Prayers From Prison

Prayer-in-PrisonAn older, obviously intoxicated man carrying an open beer can blocked our path on the sidewalk. I was strolling back to Rainier Avenue Church with members from my community development team, having just enjoyed dinner at the new Poke’ restaurant in our neighborhood. I avoided eye contact and was about to skirt my way around this “drunk” when my friend Carlotta greeted him.

“Why hello! I’ve missed you!”

His eyes lit up, recognizing his friend.

“I’m gonna come back and pray for you all,” he said.

“Ok. We’ll look forward to seeing you.”

After their cheerful exchange she remarked, “He’s such a sweet man. He comes every Sunday before church and prays with us and for our congregation.”

Wow. I don’t come arrive Sunday mornings to pray for my church. I barely make it on time for the second service most weeks!

Too often we disregard people before we even give them a chance to speak, as I did the “drunk” I passed on the sidewalk. Yet if we paused to listen, we might not only have an opportunity to bless someone but to receive a blessing ourselves. I have found this to be true from the most surprising sources.

IMG_3002For example, last year I began writing letters to a friend I’ve known since childhood but hadn’t seen in over a decade. This friend is incarcerated. Controversy surrounds why he’s where he is. Perhaps he was guilty. Perhaps innocent.[1] The fact remains that he’s a human made in the image of God with a thirst for connection to people, to friends, to his Creator.

In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus spoke of how one defining quality of the sheep—those who make the right choice and inherit eternal life—was that “I was in prison and you came to visit me” and then explained that when we do it “for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”[2]

My friend lives several states away from me so visiting isn’t realistic. But I can visit in the form of a letter. So every month or two, I send him quotes from books I’ve been reading, verses of encouragement, stories from coworkers who serve in our judicial system and general life updates. He replies when he’s able to since he doesn’t always have money for postage stamps. Our correspondence isn’t romantic; my friend has a fiancé. No, he’s starving for spiritual companions. In fact, he has told me aside from parents and a grandmother, no one writes him now that he’s been locked up for a couple years. Ironically, many who support prison ministry to complete strangers have dismissed him as a “hopeless case” and finally getting what he deserves. Perhaps if he was a stranger to them, they would offer more empathy, more hope, more encouragement.

But the encouragement isn’t a one-way street. In spite of his struggles, depression and constant relocation, my friend always asks how he can pray for me and I’ve experienced acute answers to those prayers. In my most recent letter from this friend, he closed saying, “I pray for you every day.”

Wow. Few people say this to me. Fewer yet do it. Other than my parents and perhaps a couple grandmas, I suspect no one prays for me every single day. Honestly I don’t pray for anyone on an ongoing daily basis like that.

I am continually amazed not only that prayer often comes from the most unexpected sources but that those very sources put me to shame by the regularity of their prayers. I guess that’s because desperation drives us to God. Or as Jesus put it, “People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick. I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts.”[3]


[1] The fact that he’s a person of color in a slanted justice system makes me speculate that even if guilty he’s facing harsher treatment than he would were he white. But that’s another topic for another blog post. For those interested in a comprehensive, well-researched work on race and the US justice system, please read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

[2] Matthew 25:36 & 40

[3] Mark 2:17, Good News Translation

Prayer March

Every time the kingdom of God advances forward, the kingdom of darkness pushes back. Yet when we allow room for God’s spirit to move among us, something good, even something beautiful, can birth out of tragedy. The way our community rallied around the owners of King Donuts through gestures like this prayer march is just one demonstration. On a personal level, I wrote this recap immediately following the march, then one week later (before making final edits and hitting “publish”) I flew to visit my then boyfriend in southern California. The relationship ended violently and threw me into a season of personal reflection and prayer. I wrote more profusely, more personally, more powerfully than ever before. I began to share that writing with sisters who had gone through similar crap and they resonated with the words. Nearly every time I share people say, “You gotta publish a book.” And that’s in the works. I will be sharing snippets  on here as well. Now for the prayer march recap:   

Prayer March Core Planners

Half of the COP (Core Organizing Planners) team.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Exactly one week ago, I met in the upstairs of a townhouse with half a dozen other millennials to plan a prayer march for south Seattle. We had in hand a half-page flyer, the blessing of two local senior pastors and the vision to pray for peace with and for our community. Around our third meeting, someone dubbed our group in a text message the “COP” (Core Organizing Planners) and the acronym stuck.

We met several times throughout the week, drawing posters, revising the schedule for the march and bathing the event in prayer. Stir for change was in the air. I imagined our setting resembling upstairs rooms of the past where a handful of change makers gathered resulting in movements that would alter history. Not to equate ourselves with monuments of history–yet–but this group of young leaders has a kind of passion and energy that stirs your soul! In between prayers and plans, we discussed topics ranging from the civil rights movement to globally uniting suppressed people groups while John Legend’s theme song from Selma played in the background.

Families at Rainier Avenue Church

Families at Rainier Avenue Church make signs for the Prayer March.

We divided up our to-do lists and I took on notifying the Rainier Valley Post, taking flyers to the Catholic Church and creating the Facebook page. I was amazed by how quickly word spread about the march. At Rainier Avenue Church on Sunday, Pastor Peter invited our congregation to participate. That afternoon, I created the Facebook event and people began RSVPing and sharing the event immediately. By the day of the event, individuals and pages had shared the Facebook event 18 times and invited over 900 people on that medium alone. Meanwhile, people rallied to get the word out, handing out flyers and inviting friends. Both the Rainier Valley Post and South Seattle Emerald featured the prayer march on their event pages. Rainier Avenue Church created signs for the march during our Wednesday Community night that lots of families and children helped with. Having just participated in the BlackLivesMatter march the week before, upholding the value of people of color leading movements in their struggle for justice was at the forefront of my mind. During the week of preparation, I reflected on my role as the creator of the Facebook page:

“Part of me wonders in planning this march if a person of color should have been the one to create the Facebook page. I feel honored to be part of the core planning team and humbled to leave in this effort. But then it is less a movement of people of color and more a movement of people of God coming together in prayer for peace.”

prayer march flyer

Prayer March Flyer

Those who participated in the march reported a strong sense of unity and God’s presence. I ended up taking on more of a support role so was less present for the actual prayers and march than I had originally anticipated.

The night before the march, the COP met with Pastor Peter to make final preparations. They decided since I wasn’t leading a prayer to assign me the role of collecting money to give the owners of King Donuts. The morning of the march, I recruited another young woman from our group to help. We stood on either side of the parking lot holding open giant manila envelopes for people to drop bills into as they left the initial rally and began to march. As soon as the crowd left, we scurried into the office, counted the bills ($700!) and hurried to catch our group. We caught up with them at the first prayer stop, gathered into a grove of trees on the side of the road. Scattered among the foliage, we didn’t look like that many at all. At the next stop, we hurried across the street to the bank to exchange all the small bills for a handful of larger ones. While there, we met up with a friend who gave another generous gift. Returning to our group, Pastor Peter made another announcement reminding people to give. Another $500 came in! We hurried back to the bank and on the way ran into Marcus Green, editor of the South Seattle Emerald. He asked us a few quick interview questions then we popped inside the bank, counted quickly and ran across the street to the donut shop just as Pastor Peter was heading inside to give our gift to the owners.

With all the scurrying, I didn’t feel like I really got into the spirit of prayer the way I had anticipated. However, I believe that giving is an act of worship, just as much as prayer is. And this gift in particular was a tangible way to help our neighbors.

Who were these power planners? Dubbing ourselves later in the week as the COP (Core Organizer Planners), we represented Urban Impact, and at least 5 different churches. Demographically, the twelve of us broke down to four guys and eight women, of which seven are African American, two Asian, one Latino and two Caucasian.

I knew this week’s march would be a contrast to last week’s political protest. For one, it was a gathering of families, both literally and spiritually. Participants of the prayer march were more inter-generational than those involved in the political protest had been, ranging from babies strapped onto their parents to seniors we pushed in wheelchairs. On a community level, many participants knew each other from worshiping together, working together, living and playing in the same neighborhood. At last week’s rally, however, I felt disconnected from the other participants. Perhaps others felt less that way, but for me the rally felt like a conglomeration of passionate people who protest every other weekend as a hobby plus a few devoted to the cause who stayed to the very end, many of whom it has personally affected in a deep and terrible way. After the rally, the organizers told us to walk in groups for safety. My friends had left by that point so I tagged along with a few of the other participants, but they didn’t look back at me or acknowledge my presence. I was cold, from marching in the January rain all afternoon so ducked inside an Ethiopian restaurant. A few minutes later, a couple of women I thought I recognized from the march came in too. I contemplated approaching them and asking if that’s where they’d came from, but felt like with the rally over, we were no longer part of the same group so it would be strange to join them. Put simply, I didn’t feel the same sense of camaraderie there as I did at the Prayer March.

Pastor Peter with his children

Pastor Peter with his children

One of the most beautiful aspects of the prayer march was how it brought together the community of faith in South Seattle. Having volunteered with the community development team at Rainier Avenue Church for over three years, I was encouraged to see so many people from different places unite–something we’d been longing for. And participants of the prayer march represented over a dozen congregations in Seattle. As one participant said:

“I love to worship with other people from different churches…our recent sermon was about fellowship and community…this event has truly demonstrated that message I think…I am glad that we are friends even if we go to completely different churches..but we all believe in one God.” ~ Mia

Talking Blood: Black Lives Matter Protest

Black Lives Matter

The organizers called me an “ally” because I am white. As an ally, I was instructed to line up behind the people of color. I was at a Black Lives Matter protest for police accountability that gathered around noon on this rainy, cold Saturday in January at MLK Memorial Park. Organized by women of color for systemic change, they lead the march to our Seattle detention center where the city plans to spend $210 million rebuilding and expanding so they can lock up more of our youth. Statistically, this will mostly hold youth of color; currently, for example, black youth comprise 8% of the state’s youth but 42% of our detention center. And recent events have shown us that the school to prison pipeline is becoming a school to graveyard pipeline. Black lives that have become a hashtag should have received justice (and many more deaths go completely unnoticed).

Police escorts in front of the Seattle detention center.

About 20 police escorts line in front of the Seattle detention center.

Caring about this injustice is something that my community of faith, and primarily my friends of color, have made me aware of in recent years. So I was surprised when a group of non-religious white friends (whom I affectionately refer to as my “hippie circle”) invited me to the event. I was even more surprised to see that the majority of the 200-300 participants who showed up to protest were white. The organizers expressed appreciation for us allies who were showing solidarity, but emphasized that the movement should be lead by people of color.

Earlier in the day I had tried to imagine what our world would look like had the people of Africa risen to prominence, conquered North America, and enslaved my ancestors from Germany and England…then hauled them here against their will to work their farms and businesses without pay. What would it have looked like to grow up in a country where for 200 years black men were the prominent figures in media, newspapers and history books? Where the justice system was created by black men to the disadvantage of a white minority and where I was always considered “the other,” or not even considered at all. Where I had trouble finding hair products that were not designed for curly hair and the food I liked to eat was considered “ethnic” and the music white people produced was considered part of a subculture. But to be honest, even with my vivid imagination, I couldn’t fully imagine that as a reality. So when the organizers of our protest asked that we “allies” line up in the back, I personally was not offended. I was getting only a tiny taste of the way we white people have for centuries treated our brothers and sisters of color.

hands up don't shoot

Bi-standers joined us when they heard our slogan “Hands up! Don’t shoot!”

“Hands up, don’t shoot!” we shouted as we marched. The response of most African Americans we passed was an instantaneous motion of flinging their hands in the air as well. Drivers gave short honks of support or punched their fists in the air in agreement. Meanwhile, most white people we passed simply stared back or looked annoyed that we were disrupting the roads. At intersections, the organizers ordered us to block off traffic.

“We intend to inconvenience people!” they shouted. I could tell the vehicles’ drivers were perturbed to be stopped in the middle of their journeys and I couldn’t blame them–I would be too! But I understood what the organizers were emphasizing: privilege and comfort must be inconvenienced in order for people to stop and think and consider that black lives matter just as much as the busy lives of us who still live do.

Blocking the traffic circle.

Blocking the traffic circle.

At the second intersection, we blocked off an extra exit from the interstate. This was the busiest intersection we blockaded during the protest and lasted for probably 10 minutes. A couple minutes in, cars began honking and a few illegally drove through a nearby business parking lot.

“Let’s block them off!” someone said. I headed over, thinking others would join me. A car loaded with young white guys rolled down their windows and hollered profanities at us as they rolled past. Another car was about to follow but I stepped in the way, yelling “Wait! Stop!” A righteous anger overcame me and I yelled at impatient people in their cars, “Black lives matter! Stop and think about that for a minute. We all need to stop and think about this!” Some people cautioned me that I was outside of the main road but a guy who was videoing the scene from his phone said not to worry because he was capturing it all. A couple minutes later a young guy sauntered over; I thought he was coming to join me but he just cautioned me not to get hurt standing there by myself and I told him “Well, then stand here with me!” He said he needed to be back in the circle for something but that we would be there for awhile longer, for 4 minutes for a die in (I later realized he was a First Aid medic).

die in

Organizers lead the die in, 4 minutes of silence.

About that time an older man joined me and got to his knees, along with most of the crowd. As I did I prayed that Jesus would give me strength. My legs were wobbly but I remembered our prayer time from yesterday and thought of Abel and Martin Luther King Jr and innocent black youth who have died. I knew if I was hit or injured, it would be for this struggle all have shared for justice for humanity. The courage to stand there alone could only come from God and I began to pray that God’s kingdom would come and will would be done here on earth as it is in heaven.

Praying during die in

Standing, praying

I thought of how yesterday we were praying at my office for racial reconciliation after a staff-wide conversation the day before on reflections from Ferguson. Someone had mentioned during that conversation that we would always have conflict on earth–conflict that started with the first two brothers, Cain and Abel, one of whom killed the other one! Someone else spoke about how the death of youth like Michael Brown is especially angering because it was the result of the color of his skin. In similar situations of conflict between police and young white guys, less violent methods have been employed, whereas many of our youth of color have simply been killed, unjustly, on the spot. These young men can no longer speak at all!

Martin Luther King Jr. Quote

During our prayer time I meditated on the story of Abel. God spoke to me from Hebrews 11:4 which says:

“By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.”

And in Genesis 4:10:

The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.

This young man continues to shout to God and to humanity, his blood screaming to God from the dirt, his story teaching us today that injustices do not go unnoticed.

After the march, I concluded the day watching Selma. The stone-cold expressions depicted on the faces of the police in the movie, preventing Black people from voting in the 1960’s, were almost a mirror reflection of the nearly two dozen police I saw lining in front of the detention center earlier. The hatred remarks of the young white guys who drove by our traffic circle could have just as easily come from the mouths of the white people of Alabama over 50 years ago. Most disheartening was the fact that the only online news coverage I could find from the event was a piece about how traffic was disrupted with comments like:

“so just use a few fire hoses from fire trucks and hose them all down black white or what ever . just get the road ways clear”


“Just run ‘em down…..Black Lives Splatter.”

Even here in a city that prides itself in being progressive, I am appalled by how much racism continues to choke us. May the blood not splatter but speak!

Note: photos for this piece along with additional images of the day can be found here.