Last Sunday, I gave the sermon at Pioneer United Methodist Church in Auburn, the oldest church in all of Placer County.
This was a slightly different sermon, one where the focus was not entirely about mental health. In this talk, I broadened the perspective to reflect on how God* often surprises and nurtures us in ways that are unexpected and truly amazing.
The sermon title was; "5 Days Inside Folsom prison; My Unexpected Trip To The Promise Land" and was inspired by the five days in April I spent behind the wire, inside the gymnasium that was located C-Yard at Folsom State Prison.
No, I didn’t do anything wrong.
I was part of a 31-member Kairos Prison Ministry Team that went there to serve a group of 38 “men in blue.” Our singular goal was to create an opening for each man to have a personal relationship with the God of their understanding.
Obviously, this was no small task, especially in a level 4 maximum security prison. But, it was not us who were to do the work. The heavy lifting was to be done by a power and presence far greater than the collective might of the team.
Our job was to be willing servants, and in this role, be fully open to being used by God to create hope in a place where hope often can’t be found.
The team leaders guided us to act with humility, but without condoning or condemning the actions of the men we would meet. The guiding mantra of the program served as a constant reminder of our assignment; listen, listen, love, love.
But here’s the truth, while I was there to serve, I walked away from those five days in prison feeling like I was the one who was served.
Succinctly put, the five days spent inside that maximum-security prison was the single most transformative spiritual experience of my life.
In front of the congregation last Sunday, I did my best to summarize this life changing experience by way of three main points:
1. There is no spot where God is not.
2. Vulnerability births vulnerability.
3. Connection can happen anywhere, and it is needed everywhere.
While the entire five-day experience was beyond compare, the highlight came late on the 2nd day.
The program is primarily based on a series of talks, coupled with food and music.
Collectively, this creates an atmosphere of safety, trust and most importantly, deep and meaningful connection.
On Friday, I was honored to give a talk entitled, “Opening the door to God.”
The premise of the talk is God (*however you define the universal life force), is waiting for us to but “open the door” to the relationship “it” longs to have with each of us.
But, given the gift/challenge inherent with free will, it is we who must make the first move. All that’s required is for us to turn the handle and there on the other side of the door is God, the life force, the Source from which we sprang forth, ready and waiting to embrace us and pour out unconditional love.
And yet many of us hesitate, we walk away from the door, at times even doing all we can to avoid the door entirely.
Why is that?
For me, I shared it was all about feeling unworthy of such a relationship. If God knew all I had done, left undone, thought or said, which of course God already does, why on earth would God want a relationship with me, and how could I ever be worthy of love without condition?
I felt totally unworthy of God’s or anyone else’s love on August 31, 2011, when I walked to the center of the Foresthill Bridge with the intention to jump over the rail and end my life.
My profound sense of unworthiness came from the monster of depression, which for me was born out of a combination of genetics (my grandfather and father both battled horrific depression) plus the experience of childhood sexual trauma.
I felt it important to share with the men I stood before in prison the details of my trauma; that I was twice raped by a Boy Scout leader when I was just 11 years old.
When I was done with my talk, I walked back to my seat enveloped in extraordinary and uncharacteristic silence.
During the five days of the program, we sat with the same group of men, assembled in small “families,” purposely racially mixed and diverse. My family was comprised of five men-in-blue, myself, and two other Kairos team members.
Upon returning to my family, all seven of my brothers stood up in unison, and one-by-one each hugged me tightly, and told me they loved me.
When I came to the oldest prisoner at the table, 58-year old Roy, this man I had known for less than two days, took hold of me, pulled me close in an embrace the likes of which I had never experienced, and whispered to me, "I would have protected you if I had been there."
Throughout the balance of the five days, inmate after inmate after inmate pulled me aside and shared that my story was their story. They shared they too had endured sexual trauma of unspeakable kinds. And like the men at my table, after sharing, each man would pull me close and tell me they loved me.
Mental illness lives and thrives in any environment. But, it needs certain things to flourish; isolation, misunderstanding, stigma, and fear.
What I discovered in that prison, an ideal place for the monster to grow was also what was needed to bring the monster to its knees; God, vulnerability, and connection.
I concluded the sermon with a quote from one of the greatest preachers of all time, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr:
"But I’m not concerned about that. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, which we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So, I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
For me, Rev. King was not talking about a destination or a place to go. I believe he was reminding us that the Promise Land is a state of mind, an elevated viewpoint; an evolved conscious that acts like a lens through which we see the world differently, more like it was created to be that it is at times.
I too have been to the Promised Land, and it was in a place that I had least expected. But, I now know if the Promise Land can show up inside a penitentiary, then it can also show up in our relationships, our homes, where we work, worship and play, anywhere.
And, as I see it, our job is to show our brothers and sisters in need to that very place.
Thank you, Rev. Ginger Foster, Sr. Pastor at Pioneer UMC for the faith and trust you gave to me in turning over your pulpit to share my experience. In doing so, you filled me with grace, and allowed me to enjoy one of the highlights of my speaking career.