07 June 2012

Like a Smelter's Fire

Fresh Start graduate at Rikers Island
One of the great sources of pride in our community is the work we are doing in partnership with the Osborne Association.  A couple dozen of our members have been regularly visitors to the New York State Prison in Albion, the Bedford Hills Women's Correctional Facility, and Rikers Island, where each year I have the privilege of delivering the invocation at the "Fresh Start"graduation ceremony for prisoners prepared to leave and start their lives over.  We accompany children to visit parents, create and staff family visitor centers, and help shore up Osborne's efforts in Brooklyn and the Bronx to create safe environments for rehabilitation, education and job training so that former prisoners can begin life, with dignity, again.  Members of the broader CBE community who work with and support Osborne comprised nearly four tables.  This work is important to us.

This morning's guests included a brilliant seventeen year old man named Donovan Clark who managed to hold his family together and graduate from high school as his mother served a two-year sentence; Donovan's mother Ayana Thomas who spoke with depth and humility about her past mistakes but shined with optimism and hope for her future; John Valverde talked about the painstaking and inspring workforce development that happens in Brooklyn and the Bronx each day; and we heard from Barry Scheck, professor at Cardozo Law School and founder of the Innocence Project, who shed tears while talking about Osborne's mission and accomplishments.

We even had Miss America 2012--Laura Kaeppeler from Kenosha, Wisconsin--who was presented with the Thomas Mott Osborne Medal for her work on advocacy for prisoners (Kaeppeler's father was incarcerated for 2 years during her childhood.)

The other uncommon highlight of the breakfast was the talk given Osborne's Executive Director, Liz Gaynes, who wove a narrative about the covenantal obligations our society has an opportunity to embrace and uphold when we engage in work inside the criminal justice system.  At the center of her talk was a passage from the Biblical prophet Malachi:  "Behold I am sending My messenger to clear the way before Me, and the Eternal whom you seek shall come to His Temple suddenly.  As for the angel of the covenant that you desire, he is already coming.  But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can hold out when he appears?  For he is like a smelter's fire and like fuller's lye.  He shall act like a smelter and purger of silver; and he shall purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver so that they shall present offerings in righteousness."

Liz knows from what fire can do, the furnace of incarceration.  Her own husband spent twenty years in prison.  But she also shared a conversation she had with a silversmith, who shared that the key to making silver is to take the smelt from the fire at precisely the moment you can see your reflection as one sees one's face in the mirror.  An additional moment of fire burns to black the precious metal.

When we encounter prisoners, she said, we have an opportunity to look into the mirror of their lives and seeing ourselves, we have a sacred opportunity to save one another from the fires of incarceration.

I was stunned by the depth and the beauty of the analogy.  It was, to my mind, a great sermon.

The human element, raw metal, and the smoldering cauldron of our fallibility can yield, with patience, humility, courage, and the decency of our humanity, lives of silver and gold.  The precious metals of life.

Afterward I spoke with Ayana Thomas and promised to take her for an exploratory visit to the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel where I am privileged to sit on the board.  Out of prison since May, she's eager to get to school, get her training, and get back to work.

A truly inspiring morning.

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