Friday, June 20, 2008

An encouraging story from Jim Wallis' (Sojourners) visit to 'Sing Sing'

I have often told the story of the first time I visited this unusual and inspiring program at Sing Sing. My book, The Soul of Politics, was being read by the students as part of their seminary curriculum, and I received a letter from the prison inmates themselves, inviting me to meet with them and discuss my book. It sounded interesting, so I wrote back to ask when they would like me to come. A young man wrote to me on behalf of his fellow Sing Sing students saying, "Well, we're free most nights!" He went on, "We're kind of a captive audience here!" The prison authorities were very accommodating and I got to spend several hours with about 70 guys in a crowded room deep in the bowels of the infamous penal institution.

The animated book conversation was one of the most stimulating and rigorous of any I've ever had. I vividly remember much of that discussion, and especially the riveting comment of one young man who said to me, "Jim, most of us at Sing Sing come from just about four or five neighborhoods in New York City. It's like a train. You get on the train in my neighborhood when you are nine or ten years old, and the train ends up here....at Sing Sing." But this young man had experienced a spiritual conversion inside of that prison, and was now enrolled in the New York Seminary program training pastors to work inside the prison system and to go back and work in those neighborhoods from which they had come. After the session that night, the young man came up to me to say goodbye, looked me in the eye, and said, "When I get out, I am going to go back and stop that train."

A few years later, I was in New York City to speak at a town meeting on poverty. Guess who was up front, helping to lead the meeting? I immediately recognized two of the young men I met that night at Sing Sing--Julio Medina and Darren Ferguson. Last week, Julio came back to the commencement at what NYTS calls their "North Campus," now as an illustrious alumnus who spends his days running a very successful drug rehabilitation program in NYC. Darren was being the newly installed pastor of a church in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Queens where some recent shootings had him out on the streets that night instead of at the Sing Sing commencement. ………..

It was a night of rich gratitude and profound hope. And while I have often been inspired by the faces of the young bright graduates facing me on brilliant spring days of school commencements, I have never felt more grateful and more hopeful than I did looking into the spiritually-chiseled faces of these redeemed graduates on a summer's night at Sing Sing prison. Thanks be to God.

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