A few weeks ago, one of my BSW students sent me an email. She was doing a summer internship with the First Lady’s office and on the side, doing some volunteer work with the office for restorative justice. Virginia has recently taken some steps forward in granting civil rights back to ex-felons (voting, holding public office and seeking public employment) and she had 1,000 envelopes to stuff for those who had petitioned for their rights to be reinstated. She was seeing if some of us would gather with her in the library to help stuff envelopes. I had a flash idea that I ran past her: I thought about taking these to our food pantry where clients are craving service and advocacy opportunities.
So, last night I met her in the parking lot of a campus restaurant and filled my trunk with papers, envelopes, and voting registration forms. I brought them to pantry this morning…along with my daughter who was willing to help out on a summer vacation day…and we set up shop on a table. As people gathered in anticipation of pantry opening, I stood up and explained the project and asked if anyone was willing to help assemble envelopes and packets. What happened during the following hours, I did not anticipate.
Today, I have heard the tearful, hearfelt felony conviction stories of my friends and neighbors. I have heard about the wrongs committed, and the aftermath of devastation created in their lives. I have heard stories of repentence, and felt the awe of the possibility of having some manner of dignity and civil rights restored. I have felt the hope, and the pain. I listened to every story. I gave hugs. I offered prayer. I completed forms for restoration of rights with people whose eyes welled up with tears. I realized that this envelope-stuffing wasn’t just an act of advocacy. This was reconciliation. This was a moment of self-forgiveness.
The stories that I heard today I hold with deep confidence. There is one, though, that sits with me so strongly that I need to write it, wrestle with it, and learn from it. I will change enough details to protect the person, but keep to the core of the situation.
It was five minutes before the pantry closes, and we had already served everyone who had been waiting. Volunteers were cleaning up, and I sat down at one of the intake tables to clean off the tablet screens and organize the piles of papers left from the day. The volunteer at the door handing out numbers pointed someone my way. As he approached the desk, he said, “…are you Ms. Sarah?” and I said…without thinking about context…”guilty as charged!”
He did a little 180 and then his eyes lit up. “Well, you and me both!” he said, and then corrected himself by leaning in a little closer, “Actually I’m not guilty as charged, but it just took them seven years to figure that out.”
It turns out that Mr. Jones had run into a friend on the street, who told him that a lady down at the church food pantry was helping people get their rights back. He was supposed to go there, and ask for Ms. Sarah.
I didn’t actually realize until that moment that I was doing anything other than helping out my student with her summer service project. But, I should know better. What I do whenever I enter the pantry is take a step into whatever ministry God thinks I should be doing. And today, that ministry was restorative justice and reconciliation.
I listened to Mr. Jones’ story. I heard about his arrest, about the two names that he had been given in 1942 by his mama. She gave him her name…which wasn’t legal…because his legal name was of his father, the man that had beat her and left her. I heard about how he used that name…his mama’s name…now as his only name. I heard about how the other name (which was practically as common as “Mr. Jones”) was identified by someone as the perpetrator of the crime. I heard how he was arrested, a man of color, accused by one person of privilege solely on the basis of his name. I heard how he was asked to sign at his arrest and how…because he knew better than to use a non-legal name on an arrest warrant…he signed with his legal name. I heard about his conviction, and the seven years that he remained in the county jail while people fought over whether it was really him or someone else. But he had no family, and no friends to help him make bail. So, he stayed in jail for seven years.
Mr. Jones pulled out his identification and his statement from the governor about his release for wrongful conviction. He was living in temporary, congregate housing while he applied for benefits and social security, since he had passed into retirement age while incarcerated. He asked me, “do you know how I feel today?”
I admitted that I could not possibly know how he felt.
He said, “I feel free.”
I sat there with him in that moment. I was feeling so many things: Anger at the system, anger at racism, anger at injustice and oppression; Joy for his release, for wrongs reversed even if after so long, for the fact the this man came into this space; Gratitude for his presence in this space, for the humble honor of hearing his story, for the spirit of God’s Divine Presence filling that space.
Mr. Jones and I did a few practical things. We filled out his restoration of rights paperwork, we entered him into the food pantry system so he could regularly be supported with some nutritious food and meals, we discussed social programs he was eligible for and where and how to access them, and we sorted through his papers and talked about what needed to be kept in safe places at all times. I made him some photocopies of things he should have several copies of in his possession.
Then, we prayed. Silently. Together, we prayed.
When Mr. Jones left with his food, he said: “I will be praying for you, Ms. Sarah” and I said, “I am praying for you even now, Mr. Jones.”
Restorative justice crosses boundaries of age, race, class, need, worthiness, unworthiness. We are all impacted by the injustices of this world; each and every one of us carries with us things for which we are convicted justly, and things for which we may be unjustly convicted.
In ordinary moments…the small points of light…we come to know that we are one community: united, restored, redeemed.