Guest Outpost blog from Shannon Skelly
I’m about to start my senior year of college studying theology and peace and conflict studies at the College of Saint Benedict and St. John’s University in central Minnesota. This summer, I’m working as an intern with Women at the Well, a United Methodist congregation inside the walls of the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women — the only women’s prison in Iowa. Women at the Well is a church like few others; it functions much like a church on the outside would, but its pastoral care, leadership development, worship and other activities all take place inside prison walls.
I’ve learned an incredible amount from this internship, but I didn’t expect how drastically it would transform my heart. I’ve been radically welcomed and accepted by the congregation, and I’ve been invited into some of the darkest places in the women’s lives. There is so much I could share about the inspiring work of Women at the Well, but I’d like to share just one example of how spending time listening to, learning from and loving these women in prison has transformed my response to “criminals.”
Like many throughout the country, I’ve reflected and mourned the massacre in Charleston all week. I find myself feeling conflicted and changed by my work this summer — I can’t react to Dylann Roof the way I would have before working with felons and convicts. I’m truly disgusted and angered by his philosophy and what he did… but I’m inclined to feel compassion and empathy as well. After all, some of the women I’ve grown closest to in prison killed people.
I don’t see this young man as irredeemable; I can’t bring myself to take that view. A part of me wants to hate him, but the wiser part of me recognizes that he was impacted and shaped by forces that he was not responsible for creating. Yes, he holds responsibility for the atrocity he committed – but if we demonize this young man the way we tend to demonize felons, we avoid seeing where we hold responsibility. All of the women I’ve interacted with have been victimized in a variety of truly horrific ways — by people and by systems. Many of the women that have severe mental illness have been unable to receive the kind of care they need, and they’ve been made to feel alone in their “craziness.” One of the sweetest, most gentle and loving women I’ve ever known was responsible for the deaths of two children because she’d been so isolated in her mental illness without support or treatment. How can I love her and fail to love a young man – just 21-years-old like me – who I believe must have suffered in his life?
In the very core of my being I believe that humanity is good. I don’t think murderers, rapists, gang-bangers, drug dealers and the like fill those roles solely by their own choosing — I think they are created by systems and societies of inequality and victimization. I cannot excuse Dylann Roof’s behavior, nor should anyone, but I can’t demonize him either.
In my time with Women at the Well, I’ve supported women as they work through Desmond Tutu’s “30-Day Forgiveness Challenge” with pastor Lee Schott. Desmond and Mpho Tutu bring up the South African concept of ubuntu early in the 30-day challenge. Ubuntu is a rich idea describing the universal bond that connects all people. In the challenge, they use this concept to explain that when we hold onto anger, bitterness or pain toward another person, it wounds us deeply because we are connected to the person we haven’t forgiven. It is vividly clear to me that when we demonize and stigmatize people like Dylann Roof or the women I’ve met this summer, it harms us all. It contributes to the illness of hatred that runs rampant when we focus on our divisions rather than our shared humanity.
There are no easy answers when we are faced with murder and heinous crime. But we must reach beyond the impulse to settle for hatred and demonization, because that only wounds and divides ourselves further. I hope we will rise to the challenge of forgiveness with the utmost vigor and zeal because it is our only cure.
Nearly all of the media coverage of the Charleston massacre that I’ve seen has lauded and accentuated the victims’ family members’ forgiveness for Dylann Roof. It is easy to simply praise these men and women of faith; but why haven’t our own churches followed their example?
As people of faith, we are called to work for social justice in our world with courage and the expectation that God will go with us. I’ve discovered God’s presence like never before when I’m with my sisters in prison, but it doesn’t stop there. I’ve been challenged to see my own responsibility for their journeys to prison. When I see my brothers and sisters in prison in the context of their life stories, I discover that I participate in many kinds of systemic injustice that have marginalized, victimized and criminalized them. If communities of faith truly wish to contribute positively to criminal justice reform, we must first humanize those behind bars by learning their stories and discovering where we hold responsibility.
SHANNON SKELLY was baptized and confirmed at Spirit of Life Presbyterian Church in Apple Valley, Minnesota, where she continues to be an active member. She enjoys participating in church camps, mission trips, service work and worship leading.