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Caring and Conviction

Compassion and generosity let friendship survive through challenging times

by Francesca Anton

Let's dance by Margaret Clark

Our minister had called a special gathering right after the service.  Steve had been arrested earlier in the week, a horrible picture of him was on the front page of the newspaper with numerous charges (that would later almost completely be eliminated, but not published).  Attorneys had been called.  Rumors were flying, emotions were high. We were to meet in the sanctuary to ‘vent our anger’ and sense of betrayal.  I was the music director then, and I loved my job.  It was required that I attend; and so I reluctantly acquiesced, but the weight of emotion was more than I wanted to deal with, as I had no idea what had actually happened.

My relationship with Steve and his family was modest; what I did know about him was that he was a devoted husband and father, and member of our fellowship, taking time from his full schedule to serve in a variety of ways often.  He enjoyed sharing his skills and talent with our music life whenever he could.  If he promised to help on a Sunday with the music, I knew I could count on him.

Heart or Shelter by Joey JohannsenThankfully, one of my best friends joined me in the back of the sanctuary.  Something about the gathering felt deeply wrong to me.  As the heavy minutes trudged forward, I watched and listened with increasing dread as folks I thought I knew to be compassionate and deep thinkers vilified and demonized this human being I barely knew.  Many in the gathering were people who referred to our church community as ‘beloved,’ and yet compassion was clearly not on the agenda here. I felt like a child suddenly being exposed to an aspect of humanity I had never experienced directly, and something about it frightened me to my bones; frozen in time and space, my heart and mind raced wildly, trying to make some semblance of understanding out of the actions of these people I thought I knew.

But in my mind, there were questions demanding loudly to be answered.  “How can these people make these horrible accusations about him when they haven’t heard his story?”  “How can they, after years of calling him ‘friend,’ describe him as a demon?”  “He’s up there in jail, alone, all his hard work and devotion to family and friends ripped away from him by a justice system highly flawed at several levels, and we think it’s OK to assume that he’s a criminal who should be shunned and forgotten?”

No.

But I’m numb, torn, feel compromised because I love these people in front of me, too.  At the deepest level, my shame was that I felt as though I had just witnessed an insidious crime, and I had sat, watched, and did nothing.  Looking back after all these years, should I have stood up and expressed my shock and disappointment at what I was witnessing?  It would have been the instant end of the little, part-time job I loved that brought beautiful music to our services and larger community.

photo credit: Olivander via photopin cc

So I began to lead a double life, continuing to put a meaningful music program together for my church…..and visiting Steve up at the jail, sometimes twice a week.  You see, the very day I left that meeting in our beautiful sanctuary and arrived home, I sat down and wrote a letter to Steve at the jail up on the hill, asking him to please put me on his visitor’s list.  I explained that while I had no idea what had happened, I wanted him to know that the Steve I knew was good and true, and that I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and be there in his need.

He had many needs.  His elderly parents needed to be contacted and assisted in their shock and grief.  His spouse needed a liason person to help deal with the mess of personal property to be divided.  Several people at church who still cared about Steve but too timid to speak up against the minister and board’s request to not have any contact with him, relied on news from me.  There was a long list.  Steve was degraded, dehumanized, confused and frightened.  It took weeks before he began to share the details of his life that had led to his arrest.  I didn’t care, particularly, at the time.  In my heart, I knew I was doing the right thing, and that this journey would be not only an intellectual and emotional learning experience, but also one of the most deeply spiritual experiences I would ever have, next to being the mother of my children.

prisonThus began our abiding friendship that has deepened over the past 10+ years.  No matter what is happening in my life, I am going to be there on the day he walks out of that prison.  The work he has done, both in his inner and outer life, is great and worthy of admiration.  Not many of us would have psychologically survived the irrational vagaries of our justice system that put him there, not to mention the constant dehumanizing experiences he encounters on a daily basis.

After a few weeks, of course, the minister got wind that I was visiting and assisting Steve.  She called me into her office, her yellow legal pad and pencil in her lap, trying to look official, ready to “discipline” me.  She asked me why I ‘broke her directions and trust.’  That was an easy question to answer.  After listening to her thin scolding and scorn, I gently reminded her that we have a constitution in this country that provides me the generous right of free speech, and that in the exercise of this right, I had begun a journey that, most likely, would be far more spiritually powerful than anything I might gain by attending this fellowship that had abandoned Steve.

Soon came the meeting with two board members, who not only wanted to fire me, but were already planning a false resignation, even providing me a ‘going away’ party.  Really.  There was no ‘beloved’ community here, not when hypocrisy ruled the day.  My sad eyes were opened, but while part of me felt betrayed and saddened, the other part felt free, felt a clean gladness.  Grateful and relieved.

Road out of town, photo by Jennifer Woodhull

On the inside, Steve was beginning a spiritual journey across a wide and dry desert.  Not much nature in the form of compassion growing around him.  It would be a long walk.  Measure 11 denied him any possible reconciliation with his family and friends, denied the research and testing that advised the very low potential of recividism, and demanded he spend 18 years inside a barbed wire fence, with no possibility of reduced time for good behavior, good work, and further research and testing that might have brought some understanding and sanity into both his own life and that of our communities at home.

Still, one person can provide some relief and hope.  Since my first visit to Steve many years ago, I have learned that there are many human beings who are providing compassionate volunteer services to inmates of all walks of life at many levels, and I am very thankful to be one of them.

Editor’s note: this is a companion piece to Steve Bulleit’s article in an earlier edition of the Times. If you missed that one, you can see it here:  http://shambhalatimes.org/2016/02/06/sacred-nature-at-snake-river/

Francesca Anton was introduced at a young age by her parents and elders to the beauty, majesty and wonder of being alive.  She spent much time sewing kimonos in the tower and studying at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center in California, then married and raised children and hundreds of additional animals on a farm in Oregon. She currently visits and assists both her friend, Steve Bulleit, and her cousin, David Gilmore, who are incarcerated at prisons in Oregon, meeting incredible people and learning important lessons along the way.

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3 responses to “ Caring and Conviction ”
  1. Christine Heming
    Feb 16, 2016
    Reply

    Thank you for sharing this personal journey and continuing to work with Steve and others.

  2. A beautifully written, deeply moving tale of the heart that sheds light on the path of this moment, inspiring true steps.

  3. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story of courage, finding your own path and protecting what is good and true in your life.

    “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
    – Margaret Mead


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