Unbound: A Message on Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11:1-45 and visiting San Quentin
Before our big celebration last Sunday night, my little family spent most of Saturday at San Quentin Prison, an infamous place, just over the Richmond Bridge. We were there to see Dennis, a man who is on Death Row and has been incarcerated since 1996.
Dennis became connected to our family beginning in 2011 when my husband applied to be a part of a program to visit prisoners who hadn’t been seen in over ten years.
Jeremy has visited him faithfully and cultivated a deep relationship, where in small cells, and all of us from a distance, with lots of letters exchanged, became connected.
The world Dennis inhabits is lived out in a cell that he meticulously curates with items he collects, buys, creates and trades. His world is lived out in brief periods of fresh air in the yard, and in his celebrated culinary creations, making miracles with ramen and spam and spice packets.
I have been writing to him for a while, telling him of our world and the minutiae of our life. He seems to savor the details, asking Jeremy questions about things he remembered from a picture he brought the last time. The world Dennis inhabits is confined; imagine not having the internet or fresh vegetables or mutual touch? This last Saturday was my first time seeing Dennis’ world in person.
San Quentin is such a study in contrasts, situated on some of the most spectacular real estate in the Bay Area, while inside, life feels reduced dramatically, dropped down to a person’s number and privileges and time limits and tolerance for mostly peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
I was just recently approved for a visit by the Department of Corrections and I was equal parts anxious and excited to meet Dennis in person for the first time.
Before we entered the small cage that attempted to present itself as a room, with its plastic, see-through walls, we joined the small crowd at the vending machines to bring in the special snacks he requested.
It’s a world where a cold soda is a taste of heaven and a bag of microwaved popcorn is an answer to prayer. Dennis is quick to share his tips that include using a napkin to sanitize the top of the can, swiping it firmly in a round sweep.
We filled our tray with what my daughter pointed out, was mostly in our house honorably labeled, “junk” and then we watched as he went through a routine where he was handcuffed for our entry and then un-cuffed through a small opening in the door, so we could all be in the space together.
Tears were on the edge of spilling the whole time and in the end I couldn’t stop it. But while we were there, for just approximately 90 minutes, we all followed an invisible yellow brick road, to an alternate universe where even those with the label CONDEMNED, can feel worthy as a whole person with ideas and feelings and a life that matters.
We talked about the weather and he told some old stories. We complained about politics and talked about cars. It was something like what some Greek scholars call kyros time, a sense of the moments, where the minutes of measure are cast aside and all you can do is to be present.
I kept things bottled up for that hour and a half, until a guard suddenly appeared and all the unspoken language and symbols I didn’t know, initiated a process, where Dennis had to prepare his body in a slumped posture and place his hands behind his back, so he could be handcuffed again and return to his everyday life.
I managed to make it out into the sunshine before completely losing my shit. I was numbed into silence and by the truth that he never gets to see that marvelous view. My throat became locked with the pulse of pain as I processed the fact that seeing my kid and her laughter and energy was like a touch from another realm, for someone who hasn’t felt that in decades.
It’s all so hard to experience, but I felt moved to be there, to offer my love and my presence as a witness.
My friend Evelyn is the chaplain at the main jail here in San Jose. She has given almost twenty years to being God’s love to those behind bars. It’s clear that many of us haven’t had to know the truth of what happens to those who have become a part of what is so wrongly labeled our “correctional system.”
Our church has a newly formed, Justice and Action Book Club. We are reading an incredible book called Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and it offers beautiful illustrations, painfully and poetically about the individual and communal pain caused by mass incarceration.
This week we welcomed a newcomer named Linda and at one point in the conversation when we spoke of the criminal justice system, she piped up, “It’s not a justice system.”
Many communities are used to living with this reality, but for much of my life I lived with the myth that only criminals went to jail.
What do we do with the truth that often justice is denied? How do we respond when mercy is absent and liberation is hard to find?
At the end of the drama we read from the Gospel of John today, Jesus says, “Lazarus, come out!” and then he says to the crowd, Unbind him, and let him go.”
He directs his words to the crowd and says something like: You who see this, you who are not tied up, it’s your role, your task, your call to unbind him!
This story in Christian tradition, of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, draws on the arc of the Jewish story in Ezekiel who prophesies to a valley full of dry bones and the bones come to life. Jesus prophecies and Lazarus body of dry bones come to life. As one commentator writes, “Ezekiel’s vision is to a people who have lost hope of ever returning home. Jesus’ calling of Lazarus to new life is a prefiguring of his own death and resurrection.”
Both of these stories invite us to ponder how it is that possibilities can emerge from what seems like the end. How is that hope and love can bring us from dry bones to healing?
Perhaps part of the answer for us as people committed to being instruments of peace and justice, is that we are sometimes asked to help unbind each other. Not to look away because it’s hard, but to offer what we have to unbind. Dennis will never be completely unbound from San Quentin, but he still could unbind something for our family and I hope our presence can unbind something for him. Dennis has his wrappings visible, but all of us are wrapped in something, bound up in some way, and parts of our lives, our patterns, our history needs unraveling.
In this sacred space I hope we can create a container where it is safe for us to ask for help when we need a hand in pulling off the wrappings from old wounds. On this spiritual journey we share, I know that there are days and seasons, where we see we are the crowd and it is our job to believe in healing and hope on someone else’s behalf. In this time, when the Universe looks to us and shouts unbind him, unbind her, unbind them, I believe we are summoned to say yes, here we are. We all have our dry bones and our wrappings. But often we can’t unbind them on our own.
May it be so. Amen.
- What part of your life needs unbinding or unraveled?
- How can we help unbind mass incarceration?
- How can we make our community a safe place to show up with our bandages off?