The erasure of sacred space at the Dane County Jail

On Sunday afternoon, I attended a spirited conversation of clergy and formerly incarcerated persons discussing the importance of spiritual care and sacred space in institutions of incarceration. The Dane County Jail is about to undergo long overdue renovations with a price tag of $76 million. It has come to the attention of chaplains and community members that current plans do not include dedicated space for worship or other religious gatherings.

On one level, this erasure of sacred space from the jail could be seen as another example of the departure of religion from public life and a sign of its waning significance in American culture. With fewer people participating in organized religion, why bother spending money on a space dedicated to worship and spiritual reflection? Religion and spirituality are simply a lower priority than other uses—such as mental health, physical fitness, and the like.

But I think there is something more significant at play. One of the themes that emerged from the panel discussion was the uniqueness of sacred space in an institution of incarceration. “Sacred” comes from a Latin word which means “to set apart.” In an institution where every aspect of one’s life is monitored, where one has no privacy, no silence, where surveillance is constant and absolute, having a place apart from that where one can attend to one’s spiritual needs without interruption or intrusion, is space that is at least for a brief time each week, free from the power of the carceral state.

In sacred space, people can sit, pray, worship. They can be still and know God. They can listen to the rhythms of their hearts, the yearnings of their souls, without the distraction of noise from people in the surrounding bunks. In sacred space, they can sense the moving of the Spirit in their lives, and respond accordingly. In sacred space, they can draw strength from others who are seeking the same solace, and receive counsel from supportive chaplains.

Representatives of the Sheriff’s office argue that there simply isn’t enough space, that other needs take precedence—medical beds, mental health, addiction. To separate out spiritual needs from other needs is misguided and unfortunate. In many cultures, spiritual health is deeply connected to mental health and physical health; one can’t heal the body without healing the soul, and if the soul doesn’t receive the attention it needs, neither body or mind can be fully healed.

It was clear from the formerly incarcerated people who spoke on Sunday, and clear too from my many conversations with formerly incarcerated persons, that many interpret their journeys spiritually, that they see the decisions they made that brought them into contact with the criminal justice system, and their experience in prison and jail, in spiritual terms. They see God at work in their lives, or their punishment as connected with their own sins and God’s forgiveness. To deny them space in the Dane County Jail to process their lives spiritually, to connect with others who are sharing similar journeys, and to find the solace provided by a religious tradition, is to rob them of one of the most important resources they need to transform their lives.

It’s unfortunate that the Dane County Sheriff’s Office and our Dane County elected officials do not care enough for the men and women incarcerated here that they are willing to commit resources to meet the spiritual needs of jail residents.

The Capital Times’s coverage of the Sunday event is here.

More background from Isthmus here.

The campaign to accommodate spiritual needs at the Dance County Jail has a facebook page.

The imprisonment of John the Baptist, the carceral state and Advent hope: A sermon for Advent 3, Year A, 2016

Today’s readings are here

Most of you know that over the last year, Grace Church has begun to develop a relationship with the Dane County Jail. It began with a visit to Grace last January from Christa Fisher, chaplain to the jail, who preached and talked about her work in an adult forum. The relationship has deepened, as Grace offered to host the ongoing tutoring project and participating in the jail ministry’s winter clothing drive.

The jail ministry has touched me on a personal level. It may have begun, not with my first encounter and conversation with Christa, but even earlier. I don’t know exactly when it was, but I found myself reflecting on the familiar and powerful parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46, you know the one in which the King says:

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

It struck me at the time, for whatever reason, that in all of my life, I had never set foot in a prison, let alone visited or talked with a prisoner. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not like I think I’m going to burn in hell for eternity because I never engaged in prison ministry. Rather, I began to realize that prison ministry, especially in this age of mass incarceration, had simply never been of much interest or concern to me. In fact, I probably didn’t even know where the Dane County Jail for the first 3 or 4 years I lived in Madison; that’s shocking to admit, given it’s only two blocks away.

As part of Grace’s involvement with the work of the Madison Jail Ministry, I have challenged myself to take an active role in supporting the work of the chaplains. Last May, I participated in a tour of the jail that is intended for new employees and volunteers. It was an eye-opening, unforgettable experience. It wasn’t just that parts of the jail, the two top floors of the City County Building that could serve as a movie set for a 1930s era prison. That’s the part of the jail where they repeatedly have difficulties opening cell doors and evacuating inmates during fire drills. It was the demeanor of those who were incarcerated. Their body language and demeanor were those of people without hope, living in despair. They were lonely, abandoned by society, living at the arbitrary whims and actions of their jailors.

By now, we should all be familiar with the statistics, so I won’t belabor them. As Michelle Alexander argued with great passion and eloquence in her book The New Jim Crow, mass incarceration targets African-Americans, especially African-American males disproportionately. It’s not just that an unconscionable number of African-Americans are incarcerated in the US, it’s that they are incarcerated for longer sentences and for crimes for which White Americans walk free.

The racial disparities and hopelessness of mass incarceration are on full display in the Dane County Jail. Many of those in the jail are there for parole violations that can be as minor as having used a computer. What struck me during my tour of the jail was that I hadn’t been anywhere that looked quite like the Dane County jail, or encountered such despair and hopelessness in the eyes and body language of the incarcerated, since my visit to East Germany back in 1980. The Dane County jail, like the former East Germany, is the carceral and surveillance state on full display.

All of this came to mind this week as I read and reflected on our gospel. It’s another episode concerning John the Baptist and the contrast between his demeanor here, in Matthew 11, and in the reading from last week, from Matthew 3, couldn’t be more stark. Last week we saw him railing against the religious and political elites for their corruption, and prophesying that the wrath of God would soon come down upon them. He was courageous, resolute, unworried about the response his preaching might arouse in his opponents.

Now, a few weeks or months later, he is in prison, having crossed Herod one too many times. But Herod isn’t quite sure what to do with him; the gospel of Luke suggests even that Herod kind of liked having John around,, he brought him in for conversations. According to Matthew, Herod wanted to have John executed, but feared how the people might respond.

In any case, now John is in prison. It’s puzzling given what we know about John, that he wonders about Jesus’ identity, that he sends his disciples to Jesus to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

I mean, how could he not know? They are cousins, for crying out loud (at least that’s what Luke tells us). John baptized Jesus. John told everyone that Jesus was the one sent by God, that he, John, was only his messenger. John may even have heard the voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved.” How could he have doubts?

Well, there are a couple of answers to this question. First, there’s the issue of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, and what from the gospels seems to be something of a competition between them, perhaps even a struggle between followers of John and Jesus later, after their deaths, over who was the greater. There’s all sorts of evidence, even in the Book of Acts, that John continued to have a following, and that his followers competed with the followers of Jesus for popularity.

There’s also the fundamental problem for the early Jesus movement that Jesus was baptized by John…

Finally, there’s the little detail that the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, agree that Jesus began his public ministry only after John was arrested; that he waited until then to begin preaching publicly and healing people.

So there’s something very interesting going on in the gospels’ depiction of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist.

But I don’t think that’s the only reason that John asks this question about Jesus identity from prison. Prison, in the first or the twenty-first century is a place of hopelessness and despair. Too often, it’s a waiting room for death. Think of all of the people on death row across our nation, and think about the decades many of them have been languishing there.

I think John’s question may come out of his hopelessness and despair and I’m not sure Jesus’ response to him, reassured him. Jesus tells John’s disciples, “‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Jesus omits something in that response. When that list of things appears in Isaiah, and when in Luke’s telling, Jesus proclaims those words in his first public sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth, there’s another group mentioned:


‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

The blind may see, the lame walk, the poor here the good news, but Jesus makes no mention of prisoners in his response to John’s disciples, no promise of freedom, no freedom for John himself.

John’s doubts and uncertainties were well-founded and it’s an open question whether Jesus’ reply to him did anything to reassure him as he lay in prison and waited for his death.

That should be unsettling for us. It may even raise our doubts and uncertainties. If John couldn’t or didn’t know, and if Jesus’ words offered him no consolation or hope in his particular situation, may our doubts and uncertainties are warranted. Maybe hopelessness, despair, cynicism are appropriate responses in our situation, too. After all, it’s not just John. There is still suffering in the world—the blind, deaf, disabled; and millions upon millions of people who languish in poverty and are food insecure.

So there is cause for despair, cause for doubt, cause for uncertainty. In the midst of all of that, there are also signs of hope—signs of the inbreaking of God’s reign in this dark world. Signs of hope in the work, faith, and spirit of the chaplains at the Dane County jail, signs of hope in the work and witness of our food pantry; signs of hope, signs of God’s inbreaking reign in the coming of Christ in a tiny and distant village in the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire. This Advent, may we look for signs of Christ’s coming and signs of God’s coming reign, in our hearts and in the world around us, and when we see those signs, may we know that Christ is coming, that he is the one for whom we are waiting.







Hope: A Sermon preached by Christa Fisher


This past Sunday, Christa Fisher, Chaplain to Men at the Dane County Jail, visited Grace, preached, and gave a presentation on her work at the Jail. Here is her sermon.

John 11.1-44


Good Morning. Thank you for the invitation to join you in worship this morning. It is my privilege to be here, sharing the Word of God with you – a Word which has the power to restore and transform lives. As the Chaplain to the men of the Dane County Jail I see God’s powerful Word at work each day, and I am hopeful we will all experience God’s Word at work among us now.

I chose the story of the Death and Resurrection of Lazarus for today because I hear in this story the experience of incarceration – not only the experience of being incarcerated, but also the experiences of the families and communities of the incarcerated. You see, though this is Lazarus’s story, it is also the story of his family, his friends and his community. We learn about Lazarus in the very first verse, when Jesus is sent word of his illness, yet Lazarus does not appear in this story until the very end, when he emerges from the cave. With the exception of this one verse, the rest of the story, the other 43 verses describe how his family and community are coping with the situation. Though it is Lazarus’s story, he is, for the most part, an absent and silent character. This is the experience of incarceration.

Most of the men whom I serve would tell you that time in jail is lost time. Though the clock continues to tick and the seasons come and go, the passing of time has no significance. Nothing happens in jail and there are few resources available to help men and women in jail advocate for themselves. As such they, like Lazarus, lie in windowless cages, day after day, week after week, month after month, and even sometimes year after year, solely dependent upon the compassion of others.

Today’s scripture text begins with a compassionate plea. Martha and Mary have sent a message to Jesus about their brother. “The one whom you love is ill.” Unable to advocate for himself, Lazarus’s sisters advocate on his behalf. They don’t outright ask Jesus to come and heal Lazarus, but they are hopeful the news will compel Jesus to do just that. They are frantic with worry and Jesus is the only one who can truly help.

By the time Jesus arrives Lazarus has died. He is referred to from this point on in the story as “the dead man.” Many of you have been introduced to the men and women who constitute my congregation. You know them, if not as your own family or friend, then through the media, which tells you “who” they are based upon “what” they have done.   Their identity is now determined by their worst action, worst choice, or worst behavior. He is a thief. She is a child abuser. He is thug. She is an addict. What the media doesn’t tell you is “why.” Like Mary and Martha, concerned families contact me daily. The one whom they love is “ill” they tell me. He has an addiction to heroin. She suffers from schizophrenia and is un-medicated.   He saw his mother beaten to death. She was sold for sex by her grandmother in exchange for drugs. He is homeless. They are in pain. As a pastor of the jail, families reach out to me hoping that by sharing their stories I will understand how to heal their brothers and sisters, their sons and daughters. I am not Jesus. And healing is not one of my gifts. But I believe people can be healed because Jesus tells me, he shows me it to be true.

This is the promise of the cross – God brings forth life from death, love from hatred, joy from pain, and peace from terror. The Christian faith was born out of this promise. We are reminded of it each week and we profess it to be true. Because of this promise we are a hopeful people.

Yet, like Martha, who was a devoted student of Jesus, we often compromise our hope for resignation. “You want us to do what? You want us to remove the stone? Why? He has been dead four days. Already there is a stench. You are too late. There is nothing more we can do.” Hope is scary. It is risky. It can seem irresponsible and it definitely is not rational. Hope may lead to good and great things but it may also result in disappointment, loss and heartbreak. By comparison resignation seems responsible.   We know what to expect, when to expect it, and what not to expect.   Resignation is safe but it does not lead to life.

It seems to me that the Incarceration System was constructed out of resignation rather than hope. With few exceptions it has functioned as a place where people go who are deemed, at least temporarily, unfit for society. If the Incarceration System had been born out of hope, we wouldn’t be shackling people, putting them in cages, and identifying them based upon booking numbers. We would be prioritizing their mental, physical, logistical and spiritual needs. There are many good intentioned people working within the jail, but their ability to effect change is limited by the System itself. Mental health and medical professionals are drawn to the jail with intention of helping people heal, truly heal. Unfortunately, the demand is so great and the services so few, that their primary responsibilities are to diagnose and distribute medication. Contrary to popular belief, the mental health staff are not therapists. The medical doctor lives in Illinois and visits the jail twice each week. The nursing staff, two people per shift, spend their days triaging the medical needs of the 800-plus men and women confined to the jail each day. And the jail’s one re-entry coordinator has the enormous responsibility of helping all the men and women find jobs, housing, food, medical care, and recovery support services upon release. This is not a system born out of hope but it is also not defined by resignation. Hope exists because God and God’s people continue to be at work.

While I have drawn many parallels between our scripture text and the experience of incarceration, there is one considerable difference. Lazarus was silent in the cave because he had died. The men and women whom I serve are alive and they are vocal about their desire to live full, healthy lives. Each month I receive hundreds of requests for pastoral conversations. Each piece of paper in this stack is an individual request for prayer or conversation from the last two weeks. The need and the hope which exists in the jail is far greater than this stack of paper can begin to demonstrate.

Shortly after beginning my position, I went to speak with a man who had requested a conversation and a prayer. While we were talking men began congregating near us. I didn’t think much of it. There is no privacy in jail – someone is always nearby. After we had concluded our visit I looked up and saw nine men, none of whom had submitted requests, patiently and quietly waiting for time with me. After four hours I spoke and prayed with each of them. Hope is waiting in line for four hours for a prayer.

Sometimes it takes men many weeks or even months to reach to me. When I ask why I hadn’t met them sooner they tell me they weren’t ready. Ready for what? Ready to hope, they say. Hope is scary.

I wonder how Lazarus’s family and community were feeling as Jesus instructed them to open the cave? As Martha pleaded with Jesus to act rationally, were others holding their breath in anxious anticipation? Did Martha try to talk Jesus out of opening the cave because she could not handle any more disappointment? Her fear of disappointment didn’t lie with Lazarus. She expected nothing more from him. Rather, her fear lied with Jesus – she was afraid he would disappoint her.

As the minutes ticked by, the hearts and minds of the people were slowly changed. They watched the radical Rabbi refuse to surrender his trust in God to a trust in rational thinking. And they looked inside themselves, discerning whether or not they might have the courage to hope for the impossible? Throughout his ministry he had been demonstrating to them, that through God nothing is impossible. However, healing someone who is already alive is quite different from raising a “dead man” to life. . .

The story tells us hope reigned that day. The people set aside their fears, their resignation and their rational thinking, and they rolled the stone away.

And then the impossible happened.

The “dead man” heard Jesus call him by name and he followed Jesus’ voice out of the darkness of death and into the light of new life.

The story does not end here. There is one more verse. And this verse is my constant prayer for all of my brothers and sisters in jail. That upon their release they will be met by a community of people who will support, encourage and accompany them on this scary but hopeful journey to a full and healthy life. It seems an impossible dream, completely irrational thinking. But I am a Christian and my faith tells me to trust in God, through whom all things are possible.

“The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to the crowd, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ ”

Thanks be to God.