Monday, April 22, 2013

The Blessedness of the Least Among Us

(Reflections on a formation session conducted within the Correctional Institute for Women. The topic is "Blessedness: An Introduction to the Beatitudes. 

The Beatitudes, also called The Sermon on the Mount, are a set of Jesus' teachings  that begins with the phrase "Blessed are the..." You can find the Beatitudes on Matthew 5:3-12.)

"Blessed" is probably the last word you would associate with persons within a corrections facility.

Indeed, how can someone in prison be blessed when he or she has been condemned to spend a significant period of time (for some, their lifetime) behind bars? Isolated from family and friends, trapped within walls, and deprived of opportunities free society take for granted doesn't sound blessed. And these are just the obvious sources of grief. Sit for 5 minutes with an inmate and you'll find that their prison's within. Confinement is a constant reminder that as far as the world is concerned, they are people better removed from the company of the supposedly more decent folk. Guilt, self-loathing, and in some cases anger at an injustice are just some of the internal tortures persons behind bars struggle with.

And yet, you'd be surprised. In many ways, persons behind bars are more blessed than the rest of the world --- and they will tell you so. Blessedness is not about winning the luck of the draw, or getting the best seats in the house, or being able to get away when others have been caught. Blessedness is a disposition: a disposition of cultivating gratitude, seeing meaning, and finding God in all things. And because of their unique circumstances in life, persons within correction facilities are probably better disposed towards recognizing blessedness than you and me. We think the loss of internet connection marks the end of the world. They, on the other hand, rejoice at an hour increase in electricity use.We get so self-righteous sometimes that we refuse to forgive people who wrong us. They, on the other hand, have been humbled enough by life experiences to know that everyone could use a second chance.

For we are blessed...

As an introduction to a yearlong study on the Beatitudes, our group requested the women to come up with their own set of "Blessed are the..." statements. Except there's a twist. Instead of writing about blessedness of people in general, the women were challenged to write 7 statements stating why women within the correctional institute are blessed. The some 40 plus participants were divided into 8 groups, with some groups joined by volunteer facilitators.

The first surprise of the day is how the women went about the task with much enthusiasm. In fact, come reporting time, each group was eager to share their output ahead of the others! You would think that persons behind bars would find the task of counting blessings challenging, or would even be insulted or saddened by the endeavor, but you'd be wrong. Their ability to find evidence that made them chosen and loved above others would put most people to shame.

Here's my favorite group output from the lot:

If you can't understand Filipino, the first item there states: blessed are inmates, for we are loved by God.

While some may dismiss this statement as mere spiritualization, small group discussions actually point to the depth of what at first seems like a cliche answer. Women inmates do feel deeply loved by God. While no one would ever wish for a prison sentence, many of the women swear that incarceration saved their life. For some, getting convicted forced them towards the straighter road; had they remained free they would probably be dead by now, either through drug abuse or continued criminal behavior. There are those who confessed that they only got to establish a relationship with God inside prison, as they wouldn't be found within ten feet of the church back when they were in free society. There are those who appreciate their families more because they did stick with them through thick and thin. And there are those who knew they wouldn't otherwise have access to education had they not become beneficiaries of literacy campaigns of interest groups.

But worth emphasizing is the women's realization that blessedness may be brought about by faith and hope. 

The second item in the output above states that the women felt blessed because while they were behind bars, God took care of their families. There are very little opportunities to earn a decent living within prison, and trust in God's providence is a big coping resource among inmates. That the inmates' trust has been rewarded is proof positive of God's constancy, a constancy that those who have always had it easy may never get to encounter. This sense of trust in God's ability to take care of families left behind resonates best with people working in community development settings. Those in mission work also had to leave loved ones behind, or trade high salaries their families could have enjoyed for the opportunity to serve. We can learn a lot from the way the women surrendered their families to God's care.  

And yes, there is the blessedness that comes with the inmates' hope that God will eventually grant them freedom from prison. Living hope, one that endures despite negative circumstances, is probably at the core of the Beatitudes, and many of the women exemplified this living hope well. When you look at Christ's list of the blessed, he did not include populations the world usually considers as lucky. No, he listed the abandoned, the grieving, and the persecuted. And their blessedness is that despite pain, their faith developed and endured. The least among us, who have no one else to lean on, have no choice but to lean on God --- and God would comfort them in their loss. This makes them blessed above the rest.

But who ministers to whom?

I realized, after conducting the session, that I should have made a list myself: "Blessed are prison ministry
workers because..." For the longer you interact with persons behind bars, the more you will realize that you are the one being reached out to, not the other way around. When you witness profound gratitude at work, from people you least expect would have something to be grateful about, you feel shamed at your inability to appreciate all the blessings you have in life. And when you see all things working together for you to get to do your work (I felt overwhelmed by the number of my friends who helped make the session possible), you know that you are part of something greater --- and its such a comfort to feel that God has made you an instrument of His love.

And then you understand, somewhat, why the Beatitudes are such paradoxical statements. No person is "the least among us." The one you think has it worse, probably gets it the best.