For the past few months, I have been exploring ideas of our sacredness and the sacredness of the elements that sustain life. As we consider how we live, what we do, and how we do it – as individuals or any sort of collective – are we honoring our sacredness? Are we honoring the sacredness of the things we fundamentally need to live? Perhaps the first step in that is to identify what those needs are.
My third-grade teacher introduced the first set of fundamentals I learned about - food, shelter, air, and water - as “FSAW.” I have expanded this list to include some additional essentials of healthcare, education, and rest. As we begin our journey into the nursing home ministry of Pathways in Compassion, I realize that I have overlooked another essential – connection.
Of all the things we need, connection, or community, is the most abstract. I can easily illustrate the effects of failures in meeting the other fundamental needs I have suggested. Failures in connection are harder to quantify, yet their impact can be devastating.
The covid pandemic has led to many struggles with connection and community. At the same time, rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions have gone up – straining an already strained system. I imagine most of us can share anecdotes of disconnection we’ve experienced in the past 2+ years. I imagine most of us would give anything not to have to go through something like this ever again.
Our collective foray into isolation has generally been less extreme than the isolation that some segments of our population experience. The Pathways in Compassion ministry seeks to address the disconnection faced in one of these segments – those living in nursing homes and other care facilities. As we have been considering this area of need, another often overlooked segment of the population has been on my mind – the many separated from connection and community due to incarceration.
The great stigma against these people only furthers this disconnection. It’s easy to paste on a “bad person” label and move on. With so many people in need, why should we put our time and effort serving those who are serving time? Doesn’t being in prison or jail only prove that they are undeserving? There are many problems with this line of thinking. Perhaps the biggest problem for our purposes is the fact that care to those in prison is explicitly detailed in how one is to properly serve God in Matthew 25. Even assuming that proper justice is being done with every soul we put behind bars, we are still to honor that person’s sacredness. We fall short in so many ways.
This topic was already on my mind when Pastor forwarded me an email from the ELCA focusing on the need for care for those with dementia in prison – expected to make up 1/3 the entire prison population in a decade. The piece highlighted the need and suggested one remedy – compassionate release. It’s worth noting that the prison environment itself is likely contributing to the rates of dementia within its population – disconnection being one of many the factors prisoners experience that can increase one’s risk of developing dementia.
Of course, on an individual level, there is very little we can do provide compassionate release or dementia care for these people, aside from advocacy work. But we still can, and should, heed our mandate not to forget about those it seems society would like to forget about.
On Monday, October 24th, I attended the first training for the Pathways in Compassion ministry. After talking about the program and its impacts, experiences and expectations, the conversation drifted to the concept of agency, in so many words, and the effect that not feeling important can have on a person’s sense that they even have something to contribute to the world. Yet, when we feel like we are valuable, when we feel like we are worthwhile, when we feel like the things we do have meaning, we can feel empowered to have an impact on the world.
Recognizing the sin of inaction is a regular part of our worship service. Inherent to this confession of sin is the understanding that we can make a difference. In the face of so much need, so many ways brokenness is experienced in this world, it is easy to forget how significant each and every one of us is. We may not be able to right every wrong, but we can do so much, especially when we work together. As I left the training, I found myself wondering, what world can we imagine? How can we get there?
For more information about dementia in the prison population, see the Scientific American article titled “Dementia in Prison Is Turning into an Epidemic: The U.S. Penal System Is Badly Unprepared.”
For an in depth analysis of the criminal justice system in the United States from the ELCA, please see the 2013 Social Statement “The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries.” Links to the statement and other resources can be found at: https://www.elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Statements/
Adopt and Inmate: https://adoptaninmate.org/
From the organization’s website: It is an awful truth that many forgotten human beings languish in our nation’s jails and prisons. Thus, they have little to no contact with the outside world. Incarceration carries with it a parade of emotions, including shock, fear, helplessness, shame, anger, frustration, anguish, and depression — surviving is a daily battle. Inmates without agency face extreme challenges that limit their chances for success both during and after their incarceration.
Receiving mail from the outside world has a profound impact on an inmate’s daily life. A name called out at mail call signals to other inmates and staff that there is someone on the outside that cares for them – making them less vulnerable to violence and abuse.
Many inmates never hear their name called.
Prisoner Visitation and Support: https://www.prisonervisitation.org/
Prisoner Visitation and Support (PVS) is a volunteer visitation program for people incarcerated in federal and military prisons throughout the United States.
Our mission is to provide prisoners with regular, face to face contact from the world outside of prison to help them cope with prison life, encourage personal growth, and prepare for successful reentry into society.
Our priority is to visit those prisoners who: do not ordinarily receive visits from family and friends,
want or need visits, are in solitary confinement, are on death row, or are serving long sentences.