Last Thanksgiving, I traveled more than a few miles to meet seven other volunteers and twelve inmates in a medium security prison for a Thanksgiving Table of sorts. I was apprehensive, since this was my first visit to a prison and it was all new to me. But the prisoners all shook our hands and welcomed us warmly.
We sat in a circle as the facilitators asked us to invite to an imaginary table anyone we wanted to have close to us for support and gratitude. It could be an ancestor, a loved one, living or dead, friends far away or nearby and even forgotten parts of ourselves.
One inmate invited himself as the eighteen year old he’d been forty years ago - and the young man he’d murdered then. He wanted them to talk and forgive each other. Another inmate invited all those who’d been able to see both the good and the bad in him. I invited my father and thanked him for instilling the love of books in me. Others invited loving aunts, mothers who faithfully visited them in prison, grandchildren who gave them hope and grandmothers they remembered for baking homemade pies and macaroni and cheese. A volunteer invited her angry adolescent daughter to sit between two elders already at the table to experience the wisdom of motherly love. Another prisoner invited his cell-mate, soon to be released from prison, to give him confidence that he could succeed on the outside. After three hours we still hadn’t finished, so we invited all those we’d forgotten to invite, including the guards who observed our every move.
As we left, I glanced back at the inmates returning to their cells and felt an overwhelming sadness. Prison regulations don’t permit hugging, but we’d shared a profound and powerful sense of our mutual humanity.
This year, I’ll give thanks that high on the agenda of many policy makers is a commitment to reforming the criminal justice system, in part to reduce the terrible gap between those who are free and those who are not – both for the sake of our individual selves, and the wholeness of our communities.