Mary Beth Writes

I preached this sermon at United Unitarian Universalist /23/2019.

The photo is of the sanctuary of Grace United Methodist in Chicago. It's the church in which Len and I met and then married. We happened to be driving by earlier this year on a Sunday morning. They were voting that day on what to do with their building. I took this single picture with my phone, capturing the affection we all feel for our friends and fellow-journeyers in our congregations. 

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From Matthew 20:1-16 New International Version (NIV) - The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

 “For the kingdom of heaven (I would like to point out that when Jesus talks about “the Kingdom of Heaven” he is not talking about where people go when they die … he is talking about where we live, when we live our lives with and in the faith he is trying to teach and preach) is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius and sent them into his vineyard. (a denarius was probably about what entry level warehouse workers make around here in the Midwest – about one hundred dollars a day)

“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing.  About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

“Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received $100. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received $100.  When they received it, they /began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a $100? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

…..

I met a LOT of late-in-the-day workers in need of grace – in my years working in the Racine County Jail. As many of you know, I ran an employment program that helped inmates get jobs in the community. Most of the people I worked with minimum classification and were incarcerated for owing money to the Child Support system.

Early on I talked to an impressively huge guy up in the jail. Over six feet tall, probably over 300 pounds, freckly white skin, blue eyes, reddish blond hair that stuck up and out of his face like the mane of a surprised lion.

Let’s call him Tom. Tom attended my classes and contributed a lot. He was smart, respectful: a natural leader who helped the group be serious and move forward. 

It was the day before their first job search. That afternoon a C.O. (correctional officer), called and said “Tom can’t go out. He has sexual assault in his record, we don’t let S.A’s out.”

He’d been convicted of sexual assault of a minor in another county. He did 15 years and then went before the parole board who released him to parole. But he’d gotten a woman pregnant before he went to prison so that child support obligation had built up – he now owed nearly a hundred thousand dollars in support for a child I don’t believe he had ever met. And that’s why he couldn’t go back to his hometown when the parole board okayed it - he came to jail on that child support in the county where it was due. He’d actually never been in Racine before in his life. The mother had moved to Racine while he was in prison.

When you tell people who were thinking they were going to be able to look for a job - that they can’t leave the jail after all - they often get angry. It didn’t happen often, but it was wrenching.  Not Tom. He wrapped his giant arms around himself, took a big breath, and leaned back in the flimsy plastic chair.

“Okay. I want you to know I appreciated being in your class. It was helpful to think about how to get a job and a life when one is a felon. I feel more hopeful now.”

I asked more questions now that we had a few minutes. He had been raised in a motorcycle gang.  He remembered drinking beer from his bottle when he was a toddler. I flinched at that.  “Yes, ma’am, I was raised rough.”

He explained, “I went to prison for assaulting my girlfriend’s daughters. I never touched them, but I was cheating on her and she was mad, and she knew she could get me that way… so I went to prison.”

He might have been telling the truth, public defenders don’t have a lot of time or resources to investigate for their clients.

Then Tom said the thing guys said all the time. “I didn’t do what they convicted me of, but I did do plenty of bad things so I eventually made my peace with it and then looked around at what I could do, instead of what I would not be able to do.

“I worked in the kitchen until I got transferred to the prison library. I loved that.

So Tom, only incarcerated on child support, wasn’t allowed to do anything towards getting a job to pay his child support - that happened more often than you’d think. He was, of course, allowed to work for no pay in the jail kitchen. Most inmates liked to do trustee work, they earned good time and could get out earlier. People sitting on commitments – owing money – they couldn’t earn good time.  Being a trustee was just a way to move around. Kitchen shifts are 8 hours a day and the kitchen is hotter and more humid than the rest of the jail. Not abusively hot, but more congested and steamier.

A few months later, on a particularly humid day, he returned to the dorm after his 8-hour shift on his feet, laid down on his 2” mattress and had a heart attack. No one even noticed as he died.  I think he was 38.

Jesus said. “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

A beautiful woman sashayed into my office. Lavonne’s wore flowery clothes, her voice lilted, and she laughed easily. 

I soon understood she was the partner of an great guy in my program whom we’ll call Dan - and when I realized they were a couple, it made sense. Dan was handsome and charming; he saw the funny side of life and could get the other guys laughing and in a good mood.

LaVonne wanted to know how job search worked so that she could help Dan without breaking rules.  But then as she sat at my desk, she asked ME questions and within minutes we were talking about Chicago. As a teenager she had lived in the Cabrini Green Housing Project.  I’d been a volunteer Young Life leader in there in the middle 70’s. She threw her hands up, “I was involved in Young Life, I was on that cheerleading team you guys let us have! I remember the two nice white chicks who led it! “

LaVonne was the only person I would ever meet in Racine who knew me when I was 22!

LaVonne and Dan were handsome, confident, smart, and loving. Yet, in the coming years I would witness their struggles. Dan would get arrested on battery against her. The next year she would be the one in jail, disheveled, strung out, arrested on battery against him.

Alcoholism, drug use, and the never-ending corrosion of racism stole the best of their lives.

I ran a dozen group each year for ten years. I made 1800 resumes; most for people who didn’t have solid work histories or high school degrees; people who owed money everywhere, who had few assets, who had addictions and body odor and sadness in their eyes and humor in their voices. 

It was so intense. I have thought of the people I met in those years every single day since.  I write in my website about one of them, Our Brother, whom many of you have supported.  That job felt like living in a rock polisher that no one ever turned off.  Similar to what it probably feels like to be the people stuck in the system that put them there.

But here’s the thing individuals would ask me in every new group. “Who’d hire a felon?”

Not every person who owed child support had a felony in their background, but many did.  You don’t end up owing in hock to the child support bureaucracy without there being poor choices, often made when the person in front of me was much younger and exacerbated now by the addictions that made their lives difficult and then became their crutches to get through their lives at all.

Every time I would answer the same two answers

One answer was simpler than the other.

First: There are lots of employers ready to exploit employees by paying minimal wages for hard work performed in rough conditions. Racism, sexism, stereotypes, and exploitation pave a path to hard work for low pay - usually in a place a person can’t get to without a ride. Transportation was, well I am not going to swear in a pulpit, but it was and still is the biggest barrier to steady employment. 

The second response to “who would hire a felon?” is … Is that who you are?  Is felon how you think of yourself? Is it how you allow others to think of you?  What else are you?

And the light would begin to come on in their eyes and they would answer. They are women and men, they are lovers, partners, dads and moms. They are welders and palletizers and painters who can cut in a perfect line.

They know music, they write music, they sing in their churches. They walk their kids and neighbor kids to school.  They fix cars and hang sheetrock and roof three stories up without harnesses. They can feed a family of 8 for $3. “You get some greens outa your backyard garden and the ham bone that no one else knows what to do with, and you cook it all day and then make cornbread and serve it with Kool-Aid and man, everybody goes away happy.” That was an older man. The older people knew how to cook.

No one is a felon.  There are so many felony-level crimes; assault, weapons, selling deadly drugs. But felonies also include getting caught smoking weed the third time. Or growing marijuana in the basement of your mom’s house after she died, because you didn’t know how else to get enough money on which to live.  Or getting too many traffic tickets for driving without a driver’s license – which happens because child support invalidates your license when you owe money.

So you catch a felony.

But no one IS a felon.

And they would sit a little higher in their plastic chairs, and we were all more serious. Challenges ahead, but we know who we are. People who need jobs and hope and each other and a path forward.

When Jesus told the story of pay day for early and late workers – Jesus was three years into HIS crazy work history as a freelance prophet.

Who was he preaching to? Well, first there were the Pharisees who were the pious, prudent, privileged people of his time – and Jesus is preaching stories that are super-duper irritating them.  You know, like reporting the undocumented workers at their golf courses.  Or mentioning their affairs. Or those corrupt real estate and tax deals.

Pharisees were not always hypocrites – many were folks like us, organized people who start their days at 6AM and expect to be paid well and fairly for their efforts.

Jesus is also talking to his disciples who are having way too many discussions lately about who is Jesus’ MVP. When we get tired, we do this too, right?  Try to figure out which of us is the most responsible, because surely that must mean something in the long run.  

Jesus has been at this for three years and people are STILL asking him what rules are important to follow and which ones need to be run through the rules committee again to be slightly modified to reflect the times…   and Jesus sighs and shakes his head and tells this story about pay that doesn’t properly reflect the work the worker did.

Because they don’t get it yet.  This life of faith is not about heaven or hell, rewards or punishment, there is no spiritual glory or shame to earn or deserve.

There is only the invitation to get up and go to work doing what one can to harvest the goodness of our mortal lives for ourselves and for others.

Jesus says, “There are no felons here.  I don’t care when you get up in the morning or when you go to bed at night.  You can figure out for yourselves what you need to do to take care of your people – but that isn’t where light and hope and love reside.”

Jesus is warning: If your life makes sense, that might be a problem. Pay attention

If you are receiving back an appropriate amount of money, love, and respect for the amount of effort you are putting out there...  Pay attention.

If you think you are a better bet for humanity than a person who committed a felony, Pay attention

Spirituality is a topsy-turvy adventure. It isn’t about how we get proper credit now and then get the keycard to heaven’s golf courses later.  

Our salvation IS the door that is open, the choices that are always in front of us to love, to share our stuff, and to live like Tom lived – with gentleness, kindness, and hope.

He was a quiet, lanky, Hispanic man in his early 40’s, He had tawny skin and black hair like crow wings.  Unlike so many guys, he actually had a skill he’d worked at for years … as a house painter.  I asked if he could cut in an edge and that was when his eyes lit up and he laughed. “I can cut in a line so straight its perfect. And I can do it when I’m drunk and standing three stories up on a wobbly ladder on a hot day. I got a steady hand.”

I called a painting contractor I knew. They hired him in a heartbeat. 

A year later that man walked into my office. He looked different. He was standing taller, his face was relaxed, but he was almost as pale as me.

“I just stopped by to thank you. This was the best year of my life. I got the cancer now and I’m not going to last long, but things worked out and I caught up with my bills and I got to spend some time with my son. In AA they tell us to go thank people who helped us so that’s what I’m doing while I still can.”

There are were no felons there and there are none here. 

The gift of our lives is to be able to give, to love and be grateful.

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Comments

I should be making phone calls and doing business and personal paperwork on this beautiful June morning, but gave myself a break to read this, and feel quite a lot different than I did 15 minutes ago. A year ago my beloved husband was in the hospital during his brief fatal illness. I've gotten stuck in replaying the days of 2018 ("today was the day they drilled into his head; today was the day he tried to throw a ball but couldn't; today was the day they said he had only a few days to live") and I guess I need to keep moving forward. One of the last things he told me was "be brave". I realize your writing basically is unrelated to this, but it feels really connected somehow. And this helped. Thank you!
Mary Beth's picture

I am so moved that this sermon helped you think your way through today. I know what you are saying, something strong and true gets through, even if on the surface the topics look different. I am sorry for your loss. I will hold you in my thoughts this evening. Anniversaries of loss become something of a labyrinth. This event and then that moment and then that last time. Peace.

It made me cry. I volunteered among undocumented folks and prison trustees for a few years and believe that we all deserve a chance. Thank you for humanizing those with felony convictions. Joyce
Mary Beth's picture

Thank you. And thank you for your service to supporting undocumented immigrants. It boggles the mind that some see immigrants as unwanted "others". I wonder, how do they think THEY got here?

There's good & bad in everyone, we just make the choice to do one or the other. EXCEPT without circumstance and opportunity, we might not have the choice. OR even know that it's a choice in the first place. I try to talk with my kiddos about this when they go superhero-overboard. No one is pure evil (or pure good). I think it's worth remembering.

I’m behind in my reading. Loved the last sentence “The gift of our lives ——-

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