Why are you all doing this?

Why are you all doing this? she asked, as I explained the House of Bread Project during her application interview.

Because we don’t want people to be afraid of you, I blurted, acknowledging the elephant in the room.

Thank you! she exclaimed, looking me straight in the eye for the first time.

It was a holy moment, one where the gap between us was narrowed by the hope of relationship. We can do this. We can’t solve the whole problem of recidivism or the reasons behind incarceration. But we can do this—standing beside, with, and for women seeking new skills and new relationships that will strengthen their capacity for honest work and healthy play. And we will all be changed—for the better—in the process.

For the past two weeks, we have baked and sold bread. We have mentored and been mentored. We have learned and laughed. We have hugged and looked each other in the eye. We have said yes to friendship and no to fear. We have felt great pride in producing beautiful loaves of bread. One of us has already landed a new job.

You have shown up at our bread stands, bought bread, and carried home a tangible expression of love, friendship, and grace. You have purchased t-shirts and tote bags. You have worn our caps. You have told your friends to come buy bread. You have spoken with students and volunteers. You have said,

Yes, I am with you. I believe!

Love does not keep to itself. Thank you for showing up; thank you students, volunteers, and all HOB patrons. You rock.

Jen Brothers

 

We will know that we know that we know

She tells me her story within minutes of meeting her—what she did and how she ended up in prison, twice. I receive this intimate confession as the gift that it is—an unveiling that is real and raw and heartbreaking. I am struck by the dignity she embodies even as she tells me a story of childhood wounds that grew into adult addictions. She accepts full responsibility for her behavior—she knows she made piss-poor choices—and yet she is oh-so-clear that her past does not define her present, and it will not determine her future. When she says, I know that I know that I know that I know where my worth comes from now; it comes from my higher power—from Jesus, I BELIEVE her. She is centered in a way that is at odds with her story, and all I can think is broken hearts can mend and hopeless lives can be redeemed. I see it with my own eyes as I breathe in hope, heavy with data. And I am reminded of all the crippled, bleeding, and lost women in the gospel accounts who met Jesus and walked away seen, healed, and found.  

 

And I think of another woman who encountered Jesus. She was brought before him by a group who wanted to trick him. They knew his message was one of mercy, and she was a lawbreaker. Teacher, they said, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say? But Jesus wouldn’t play their game. Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her, he said, providing her cover by changing the entire conversation. They walked away, one by one, starting with the eldest, until there was no one left to condemn her but Jesus. But he refused. Where are they? Has no one condemned you? he asked. No one, she said. Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again. She was free to begin a new life. Except beginning a new life is difficult, especially when people fear you for your past. That is where we need to step in—not in the judging and condemning, not in the fearing, but in the beginning and the building.

 

Right off the bat, when we come out of prison, we need somebody there that cares, she says. A lot of us are already boxed in when we come out. We need help making peace with our past.

 

These women carry the label of addict, ex-offender, felon, and more. When they are released, they are already boxed in. They need help making peace with their past so it does not define their present or determine their future. If we come alongside them, they will also teach us how to face our own fears of not being good enough, of being judged, of being labeled. Their survival demands this of them in ways many of us have not known. As we look into their eyes, listen to their stories, and provide cover to escape the nightmare that has boxed them in, their path will show us how to break beyond the confinement of our own hearts and minds. Then we will know that we know that we know that we know that redemption is real, mercy triumphs over justice, and all things can and will be healed and made new.

-Jen Brothers

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What They Said

I need for people like you to show you are not ashamed to be seen with people like me.

 

That is what she said when I asked her what she needed. She is a woman who has been incarcerated. She has served her time. She does not run in my circles. She does not have access to the same privileges I do. She wants a better life, and more than anything else, she says she needs for people like me to help lift the blanket of shame that covers women like her. I can do that first and foremost by standing beside her. To do that, I will need to seek her out. People like me don’t mix with people like her. She doesn’t live in my neighborhood. She doesn’t go to my church. She doesn’t work where I work. She doesn’t shop where I shop. I don’t know her. I am afraid. As a follower of Christ, this cannot be. Jesus went out of his way to find the marginalized, the feared, and the lonely, restoring them to hope and to community through words and actions.

 

We need jobs.

 

That is what she said when I asked her what women coming out of incarceration need. If I can’t hire her, I can help her with a job search. I can sit with her and practice interviewing skills. I can help her write a resume. I can help her brainstorm. I can introduce her to someone who could hire her. I can believe the best in her and for her. What does that cost me? A few hours of my time. An ounce of my hope. A pound of my courage. A small price to pay to turn belief into action. Action fuels faith, faith fuels action. Next thing we know we are all heading someplace new.

 

We need to learn how to talk without cussing.

 

She said this and I laughed. I was surprised. It had not occurred to me that she would voice this need. She knows she needs to let go of the language of the streets and the jails in order to access new work. She cannot let go of these words without something to take their place. She needs a conversation partner. She is giving me permission to give her feedback. She wants practice. Every time we talk, every time I listen, I see we are not so very different, me and her. We both use language that doesn’t express what we truly want and need when we are afraid.

 

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.

 

These were among his final words to his disciples. Jesus told them they were to continue to live into the full story of God’s love in this world. This story is our inheritance, and it proclaims redemption, time and time again. Old things will be made new. Lost ones will be found. God’s mercy is without limits, borders, or boundaries. We are not meant to keep this inheritance to ourselves. We are to spend it on others as lavishly as Jesus did.

—Jen B.

 Taking home the pot at Big Lick SOUP (Supporting Outstanding Urban Projects)  Night in February 2017

Taking home the pot at Big Lick SOUP (Supporting Outstanding Urban Projects)  Night in February 2017