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Saturday, November 22, 2008

What would YOU do?: Case Study II

I am so deeply grateful for the comments and information I got with the last post like this, that I thought I'd ask for your thoughts and feelings again - but on a different issue altogether.

I got an email this week from a woman who is a colleague in ordained ministry. For the past several years, she and two other ordained women have been leading a bible study in a prison.

It has been well attended and quite successful, but recently, some of the men have stopped coming. And, they have convinced the other men not to come.

My colleague has asked for a meeting with the Prison Chaplain, which she thinks will happen some time next week. She wrote asking me if I had any suggestions about what might be done so she could offer them as possible ideas when she meets with him.

Here's what I wrote, but I'd be interested in your thoughts. Thanks in advance for your contributions.


My dear Sister in Christ,

Well, ain't that just a kick in the back end of your Victoria Secrets! I'm so sorry for this. It must feel like a huge loss.

I suspect the men are basing their boycott on either 1 Cor. 14:34-35 “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”

And possibly from 1 Tim. 2:11-12 “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”

You could argue those scripture passages with the inmates, and "talk them down" - even make them feel bad/guilty, and do that without even breaking a sweat.

Not only is that not your style, that's really not the issue, is it? As we say in pastoral counseling, 'the thing is never really the thing; it's usually something else." In other words, the presenting issue is rarely the real issue.

Or, to quote May Sarton, there are 'crucial conversations' that happen underneath the social or polite conversation where the real conversation is happening. That's what you've got to listen for/to. If you get together with the other two women before you meet with the chaplain, you may want to go over interactions, body language and other clues about what might be the real issue.

Several possibilities - in no particular order of importance - include:

1. The guys are just asserting what little power they have - even the power to reject Bible Study - and strike a small victory within the system by getting them to get 'real men' to teach them.

2. They could really believe what they are saying to you b/c the another evangelical or RC prison ministry team of men are telling them that.

3. They could be real assholes. Some men (and women) are. Prison just intensifies their assholedness.

4. This may be symptomatic of another kind of power struggle going on in the prison population between Christians and Muslims. The Muslims may be laughing at them b/c they have women teaching them the bible! Imagine! Must be highly inferior to their "real" Koran teaching.

5. Another kind of power struggle in the prison population may involve prison rape - and these guys may actually make themselves more vulnerable to gang rape b/c they are seen as 'inferior' in terms of taking bible study in the first place, but, to boot, an 'inferior' brand b/c it is led by women. There are lots of gang members in prison and no place in gang hierarchy for women or weak men (read: those who are taught by women).

6. They may find you attractive (well, b/c you are) and they are having a hard time (as it were) concentrating on scripture b/c they can't get their minds out of what's going on in their pants.

7. It could be all of the above, in various permutations and in various manifestations among the individual men in the group. No doubt, they do not have the emotional maturity or the social skills to do this kind of self-assessment - but you do.

I strongly suspect that at the very bottom of this is a struggle about power - personal or institutional or both. That shouldn't come as a surprise, I suppose. They are men who are incarcerated for breaking the law. Understand the power dynamic here and you've got a key to unlock the possibilities of finding a solution.

So, what you do depends on your assessment of what's really going on, which you'll need to do among yourselves and with the Chaplain. You may need to face the fact that, if you are going to continue this work, you are going to have to involve men on your teaching team. That may mean someone from your church, the diocese or someone from the prison population who helps you lead the bible study.

You may also need to face the stone cold fact that the solution may be out of your hands. It may even be out of the Prison Chaplain's hands. There may be power dynamics at play here that are symptomatic of another, bigger problem that is unknown to you presently, or may be at the initial stages of brewing.

Whatever you do, I hope you don't give up. That would be a shame. You may need to take a bit of a sabbatical for a while and then try to start it up again in the early spring. If you have to give up with the men, then I hope you consider transferring your energies to the women's side of the prison, if that's possible.

I'll keep you in my prayers. If I think of anything else, I'll write again.

May God continue to bless you and this important ministry.


Jim said...

Prisons and prisoners are all about power. It is in taking away the power to act as one will that society punishes. I suspect your analysis of the probable causal factors is spot on.

It may be that some teaching about power and the eventual liberation of the captive might help. Facing the issue of powerlessness in their lives is hard for men in prisons IME.


Unknown said...

Sad isnt it. That any of these scenarios might be true. I suppose if even one person shows up, that would make it worth it.

Maybe its time for a history lesson--I dont know what good it will do, but it was rich women who funded Jesus trek in the first place and put initial funds up for the early church.

Women held many co-leadership positions prior to the official mixing of Christianity with Patrician Roman Culture. In fact, Christianity infiltrated the upper eschelons of Roman Culture through the Wives of High Ranking Military Officials if I recall correctly.

If men are objecting to you as a female teaching the scripture, you could always refer them to a different denomination I suppose.

If the other Prisoners are giving them a hard time--well like the military, life in close quarters makes nothing sacred period. Not religion, not Women, nothing is out of bounds. And any thing that is construed as different or a weakness could be targeted to wear someone down to build another's status in the precarious pecking order of that Institutional life.

You cannot be the only woman there can you? I have watched Documentaries on Female Guards, Teachers that come to prisons for literacy programs, mental health professionals, etc., so Sex might be part of it, but it seems that something else might be going on behind the scenes.

Have you talked to any of the Guards in that part of the prison to see what they know or hear? Perhaps they could give you some insight into this mysterious dynamic?

Kirkepiscatoid said...

First, I think I'm going to put #3 on my fridge for a few days!

All good points, including the cold hard fact that one of the outcomes just might be "shake the dust off your feet and move on." There is a tendency to stick with things like this, thinking that God the Cosmic Coke Machine will give us the outcome we desire if only we shove enough quarters in the slot. Well, you can empty your pockets and never get a Coke if all that is left in the machine is Sprite.

Perhaps that good that has been done will not be apparent till years later, and then maybe then, it's never apparent to the person who did the good work. Life's like that. (sigh)

(PS I had to laugh at the confirmation word on the comment box today--tatoofie. It sounds like some sort of multi-colored candy!)

Jane R said...

Contact my friend Shannon of Grace Within. (She doesn't blog often, but when she does, oh my. There's a book in there, I keep telling her.) She is a prison chaplain at a men's prison and is a Roman Catholic laywoman in full-time ministry (has been in parish and other ministries before). She will have some good insights. I haven't heard her mention anything like this, but I know she'll have something valuable to share. You can just leave a note in her comments section, and also refer your correspondent to her blog. Fabulous woman.

P.S. They are really having fun with those new almost-real-word word-verification thingies at Blogger. And the one for this post is "lingeca" -that's almost linguica, so someone in the cyber-cosmos knows you are Portuguese!

Frair John said...

Every part of your response probably plays into the reasons. Power is a big things, and if there is some sort of perception that challenges the perceptions of power can be dangerous.

There may also be some static from other "prison Ministries" of a more Fundamentalist/Dominionist streak in here as well. Fringe "Christian" groups of a neo-Pentecostal stripe are all over the place making trouble.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you all for your posts. Thank you Jane R for that link. Good stuff. And Friar John, thanks for that other permutation on the abuse of power. I hadn't thought of that, and, while it boggles my mind, it may also be a distinct possibility.

David@Montreal said...

Your post brings to mind the experience of an older Roman Catholic priest here in Montreal.

When appointed to full in on a prison ministry he prepared himself to go in and preach and celebrate in the Roman Catholic rite. The first week more than two dozen men turned up to see the new priest, and as he later admited to me, he ran 'pretty much on automatic pilot-' preaching and celebrating as he had for more than two decades as a parish priest.

Tthe second time he had a congregation of one.

Turned out, more than either the Sacrament or the preaching was the real issue. In those mens' minds they needed more to be listened to- to tell their own stories,to share their hunger for meaning and their search for forgiveness, and in some instances to witness to their individual struggles with the organized church.

It took a while for my friend to connect with what was going on, and also to really appreciate just what personal jepordy these individuals might be placing themselve is by even turning up in the chapel. He eventually posted an event called' Your dime' a listening event which eventually grew so popular, the chapel wasn't large enough.

Yes, formal prayer and the liturgy eventually got worked back into the event, but only after long months of listening and countless hugs.

My friend is no longer with us on earth. We met when I was spending a lot of time in hospitals with our POZ population and he was dying of cancer. Amazingly, over many shared tears he came out- both to himself & to me only days short of his death, but his greatest gift will always be the reminder to just show up and let the Holy Spirit work the room.

Thanks Elizabeth, for the opportunity to share the memory of this extraordinary priest and friend


Lindy said...

Prison is no place for a priest. Nuns either.

My advice is to bring in the assistant warden for security and get his or her opinion. I would guess that it has more to do with inside maneuverings than with anything spiritual. -- Feeling powerless, being listened to, my ass. Sounds to me like they are planning something.