Adventures in Faith: Ministering to the ‘Unforgivable’
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Good morning. Thank you for inviting me into your sacred space and time together this morning.
I want to talk today about something that is really hard: how do we—as individuals, as communities, as a whole society—treat people who have committed crimes that seem unforgiveable?
I got thrown into this moral dilemma several years ago. Someone I’d gotten to know and really like a lot—the partner of an old friend—disclosed to me that he had served a sentence for sexually abusing children two decades before. I felt like the floor had dropped out from under me. I didn’t know if we could still be friends. It challenged the very core of my beliefs. In Unitarian Universalism, our First Principle is “we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Other people of faith may express it that everyone can be forgiven or redeemed. Did I truly believe what I said?
I’m a journalist. So I started researching. Many of my assumptions about the people who commit these crimes, why, and under what circumstances, were turned upside down. I wrote about all this in an essay called “Offenders Among Us” in the UU World. You can find it online. Today I want to talk about what happened after that essay—my spiritual adventure.
Before I go further, I want to assure you: I won’t be going into details of the crimes of the ex-offenders I’ve gotten to know, but I will be talking about the people they are now.
I got an email from Kathy Williams, a paralegal who works with incarcerated sex offenders at the Massachusetts Treatment Center in Bridgewater a few miles from my house. I think of her as the Sister Helen Prejean for this population of inmates. She attends a nearby UCC church, calls herself a “Jesus lover,” and is always trying to recruit ministers and laypeople to visit her clients, who she calls “her guys.” Most ministers don’t even return her calls. I told her no, too. I worried about being manipulated and whether I might put my family in danger. But she really intrigued me, so I said, Let’s meet for coffee.
“Have you ever been inside a prison?” she asked me. I told her no. “You need to do that. Every American should.”
Most of “her guys” are old, she told me. They have served their time for what they did and undergone treatment, but they are still in prison under what Massachusetts calls civil commitment, until psychologists or jury trials determine they can be released. Kathy believes that few if any are a danger to anyone.
Many of their families have disowned them or died off. One man hadn’t had a visitor in 45 years.
“I see this as God's work,” she told me. “If Jesus came back today, I believe the first place he'd go would be the Massachusetts Treatment Center. All you need is a listening ear and an open heart. Just be someone who sees their humanity.” Her language and her passionate faith struck a deep chord in me
I said OK.
She had a guy in mind for me. I’ll call him David. He grew up Catholic. He promised he’d go to Mass with his 80-year-old mother if he ever got out. But he’s spiritually confused, Kathy told me.
“Oh, so that’s why you thought he’d be a good match for a Unitarian Universalist?” I laughed.
“Yes,” she shot right back. “I don’t get you Unitarians.”
The first time I visited David was right before Passover and Easter. The prison doesn’t make it easy to visit. There are pages of rules about clothes—no layers, no sandals, no boots after April 15, no jeans, no lace, no leggings, no jewelry, no sleeveless summer dresses. I’ve been turned away several times. And there’s always-changing information about when the guard is on duty to check you in and search you… when you can enter the trap where you’re locked in on both sides, which leads into the visiting room… with lots and lots of waiting at each step. Right away, I got a tiny taste of what it was like to be controlled by an institution.
I was nervous. I had no idea how we’d get a conversation going. When I first saw David, he got teary. Then we just started talking. Kathy had been right. I mostly listened—about his family, what life in prison was like, about music and food, the meals he wanted to make for his mother when he got out, comparing our favorite ways to make pie crust, the inspirational carvings he made as gifts out of the tiny prison-issue soap bars and how upset he was when he was disciplined for that.
After several visits, he asked me, “Do you know what I did?”
I had to confess. “Yes, I looked up the newspaper stories after learning your name.” They were really bad.
He began to share more about his treatment, what he was learning about what he had to do to stay safe, his shame, his remorse about the harm he’d caused, often talking about the mothers who probably blamed themselves for not protecting their kids enough, and how he hoped he would be able to do some good in some way someday, perhaps helping other ex-offenders stay safe. It wasn’t always easy to hear.
When he went before the psychological examiner, a note was made in his case that he had been able to maintain a relationship with a member of the community. He wrote this in his journal: “I became emotional at our first meeting because I couldn’t comprehend the kindness and generosity of someone who would take time out of their busy day to go visit a repeat sex offender in prison. … The changes I’ve [been making] make me realize that I spend my life ‘talking-the-talk’ and here was a woman ‘walking-the-walk.’ … [S]urrounding myself with positive-minded, spiritually based people will be the cornerstone of my recovery. I am so fortunate to have these people put into my path. I think I’m better equipped to recognize healthy versus unhealthy relationships.”
I found myself changed, too: filled with gratitude for my freedoms and all I have, and humility about how little I knew about prison and the whole criminal justice system. As I sit waiting in silence behind several sets of locked doors, I feel more truly present than when I’m in church or meditating….shaken out of the rushed frazzle and annoyance I carry around far too often. Over and over, I was struck—it was so obvious from how David lit up each time he saw I’d come to visit—by how much this small act of compassion, just affirming someone’s humanity, could mean to another human being.
Before my spiritual adventure, I could have heard the word “monster” used to describe the ex-offenders I now know and thought nothing of it, maybe even used it myself. It’s easy to think that everyone who commits or is convicted of these offenses is a “predator.” But studies have shown that chronic adult molesters—the Jerry Sanduskys of the world—represent a small number of sex offenders, less than 5 percent. There are a whole range of crimes and circumstances. The majority of those who are incarcerated and undergo treatment can live safe lives.
Still, I want to be clear here. Having faith and compassion doesn’t mean we don’t set boundaries, that we aren’t always watchful, or that we’re saying survivors have to forgive. I’m not saying that at all. There are some people who cannot be alone with or around children, ever. In fact, I’ve seen both my friend and David—who’s now living in the community and doing well—impose that safeguard on themselves. That’s one reason why having adult relationships with people they can be honest with and who will hold them accountable is so critical in keeping us all safe.
It may be impossible to believe in the worth and dignity of people who have done heinous things. I’ve come to think that aspiring to believe in every person’s worth may serve better as a commandment for me and own moral behavior—to keep me from becoming a monster when I see evil in others.
So why do I visit a sex offender? There is so much brokenness in our world, so many other needs right now in our own communities. Why not choose another place to serve? I get that. This is not something everybody will be called to do, or able to do, or maybe even hear about.
Since the mid-’00s state legislatures have passed hundreds of sex offender laws that increase incarceration and restrict the rights of ex-convicts, keeping them away from schools, parks, and other places. In 2012 a national sex offender registry went into effect. These laws, however, have had many unintended consequences, which may have made us less safe. In some communities, there is virtually nowhere a registered sex offender can live and rejoin their family.
The public perception is that here are the people we have to worry about. It has sanctioned a sort of hysteria, where it’s OK for TV reporters and citizens to sound the alarm any time an ex-con on the registry does anything other than hide in their house.
The biggest risk to our children comes not from strangers, not even from registered sex offenders like David or my friend, who admit their crimes and want to be in relationship with us. This a crime that goes 90% unreported. The biggest risk is from people we likely already know and like and trust, who keep their crimes secret—uncles, cousins, boyfriends, teachers, coaches, ministers, other children and teens.
No one would say there is zero risk from the people on the registry. But they are the ones who have admitted guilt, often for crimes committed when they were quite young, served a sentence, in many cases undergone extensive treatment, been evaluated for months if not years and passed many hurdles showing they are committed to living a safe life.
And like all ex-cons, maybe more so, what they need in order to keep that commitment is three things: stable housing, a job, and healthy, honest adult relationships that they are accountable to. As a society, we strike out on all three. We couldn’t make that harder for them. Being one of those adults whom ex-offenders can be honest with was something I decided I could do.
Here was another factor in why I said yes. This hellhole—you may have heard in the news that it was a covid hotspot, and the second inmate I’ve been visiting has been in lockdown in a tiny cell since March. This hellhole is a couple miles from my house. I drive around it all the time.
Over my life I’ve come to believe that however I am called to serve my community, it needs to be not just giving money, but hands on, local… in partnership with others …I need to be invited and not just come up with what I think is a solution…I need to be open to being changed and seeing how I may even be part of the problem … and I need to listen. Here was Kathy Williams, inviting me, to come and just listen, to the most forgotten, hated people whom much of our society is happy to let rot a few miles down the road from me. Here was my call. How could I say no?
Faith sometimes asks us to hold things that do not want to be held in the same place: Love and fear. Compassion and rage. An open door that welcomes all, and a sanctuary that is safe for those who come inside. Empathy for men struggling to live safe lives, and utter heartbreak for traumatized survivors.
The message I take away from my adventure is this: We can’t just keep driving around this problem, or staying silent. When we give into our horror, and vitriol, when we see only monsters, we are actually a part of this problem. That response is an obstacle in keeping ourselves and our children safe—and for me, in grappling with my faith at one of its hardest places.
Think back to Jesus’s words: “I was hungry… I was thirsty…I was a stranger… I was naked…. I was sick… I was in prison.” I believe each of us needs to examine our hearts: do we really believe in the worth and dignity, in the possibility of forgiveness and redemption, for every person, whatever they’ve done, whatever condition we find them? If you believe that, what does that call you to do?
Blessed be. Thank you again for listening to my story.
Intro to AMAZING GRACE
John Newton, who wrote “Amazing Grace” in the 1770s, was a British slave trader who denounced his faith. One captain called him the most profane man he’d ever met. Newton was also abused and even enslaved himself as a young man. After his slave ship and his life were spared in a storm, he had a spiritual conversion and later became a minister and abolitionist. This morning, I invite us to sing “Amazing Grace,” with the comforting knowledge that none of us can be summed up by our worst act and that all of us are worthy of dignity and forgiveness.