human students—and the comfortable dream of contrived characters, I would choose the classroom.

Peter Hartwig is blogging this summer for the Summer Internship on Lived Theology. Learn more about Peter and the internship program here, and read more internship blog posts here.

Image information:

Woman Asleep at a Table

Pablo Picasso
(Spanish, Malaga 1881–1973 Mougins, France )

Date: 1936
Medium: Oil and charcoal on canvas
Dimensions: 38 1/4 x 51 1/4in. (97.2 x 130.2cm)
Classification: Paintings
Credit Line: The Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls Collection, 1997
Accession Number: 1997.149.3
Rights and Reproduction: © 2014 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


Home Image“Save me! God, I want to go home,” says Mr. Icarus.

“This is home,” says Mr. Sophocles.

“You just have to accept it, man. The more you think about the outside the harder it gets,” says Mr. Ulysses.

“I go to accept it and then, just when I’m there, something happens that pisses me off and I’m back to square one!” says Mr. Icarus.

I never know how class will begin—usually, because it begins regardless of my presence and preparation. By the time someone lets us into the room, a heated debate about Sophocles’ predictions for the World Cup, or not doing the reading for class, or each man’s children at home is well underway. Today, it was about home.

“Well, Mr. Icarus, let me ask you a question: what is home? What defines or makes home?” Nathan asks.

“Home is where your roots are, where your relations is.” Mr. Levi says.

“Where my cat is.” Mr. Icarus avoids the question.

“Where my lady is.” Mr. Mars sneers. They laugh in a way that makes me think the cat and the lady are synonymous.

“Where I am is home.”

“Wherever you are, you’re there.”

“Is there a way to make a place home?” Nathan is trying to build the conversation. It’s something he’s good at, something I’ve started to learn from watching him.

“I bring things of meaning to me. A picture of Mrs. Sophocles, my cat, my horses. Things of sentimental value.”

“But I’ve also lost so many things, things of sentimental value. Because what’s here today is gone tomorrow. Fttt.”

“It’s all temporary. People are temporary. Everything is temporary. Jail is temporary.”

“Besides things, is there any other way to make a space home?” Sometimes you just need to ask again.

“It’s been hard, coming from a collegiate environment like U.Va.,” from where Mr. Icarus holds a bachelor’s degree, “to this place. It’s been a shock.”

“Relationships can make home. That’s not, you know, about making a space home. But it’s about relationships—even with the space that is home.” Mr. Ulysses. “But you miss a lot of that in here, you know? I found out my best friend died in here, in the obituaries. Found out in the paper.”

They fall silent and they all look like they’re reading obituaries. The room feels momentarily colder. At this point I feel I have a choice of what to say next.

As they’ve been speaking, I’ve begun to reflect on what I think makes home. Moving from dorm to dorm each year, home becomes movable in a small array of objects: my copies of Barth’s Dogmatics and Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises; my broken pocket watch from Heidelberg; my teddy bear Aloysius; a Jerusalem cross pinned to the wall. And so I begin to think that maybe home is about control in self-expression, or about familiarity, or about repetition. I could share those thoughts but that seems out of place. As much as that sort of sharing has helped me learn over my lengthening education—the facilitating voice—it does not seem to be quite as helpful in the jail. So I choose to talk about something else.

Over the course of the summer, the students never once turned down an opportunity to learn more about me and about where I come from. Lt. Virgil would probably advise me not to give up a single autobiographical inch. But, at various times I have, and without fail the students reacted with a remarkable openness and receptivity. More than any concept, theory or written story that we have shared in class, our own stories—Nathan’s and mine—have woken them up from that classroom stupor. So I read a paragraph.

“So, we didn’t plan on talking about any of this for the lesson today,” I chuckle awkwardly. “But, I brought the autobiography that I wrote when I took this class. And I didn’t plan on reading this or anything, but there’s a section here about home, or what my home was like. So I thought I could read a section from mine and then we could move onto paragraphs from what you all wrote?” Sure seems the best way to characterize my impression of the group. I read a little.

My father, a Pentecostal minister, believed in centering his family around the Christ as best he could. It really was not as bad as most people assume—most misguided by images of fire-breathing televangelists. I would like to dispel the myth that being the son of a minister is like living under the Ayatolla Khomeini. My parents were truly no more or less protective than any others; I saw the Harry Potter movies, went to parties where kids drank and danced at prom with real live girls.

But on the other hand, the factor of Christianity most definitely made my parents different; they never swore or drank—expect for my mother’s annual glass of wine. Mom ate lunch weekly with women who had fallen on hard times and Dad rose early Thursday morning, not for golf, but to lead a men’s Bible study for skeptics at a local ice cream shop. It was hard for many of my friends to understand; even our devout Sunday morning attendance often struck them as inconvenient or rather old fashioned, like having a black and white TV. But the very fabric of our family was centered around religion; Jesus was an everyday and every-night occurrence.

“Come pray for me!” the same call ritualistically echoed down the hallway of our family home as every evening the heavy, familiar drumming of my parents bare feet would rumble through the floor boards in the hallway. With a soft knock on the door, my father would let a creak of light into my bedroom to navigate across the cluttered floor to my bedside and without so much as opening my eyes—if I were already so tired—I would thrust my hand from beneath my covers. “Dear Lord…” he would begin.

Very rarely had my parents not been beckoned like that to stand at my bedside, take my hand and say a short prayer. Having nightly gone through our quick ritual for as long as I can truly remember, any attempt to recollect all those times takes me to a period in my life that I would be tempted to call primordial. I am sure that when I was a baby my parents prayed over me, even as I slept in the white wooden crib, which now gathers dust in my basement. 

I’m not sure that I had looked at that autobiography again since I finished Dr. Warren’s class. So reading it aloud to the inmates felt one step short of sharing my middle school diary—mostly because I did not recall exactly what I wrote. And, of course, I am diseased by the virus that infects all students: a fear of sharing my writing. Because people often react in totally unexpected ways.

When I finished the students were just staring. That really did not help my self-esteem. I finished reading and their faces said nothing and said it very loudly. Free of quality and terribly severe, I could not tell if they were expressions of pity or marvel. Blank and amazed.

“That’s remarkable.” Mr. Sophocles broke the silence.

“What does that mean? I honestly can’t tell from your face. Is that like a look of pity or…” I asked.

“I can’t imagine that kind of structure. You had stability.” Mr. Ulysses.

“I’d pay for that kind of life!” Mr. Sophocles said it with a sort of gasp.

I felt that the class had inverted there, that I was now the object of attention, the subject of study. And to me, there seemed to be a spark of truth in it. That their reception of my story overhauled our position towards the barriers that separated us—the prison line, the class line, the race line, the sacred barrier of individuals—was a shift I suspect I alone could feel. A dialogue appeared that I had never before seen.

At first there was the story as I wrote it four years ago; at that time, the writing was an attempt to draw out of my muddled childhood memories both a sense of order and a coherent aesthetic, a vision that redeemed and organized my fretted recollections of my childhood. Since that time, I have never told the story any other way. Even as I read to the inmates, I saw my childhood by the old glow of tradition, by the wood toned beauty of clergy life, and the liturgical pulse of Christian time.

But I had never considered it as story worth gawking at. It had never occurred to me that my fifteen year-old retelling of my childhood deserved the sort of attention and reception that the students offered in hearing. I never thought it was the kind of story “I’d pay for.” Though I considered it a beautiful story, especially in the forgotteness of religion, I had never considered it amazing. The students empower me to do just that. In academic terms, the class offered me an alternate reading of my own story—which is, of course, to say myself.

I am not sure I was able to communicate my gratefulness. I did not understand it until now, until writing this post. But, in my defense, I was not given much time to think then.

“I’d pay for that kind of life!” Mr. Sophocles said it with a sort of gasp. And then he leaned forward in his plastic chair. “Can I ask you a personal question?”

“It’s the last day.” I shrugged.

“When did you lose your virginity?”

Peter Hartwig is blogging this summer for the Summer Internship on Lived Theology. Learn more about Peter and the internship program here, and read more internship blog posts here.

Image information:

Purple Woman/Kitchen/Second View

Laurie Simmons
(American, born 1949)

Date: 1978
Medium: Silver dye bleach print
Dimensions: Image: 7.6 x 12.7 cm (3 x 5 in.)
Classification: Photographs
Credit Line: Purchase, Pamela and Arthur Sanders Gift and Kenneth P. Siegel Gift, 2004
Accession Number: 2004.246
Rights and Reproduction: © Laurie Simmons

I can see your halo

Seated Four-Armed GaneshaMiss Vesta is the education director at ACRJ. She’s a godsend.

Early in May, Nathan and I went to the jail to get our final okays on instituting our project at ACRJ. Neither of us had ever met Miss Vesta before. Half an hour early, we sat quietly in the purgatorial lobby.

“What’s she like?” I whispered.

“Like what?”

“Like, nice. Is she nice? Cause if she’s defensive or closed or…I don’t know. If she’s a jerk, essentially, if she’s a jerk this is going to be hard.”

“Yeh,” Nathan chirped. “I hope she talks.”

A wall of white cinderblocks and tinted, two-way, bulletproof windows separates the lobby from the rest of the facility. The guard’s desk takes up most of the floor space—thick, wooden, with bulletproof glass about seven feet high. There is only one door in and out. From the lobby-side, you can barely discern the silhouette of whoever is emerging from the bulwark of ACRJ. “Miss Vesta will be out in a minute.” The guard gave a drowsy smile from behind his barracks.

In case you haven’t been able to tell from my other blog posts *hint-hint* my prose tends ever so slightly towards the dramatic and, for better or for worse, so does my personality. “Ms. Vesta will be out in a minute” cues the pit-conductor in my head to start an overture.

The curtain rising: a tinted window firmly cast into the thick grooves of an iron door. Who will come through? Our last hope! Our last hurdle! She will make or break us! She could squash our little project and dash our hopes against the rocks! I see a silhouette move towards the door. Kettledrums thunder with every step. I envision Miss Trunchbull from Matilda or the female version of Principle Skinner from the Simpsons. The orchestra grows louder. The door buzzes open. The violins ring out like sirens. I cross my fingers and mutter mantra-like Dear Jesus! make her nice, please be nice, please be nice, please be nice, please be nice.

And then she stepped into the lobby and the music came to a jarring halt, because Ms. Vesta looked nothing like I expected. Nothing like Miss Trunchbull.

“Hello! Welcome, welcome. I’m Miss Vesta.” She reached out her hand to be shaken. Hers is the first hand I shook at ACRJ.

Unlike every single one of her colleagues, she does not wear a uniform. She doesn’t look like she works in a jail. She doesn’t look like she spends everyday in a windowless fortress. She was dressed like a schoolteacher, fully coordinated: light blue cardigan, khakis, eye shadow and smile. She warmly welcomed us. Her voice and face and demeanor were comforting and bright.

Everything about Miss Vesta is inviting—everything about the prison is not. After all, jail is the place we send people. It is meant to be the bottom-regions, the inferno of American society: the cinderblock walls, the painted emblems of Virginia law enforcement, the forest-green bars, the thin cross-wires in every pane of glass. Doors open at the buzzing behest of some unseen master-brain. Every human body is uniformed by function—officer, kitchen staff, convict. None of it invites you. It holds you hostage. Host without hospitality. It is in this place that Miss Vesta plays host: to every uniformed passerby she introduces both us and our project. “This is Mr. Walton and Mr. Hartwig. They’re going to be teaching in our summer academy this June.”

But, this week, for the first time, we welcomed Miss Vesta to our classroom. As I went through the bi-weekly routine of checking with the education office—getting our class roster, the approved box of pencils—she said, “I thought I would stop into class today. To your class, I mean. Would that be…”

“That would be great!” Dear Jesus, I hope I prepared enough… “We’re reading Blue Like Jazz by Don Miller. Does that mean anything to you?”

She shook her head.

“Great! Come. It’ll be fun.”

And, whatdyaknow, half an hour into class, Miss. Vesta knocked on the giant green door and keyed herself into the classroom.

“Am I interrupting?”

“No, no. Come in.”

All the students—well, most of the students—were sketching, with their approved pencils, on the back page of the course packet. A few were, admittedly, talking about the World Cup.

One looked up from his packet and winked. “Hello Miss Vesta.”

“Hello Mr. Mars.” She took it with a practiced teacherly elegance.

“Here, Miss Vesta,” I tore a piece of paper from my legal pad. “Draw God.”

There was a moment there—after I told her to draw God—when I think she might have regretted approving our class or, at least, worried her accreditation process was lax. What else are they doing in here? Building model villages out of Popsicle sticks? But, a guest, she sat down and began to lightly draw. We watched the clock for sixty more seconds.

“Alright everyone. Let’s share.” Nathan brought the exercise to a close.

“Anyone willing to start?” No one. “Alright. Clockwise. Mr. Levi, start us off.”

Each student shared what he had drawn: the sacred heart, Jesus as a luchador, a light bulb, a glass of water. They explained why each of these meant God for them. Miss Vesta went last.

“Alright Miss Vesta. When you imagine God you see…”

On her page was only a face. No body. A sort of androgynous, juvenile face—smiling. I wondered for a second whether she had subtly admitted to us that God, for her, was Justin Bieber or visa versa. Lifting the portrait up before the rest of the class—12 convicts who were, for the moment, her colleagues—her eyebrows arced bashfully upward.

“It’s a face. There’s…there’s its smile. I don’t know, I just, just, think of God as not really anyone specific. Y’alls were so good. I…I just, think of God sort of like this. Happy, maybe. Nice?”

I don’t know what I was expecting from her. I guess I thought somehow her drawing would stand out; that in its form and subject, her concept of God would be easily recognizable as un-imprisoned. I expected, in so many words, that Miss Vesta would conceive of God differently. Because when she unveiled to the class a bodiless, androgynous smiley-face, I thought It looks just like the inmates’. Actually, their drawings look better. But there she sat, directly to my right, no different from the 12 convicted criminals in the room. Bashful, self conscious, directed—I could no longer see the halo that before had distinguished her as part of a higher caste.

Miss Vesta did not stay in class much longer than that. She discussed her picture, sat to hear a few minutes of discussion and then, smiling quietly, politely excused herself. She stood up from the table and, unescorted, used her own key to let herself from the room.

Peter Hartwig is blogging this summer for the Summer Internship on Lived Theology. Learn more about Peter and the internship program here, and read more internship blog posts here.

Image information:

Seated Four-Armed Ganesha

Date: ca. 1775
Culture: India (Rajasthan, Bundi)
Medium: Ink and opaque watercolor on paper
Dimensions: 5 15/16 x 4 1/2 in. (15.1 x 11.4 cm)
Classification: Paintings
Credit Line: Gift of Daniel J. Slott, 1977
Accession Number: 1977.440.15

Training Day


I should start with a disclaimer: very few of the names from here on out will be real. Yes, Heather Warren and Nathan Walton are real people. I haven’t been lying retroactively or anything. But those names are easily found on the internet without my help anyway. This post, then, begins my pseudonyms.

I understand that lots of writers try to facilitate some kind of etymological connection between their characters and the real people from which they stem. Catullus, for instance, when he wrote about Clodia, calls her Lesbia. Not only are they metrically identical, but Lesbia refers to the Island of Lesbos where the Greek poetess Sapho lived and wrote. And in an early poem Catullus refers to Clodia as “Sapho’s Muse” (35). And so the thought is, if you are smart enough, you can make the connection from Clodia-> Sapho’s muse-> Sapho was from Lesbos-> Lesbia is Clodia. This will not be true of my pseudonyms.

Mine are meant to be merely symbolic, to match some facet of the name’s history to the real figure. So when I call a staff person Virgil, it’s not because his name has two syllables. It’s because, just like Virgil is the character that guides Dante through the Inferno, Lt. Virgil oriented us to the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail.

Last week in the basement of the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail (hereafter referred to as ACRJ) I underwent the mandatory orientation for every volunteer. Our session was particularly small because there was a tornado warning over Charlottesville—more accurately, there was a tornado over Charlottesville. “We usually have 20-40 people in these training nights,” Lieutenant Virgil began. “But a few people canceled because of the weather. So we’re gonna have more intimate evening.” There were five of us, including Nathan and me.

Virgil is a key swinging, story spinning, Mountain Dew wielding veteran of ACRJ. He started working at the jail 19 years ago—two months before I was born—and he, by his own admission, has seen it all.  Every lesson comes with a tale. “Remember, a paper clip is deadly here. Few years ago, one of them left a paper clip in his own feces—I’m not tryin’ to be gross—left it in a cup and then stabbed a brother. No one caught it, died of infection.” He’s full of stories about gang fights, illicit convict-security romances and Big Bubba.

Big Bubba is Virgil’s anti-hero, a fictional character who represents the real power in the jail. “They’re not all bad guys. These inmates, they’ve probably got no problem with you. But, you never know what Big Bubba’s gonna make them do. This is Big Bubba’s house. Cause if Big Bubba says ‘give me your lunch’ what else are you gonna do? You just never know.” Right down to its central character, the jail is storied.

But these are cautionary tales, like my Italian mother used to tell. “One of my cousins tripped in her kitchen and the knives were facing up in the dishwasher…” “In school, girls could get reputations…” Somehow, with his stories and his veterancy, Virgil strikes me as maternal. I guess in a strange place, with dangerous people, you naturally look for someone to latch on to, to teach you how to live here.

“I like to start off with a short introduction and then two videos I like to show and then we’ll talk a little bit and, uh, that’ll do it. With this small a number though it shouldn’t take all that long.” Virgil put in a VHS and stepped back from the TV.

Here are a few of the notes I took.

“Security isn’t just a concern for security staff. It’s a concern for everyone.” I guess this is the point of this whole night.

“Don’t trust an inmate with any information about yourself.” Then how am I supposed to teach an autobiography class?!

“We should stop using the word trustee in the prisons. Not one of them is trustworthy, not even a trustee.”

“Do not share anything with an inmate.”

“At any time, if they wanted to, they could take this place over.”

Halfway through the first VHS, the tornado knocked out the power. All the lights died and a siren like a thousand cacophonous chalkboards filled the flashing room.

After twenty minute’s preaching how there was not single trustworthy inmate in the entire facility, I was trapped in their powerless house, like that scene from Dark Night Rises. I was half-prepared to see Bane come barreling through the barred door and rally a prison army. What is keeping this untrustworthy army from staging a coup d’état? I will not die in a jail uprising during a tornado. Where’s Batman? “Let’s just take it outside,” Virgil calmly yelled over the sirens. He led us out a side door, into the inferno, into the tornado. We huddled under a small awning to keep out of the pouring rain. Out of the jail and into the storm.

You see, I have been trained.

Not in self-defense or in classroom control, but in a storied kind of fear. When I tell people that I’m volunteering at the jail, the look on their faces say, Eh, it’s not a prison. The stories come in handy there. “But one time this guy got stabbed with a feces-covered paper clip…” I say it like it’s nothing out of the ordinary.

But my mind runs an endless parade of Office-Depot homicide scenarios.  This is really what our training taught me to do: fear creatively. There was no hand-to-hand combat or issuing of badges and guns. There was no active self-defense. Just figure out how your clothing, your utensils, parts of your own body, can be weaponized before someone else does. You are a walking armament, self-destructive. Entering the jail, you have to strip down: glasses, pen, wallet, loose quarters all go in cubby 38. I usually feel naked just without my iPhone. This is like losing my skin.

Inside, it’s a scramble for fig leaves. My demeanor waffles between cold and polite—whichever, at the moment, seems the most effective form of protection. With every passerby—guard, prisoner, volunteer—there is a second of paralysis in which I re-arm myself. In the house, you are your only protection: expression, stance, stature. I have to hide behind myself. And I am not much to hide behind.

So many Christians think that at the heart of our religion is a binary: faith/doubt. So much has been written to explain and thus reinforce that binary. The prosperity Gospel, theological commiserations over the inability to believe, Dostoevsky. But it seems to me, from the New Testament at least, that the binary is actually one of faith and fear. Trust and fear. That seems a little bit more reasonable to me, a little bit more relatable. The question of trust and fear is not really one of knowing facts. It’s a way of standing before something we do not entirely understand–like God, or the World, for that matter. Bonhoeffer wrote of fear, “Nothing can make a human being so conscious of the reality of powers opposed to God in our lives.” Fear is a disposition, an orientation.

But then Bonhoeffer creates this call and response. “Fear is in the boat–Christ is in the boat.” Fear enters the boat, and Christ comes walking across the water. Fear enters the church, and the Spirit of God rests among them. Fear enters the prison; so do I. I have to bring Christ there. What does that mean? At first thought, I think it means to challenge the mechanisms of fear, to dwell on them and find their defeat. Christ is bigger than the system, bigger than the warden, bigger even than Big Bubba. He is bigger and he is near. Christ is in the jail. We are there to visit him. “Fear not. I am.”

Peter Hartwig is blogging this summer for the Summer Internship on Lived Theology. Learn more about Peter and the internship program here, and read more internship blog posts here.

Image information:


Leah Balsham
(American, born Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1915)

Publisher: Published by WPA
Date: 1939
Medium: Woodcut
Dimensions: block: 10 x 14 in. (25.4 x 35.6 cm) sheet: 11 1/2 x 14 1/2 in. (29.2 x 36.8 cm)
Classification: Prints
Credit Line: WPA New York Project, 1943
Accession Number: 43.47.67

Here’s How We Got Started

Avenal, California

Here’s how we got started. Like so many other great ideas, this summer project started over coffee in February. Dr. Heather Warren, very graciously, bought me a chai latte at the Starbucks in Gibson Hall. Both of us are talkers, so we were there for a while. The drinks were cold by the time we began to reminisce about my semester in her American religious autobiography class. “You were kind of a guinea pig,” she said.

As a native C-Villian, I had the opportunity to take religion classes at U.Va. in high school. At sixteen, I had no idea how a collegiate religion department worked, so it was really by the providence of God and the scheming of some very dedicated faculty members that I ended up taking Dr. Warren’s seminar in the first place.

“You were kind of a guinea pig. The class is usually only open to students who are about to graduate because it’s really written for people at pivotal stages in their lives, you see. Theoretically it should work for a high school student as long as they kept up with the reading. And, well, you’re living proof.” To my recollection, that’s when Nathan walked up and joined our conversation: “I took it when I was an undergrad here. 2009.” “I’ve taught the class for a long time. Actually, taught it at a church first,” Dr. Warren said, and then the fateful words: “But I’ve always wanted to teach it in a prison.”

I really cannot tell you why I was immediately so taken with the idea. I have never been involved with prison ministry and my only real interest in law enforcement is my own personal safety. But as soon as Dr. Warren made the suggestion “I’ve always wanted to teach it in a prison” I felt a switch flip. I want to do that.

As soon as we got back from spring break, I asked the two of them if they would be willing to meet to discuss the idea. “I’ll do it! I mean, why don’t we do it? I’ll do all the legwork: clearance, money, logistics, curriculum. I’ll get it all together.” Like the book of Acts, in one accord, they agreed to divvy up the workload with me.

Over the next month, we became phone-hounds: wardens, prison chaplains, education directors—pretty much anybody who had anything to do with prisons and teaching. Every other day we left a message on another voicemail. But all those calls did not, unfortunately, bring much headway. Some were returned. Most were lost in the unsearchable depths of state bureaucracy. By the end of April, it was clear that we had lost the window of opportunity. There was no way this project was going to fly that summer. But as Miley Cyrus once sang, “Keep the faith, baby. It’s all about the climb.”

Over the next three months, I got camp jitters about the project. You know, camp jitters—when you spend the school year away from all your summer-camp friends and then you get nervous that everyone’s going to have changed and no one will like you. Well, I had the calendric opposite. All summer long, I kept thinking about the project and in the fall I timidly sent around emails to Nathan and Dr. Warren. Do we still want to do the project? I would like to do the project, ya know, if everyone else still does.

To my relief, not only had Dr. Warren and Nathan kept the dream alive, but they had given it loads of thought. They knew where to find a host facility, clearance and funds. That is how this little idea became a Summer Internship in Lived Theology. We had a list of five or six grants accepting applications. Some required a graduate-undergraduate research team: check. Some required field research: check. But none of them had the sort of structure that we found in the PLT Summer internship: blog posts, reading list, a mentor-relationship, a stated theological conviction. The rest were just funding. This was a much larger vision.

A little bit about the Project for those who do not know: the Project is fourteen years old this year. Its mission is to facilitate the interconnection of theology and lived experience and by so doing, to offer academic resources to the pursuit of social justice and human flourishing. It has itself flourished in the bottom of Gibson Hall with the hard work of people like Dr. Charles Marsh, Shea Tuttle, Kelly Figueroa-Ray, Rachel Butrum—the list goes on. So Nathan and I wrote a proposal to mesh our vision with the Project’s vision in the form of the Summer Internship.  That partnership made all the difference in my expectations for this teaching experience.

It’s amazing the sort of paths God makes with our wanderings. You go to get money for an idea and you come back with a wholly new idea. You go to grub a few bucks, for research of course, and you come back with a whole support network. Now, with the help and guidance of the Project, I can see a much larger possibility for what appears to be just a volunteer teaching-gig: not only to teach, but also to be taught; not only for the students to learn the art of autobiography, but also to hear their individual stories; not to gain a captive student-audience, but to afford to the voiceless incarcerated an open forum.

What is, perhaps, different about our project is that it is our project. Most of the summer internships have been centered around a single undergraduate, a lone agent on a mission. But my project is, and has been since the beginning, a partnership with Nathan Walton with the guidance of Dr. Heather Warren. Without them not only would this idea never have come about, but its final realization would not have been possible. They are as much a part of this project as I, “the intern.” Thanks to you both.

We will keep you updated on how it goes. But anyway, that’s how we got started.

Peter Hartwig is blogging this summer for the Summer Internship on Lived Theology. Learn more about Peter and the internship program here, and read more internship blog posts here.

Image information:

Avenal, California

Stephen Tourlentes
(American, born 1959)

Date: 1997
Medium: Gelatin silver print
Dimensions: 48.6 x 58.3 cm (19 1/8 x 22 15/16 in. )
Classification: Photographs
Credit Line: Purchase, Charina Foundation Inc. Gift, 2000
Accession Number: 2000.74
Rights and Reproduction: © Stephen Tourlentes