Re-Discovering Compassion in Jail

(The following article appeared in this week’s “Green Light” newsletter published by Green Street Church in Winston-Salem. It was written by senior pastor Rev. Kelly Carpenter, who reflected on his experience of being arrested during the Moral Monday civil disobedience July 15 in Raleigh. Coincidentally, it was the same day that the Winston-Salem city council endorsed the Charter for Compassion, committing to make the Golden Rule a guiding principle for the city.)

The Rev. William Barber has done what local papers across North Carolina have failed to do: made our state pay attention to what is going on in Raleigh. The recent barrage of harmful legislation demands a whole lot of attention. Rev. Barber is the President of the NC NAACP has led 11 consecutive weeks of growing protest at the State legislative building. Thousands gather weekly, hundreds have participated in civil disobedience. It’s called Moral Monday.

Having led local actions and waded through the frenetic chaos of herding cats for such demonstrations on a much smaller scale, I so appreciate his leadership and organizing. His vulnerability following the Trayvon Martin trial verdict was deeply moving. He has unified a diverse cross-section of people as you will ever see.

Moral Monday is an experience of multicultural energy and the power of democracy & compassion. A gathering of angry, loving people, hungry to see one another from the isolation we feel in our local community, grieving the recent actions taken by the State legislature. Compassion, which means “withpassion,” is what I experienced.

On July 15th, following the lead of a number of my church members and staff (I am their leader, I must catch up!), I joined the number of those who have participated in the peaceful, non-violent disobedience. (I invited a few to come, but many said: Nope, I have a record. They may not let me out.) I was arrested and released along with 100 others (not an estimate: 101 people). The event began at a church rally, press conference and bus ride, the event began in the long awaited scorching sun, standing with Rabbi Mark listening to the speeches, and then walking with others 2×2 through a sea of 5,000+ people gathered on the Hallifax Mall. We snaked our way into the air conditioned legislative building, past cheering supporters and “thank yous,” where we continued to pray, witness and sing.

We were arrested at 7 pm, released by 11:00. The police were professional and friendly. I sat cuffed in the cafeteria for two hours; an officer told us that our long wait for the bus ride was an act of compassion, so we would not have to sit on the air condition-less bus. While my fellow inmates got chatty with excitement, I found myself getting quite and centered. When we finally filed outside for our ride, from an unseen place in the dark of night we heard rhythmic shouting through a bull horn: “We love you!” answered by a crowd shouting “Thank you!”

The sterile environment of the detention center reminded me of just how dehumanizing incarceration can be, windowless and without color. Our minor discomforts and stiff backs were of no account when compared to the woman we heard the violent screaming in the unit close to us, clearly disturbed or intoxicated. On being released, we were greeted by the NAACP staff/volunteers, and my very own Representative Earline Parmon. As a member of Generation X, I have always felt as if I were born too late. My generation missed the party of direct action of the 60s. But the promise of democracy is that it must be everrenewed and the times have cycled such action back around. It felt good to be part of a movement, spiritually centering.

While the City Council of Winston-Salem voted to approve the initiative to become a Compassionate City (great work Jerry McLeese!), the Moral Monday crowd in Raleigh was busy calling the state legislature back to its call toward compassion. All too often, legislation passed by government agencies has devastating, unseen effects upon citizens. The recent agenda of our State legislature has been anything but compassionate: 500,000 low income have been denied health care coverage by their action. North Carolina is ranked 46th in teacher pay, and dead last in raised income. 71,000 unemployed workers lost federal emergency unemployment benefits on Sunday, June 30th. The voter requirement of a valid i.d. may affect 500,000 people, the great majority of whom are poor, people of color, and the elderly. And then there is the irony of antiShariah legislation that removes choice for a woman to control her own body!

The list goes on and on and on. And so, while we will work locally to embody compassion in Winston-Salem, we must also practice justice. A good definition of justice is “raising compassion to the institutional level.” This is the work of our elected leaders, to make the systems of our world aligned with compassion.

Civil disobedience by itself will never bring about the systemic change that justice demands, but it can highlight injustice and allow silenced voices to be heard. We must find a way to give voice to voiceless, to put a human face on those affected by actions/inactions of our elected leaders. Compassion demands that we put a human face on suffering and keep compassion as the goal of how we act and how we shape our institutions. And our job is to make sure they know their call to compassion. We will need lots of social engagement at various levels of the institutional dimension, local, state, national and global. It also demands that we get our personal act together, compassion for our family & friends. As Christians, we are even called to compassion for our enemies.

Nothing is more difficult, and nothing is more meaningful. For me, it was no act of heroism, but a temporary discomfort. A time for re-centering my own spirit in my Christian tradition of compassion. Its getting harder to pay attention to what is going on. We seem to have only enough room for the latest celebrity, racist comment, or the one major courtroom drama, at a time. Smart phones, Facebook, and the internet keep us thoroughly distracted. Moral Monday is an experience of non-virtual, social relationship, a grand, statewide effort to stay awake and aware, to help the arc of the universe bend toward justice, and to help one another remain centered in love. It is an opportunity for us to help raise our compassion to the institutional level.

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About compassionatews

Think of a giant umbrella. Under that umbrella are all of the programs and acts of compassion that we see – and don’t see – around us in Winston-Salem.
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