Waking up can be hard to do...but it is the only way to move forward in life. My awakening has been gradual. It began in my early years. I have always been pricked by the biblical verse, “as you have done to the least of these, so you have done to me”. The “visiting the prisoner” part was the hardest part for me to imagine. It was fear-inducing.
Fast forward to about 6 years ago or so. I was introduced to a book by Bryan Stevenson, “Just Mercy” and was privileged to hear him speak at VCU. His call to fix our broken system of justice resonated with me. His stories of defending the most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest regions of our criminal justice system, moved me.
Shortly after this I picked up a copy of the book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander. I couldn’t put it down. I had finally stopped hitting the snooze button. It was time to wake up. We organized a neighborhood/community dinner/discussion at my church (Ginter Park Presbyterian) around that book. It was a very diverse group. What I heard/learned that evening was eye opening. But what could I do?
Well, God works in mysterious ways. Shortly after this, our own Sandy Elliot led a Sunday School class about her work with the Virginia Center for Restorative Justice and specifically about the classes on Conflict Resolution at the Women’s Prison in Goochland. It was like a great big finger from heaven came down and bopped me on the head and said, “Hey, Sally, you’re looking for what you can do -listen up girl!”. Sandy agreed to meet with me for further enlightenment and information. I attended one of Judy’s trainings and I sat in on a circle at the prison. I was hooked. Frightened? - Never. Amazed? - Always.
For 2 hours every week I am fully awake. I sit with a group of women, hear their stories, cry with them, laugh with them, and try to impart some thoughts on ways to turn their lives around and move forward in new and meaningful ways. These are women who are strong and thoughtful and caring. Yes, they have made mistakes and poor choices and, in many cases, have been given hard life situations to bear. I often leave class feeling like perhaps I’ve gotten more out of the session than I have given.
Sandy summed it up for me a few weeks ago when she said that she often wishes she could just invite these women over to her home for coffee and a chat. They are comfortable to be with.
What more can I do? What more can we do? I, for one, try to tell my experience to anyone who will listen - about what we do, about the real lives and real people that I meet. I advocate for prison reform and for changes in post incarceration law reform.
Like I said, waking up can be hard work but you can’t start a new day without it.
Sally Molencamp has been a member at GPPC since 1981 (except for 12 years when she lived in DC). She has volunteered for the Virginia Center for Restorative Justice since 2015 and finds it to be one of the most meaningful experiences of her life. She presented the above at VCRJ’s annual dinner this spring.