Sunday, November 25, 2012

Belonging to the Truth

Preached at Prescott Baptist Church
November 25, 2012
Psalm 93
John 18:33-38

The longer I live the more curious I am about Truth. What is Truth for me and is there an absolute Truth for me?  The longer I live and the more I listen to stories that people tell about their lives, I have come to believe that every person will arrive at his or her own Truth if we listen with adequate respect and compassion.  Every teller has his or her own Truth in the story they share.

Twenty-one years ago Devin McCuddy was born in Memphis at Methodist Hospital downtown. Her mother was addicted to drugs and in such bad shape that the courts awarded custody of the baby girl to her father. He moved to Alaska for work and took the baby with him. She grew up in Alaska and remembers the long winters, periods of darkness and cold. She remembers the joy of spring’s thaw and the first signs of new life. 

When Devin was a teenager her father was convicted of a crime and sent to prison. She was in a relationship with a boy-friend who took her to Michigan with him, promising to work and to take good care of her in their new life. The life in Michigan was new but not good. It was bad enough that Devin escaped from her boy-friend’s life and set out to find something better back in Memphis. She hoped to find family, friends, a fresh start. 

But something went wrong. There was another guy and a fight. The police were called. She was arrested for domestic assault. The courts charged her a fine of $250.00. Devin was not able to pay the fine so she spent a month in jail and when that jail term was over she owed the county $725 because people are charged rent for the time they spend in jail. That’s something I didn’t realize until I started going to jail and listening to the stories that women tell. People leave jail with debt as well as the stigma of being an ex-con.
Two weeks ago I woke up on Tuesday morning the 13th of November and I called to Anna, “Hey look! It was really cold last night! The bird bath is frozen over. First time this year.” 

That same morning I got a message on Face Book from a friend at Manna House, a place of hospitality for homeless people. The message said:
This morning a woman showed up at Manna House who had spent the bitter cold night outside, in a paper suit. She had been released in the middle of the night from the Penal Farm. She made her way to Manna House. Thankfully we could offer her a hot shower and warm clothes. What is wrong with a criminal justice system that just releases a woman out into the streets in the middle of the night in freezing temperatures wearing only a paper suit?

What is wrong with a criminal justice system that releases a woman out into the streets in the middle of the night in freezing temperatures wearing only a paper suit? I would like to know the Truth in this story.

So I sent a message to Mayor A C Wharton, District Attorney Amy Weirich and Mayor Mark Luttrell. I have had no response from Mayor Wharton. The truth may be that he never saw my message. Or the truth may be that the city mayor does not feel responsible for the county’s correctional system. It just seems sad to me that if the woman in her paper suit had of died, been raped or murdered in the Memphis city streets during that long, cold night—her situation and her story would then have become a matter under the mayor’s control.

District Attorney Weirich responded to me:
Thank you for sending this [message.] My first thought is we should inquire of the penal farm what their policies are for release and how this could happen. As you know, my office has no control over the prisons. I would be interested in what you discover.

The DA wants to know what I find out.   But how we release prisoners is not, she says, under her control.

It was Mayor Luttrell who responded immediately and he expressed concern. Mayor Mark Luttrell was the director of Shelby County Division of Corrections himself not too long ago. He thanked me for telling him about the woman in her paper suit, informed me that it was not a matter under his control and connected me with other people, PR people: Chris Washington and Steve Shular.

Steve Shular, PR man for Shelby County, has been in conversation with me. He says that the county would not release an inmate on a cold night in a paper suit without also giving the person a coat. I have been listening to women in jail tell stories for three years and I have never heard a story about a coat being given to a person upon release. I have heard many stories about men and women being released wearing only a paper suit.  

Steve Shular said that he was sorry about the released woman’s story and that if I could find the woman out on the streets of Memphis he would like for me to document the story. The truth about who she is, what’s her name, exactly when she was released and under what conditions she was released. 

I talked with Pete Gathke and I drove over to Manna House where I learned that the woman who had been released wearing only a paper suit was named Devin. She was a white woman and they thought she might be twenty-five years old. I went to The Hub downtown because I teach a class at Memphis Theological Seminary and one of the students, Kelcey Johnson, in my preaching class works at The Hub. I learned that the woman’s last name is McCuddy and I found her at the Sisters of Mercy Shelter on Seventh Street. I visited with her and documented her story. 

On Monday evening, November 12, she was given a ride to the corner of Adams and Danny Thomas where an abandoned gas station sits. She was released at 6:00 pm wearing only a paper suit. It was cold and it was dark. Six male inmates were also released at the same time and at the same place. A woman was driving the bus and she said nothing to Devin. The bus driver, an employee for SCDC, simply opened the door of the bus and gestured toward the street. There was no coat on anyone’s back. Everyone was wearing a paper suit. Devin looked to see that the men were walking north so she walked south. She kept walking all night long in an effort to stay warm. A homeless man gave her a pair of socks to wear and told her about Manna House, a place where she could get hot coffee, clothes and a shower. She was there, according to the volunteers, when the door opened. They all report that she had the look of a deer in the headlights

Is it true that our county corrections system releases people into the street without a plan for a single meal on the outside or a place to belong? Is it true that we humiliate people who have already served their sentence by putting them out in public with only paper to protect their naked bodies? Is it true that we stop caring about people if they get into trouble and have to spend time in jail? Are we living with disposable neighbors all around us? And can we identify them by their disposable clothing? 

So many unanswered questions. So many people in positions of authority willing to say they have no control over the situation.  

“What have you done?” Pilate asks. He’s sure this man before him has broken a law and needs to be punished for something. The truth is that Jesus was accused and dragged in for questioning. A common criminal no doubt, a problem for Pilate to solve. What kind of control would Pilate have over the Truth in this situation? A Truth that would set people free for eternity.

Tell the truth! What have you done? What have any of us ever done to deserve being turned out alone on a cold night wearing only a paper jump suit? 

“Are you then a criminal?”

“You say that I am a criminal, a disposable person as you stop the bus and gesture for me to get lost.”

According to some men I met on the street who have been in and out of jail themselves over the last decade, the tax-payers of Shelby County used to provide case management for persons released from the county’s jail. Inmates were given individualized plans upon release, someone to pick them up and some place to belong.

The truth, I’m told by men on the street, is that the case management was taken out of the budget six years ago. Too expensive and there was no public outcry. 

The truth is that we have so many concerns in our own life stories. We feel exhausted by the truth that there are people we have chosen to stop caring about. 

 “For this I was born and for this I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

The Son of God stood accused and in a court of law without benefit of any public defense. It was his word against all the people who betrayed him, accused him and put him before the authorities. One vulnerable man dressed in nothing special, certainly not clothes worthy of royalty. A disposable man. Pilate had his own life to live and his own plans for the evening.

The truth may be that Devin McCuddy was given a coat upon her release from jail. It is possible she is withholding that information. I doubt that. But it is possible. If she was given a coat it is a rare situation—according to the men and women who have been released into the city streets on other cold nights in the past. But maybe the truth this time included a coat. No one is denying that she was turned out on a dark street on a cold night.

Interestingly enough, the director of SCDC, Warden Coleman, has asked for a private meeting with me. He wants to meet with me on Wednesday afternoon at 2:00. And I look forward to listening to his story and hearing his truth in all of this.

We all know the truth: It is not right to abandon a neighbor to the cold and the dark and the awful experience of not belonging anywhere.  

I went to see Devin yesterday morning just to see how she is doing after a few days with the Sisters of Mercy. She is hoping to get work as a housekeeper through Job Corps. She needs a pair of black pants and a pair of black shoes in order to do the job. Size 14 pants and size 9 shoes. 

It is possible that she has no intention of getting a job or doing any kind of work that’s legal. I doubt it but it is possible.  Hearing about her need for pants and shoes allows me the opportunity to listen to something outside this world. The truth is something that belongs to me when I recognize my need to simply be a good neighbor to Devin.

The truth is that we are called by the example of Jesus to clothe the naked, visit those who are in prison and be compassionate toward those who have been left outside in the cold.
I plan to get a pair of black pants and a pair of black shoes today and take them to Devin. 

This is not something I choose to do because I am some kind of hero. It’s not something I choose to be part of because I am somehow superior to the woman who was left out in the cold. But it is one small way I can be reminded that we all belong to the Truth  and the promise of God's love, a love that brings all of us in from the cold and gives us a place to belong.

Not one of us deserves the gift of Jesus’ love and sacrifice. Yet all of us are able to receive it. And that’s the Truth that brought us together here in this place today.