After a very intense start to this journey, I’ve downshifted into a couple of quiet days in Nashville. I’ve felt somewhat guilty for not having more meetings and speaking gigs set up here, but about half a dozen Nashville-based organizations and individuals I had contacted repeatedly over the past several months just didn’t seem interested enough to respond. I’m not sure why. It’s been frustrating, disappointing, and a little depressing, but finally I had to just let it go and decided to give myself a little break and do some sightseeing.

(I’ve also redoubled my efforts to line up more events and activities in some of my next stops, but did so from the comfort of several great Nashville coffee shops with free WiFi…)

I did get to meet with Mark West here in Nashville, co-director with his wife, Dana, of The Theotherapy Project, a faith-based program that works with men and women both during their incarceration and when they come out of prison.

They run two halfway houses in East Nashville, which provide supervised living quarters for 17 women who have recently come out of prison. Rivera House 1 and Rivera House 2 are named for Dr. Mario Rivera Mendez, who created the theotherapy model in the 1960’s. Mark took me to see both houses and explained the process they went through to set them up, remarkably with no community resistance. Mark said it helps that the neighborhoods around them are very diverse, with a mix of artists, musicians, blue-collar and service-industry workers, teachers, social workers and others who work in various “helping professions.” He said East Nashville neighborhoods tend to be laid-back, live-and-let-live communities. Both houses are charming bungalows (one circa 1920, the other built in 1950), with hardwood floors, fireplaces in most of the rooms, wavy glass in the windows and big, tree-lined back yards. They hope to have the women create vegetable gardens this summer, perhaps growing enough tomatoes, peppers and herbs to make their own “Rivera House” brand salsa to sell to local restaurants, based on the model used by Nashville-based Magdalene House and Thistle Farms. (wish I’d known about them and could have met with their founder! Maybe next time . . .)

Mark and Dana have established a good working relationship with the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole, and the PO for the women in the halfway houses comes to the houses to meet with the women, instead of making the women come to her! (yes, a PO who makes housecalls!) Mark and Dana have also had a good response from area employers who have been willing to offer jobs to the women. The women are required to hold jobs, attend a church, synagogue, mosque or other religious meeting of their choice each week, submit to random drug testing, perform various household duties, meet nightly curfew, pay rent and program fees, and follow all of the requirements of their parole.

Mark and I had a great conversation and I came away very impressed with what he and Dana are doing to offer compassion, dignity and hope to their clients, along with important life skills.

My sightseeing here included The District, in downtown Nashville, home of guitars & banjos, cowboy boots & hats and street musicians on every corner. I sampled some amazing BBQ at Jack’s on Broadway near 4th Ave where you can choose from four different meats and six sauces. Definitely not for vegetarians. (sorry, Hannah!) When I walked in and saw a dozen local businessmen and city police in line in front of me, I knew I was in the right place! Jack’s is the sort of place where finger-licking is in, diets are out, and you’re almost guaranteed to end up with sauce on your shirt. But totally worth it! Oh, did I mention? I had chess pie for dessert – a Southern specialty! Definitely didn’t taste the way I expected, given its appearance (lemon-meringue yellow). Tooth-achingly sweet, with a crust so flaky it had to be homemade, the old fashioned way with Crisco or even (gasp!) lard. Like I said, throw away your diet and grab a handful of extra napkins!

I also spent some time in fun, funky, kitschy, artsy, eclectic East Nashville. Had a great Mexican dinner at Rose Pepper Cantina, where I enjoyed a grilled chicken fajita burrito with chile rojo sauce (it was HUGE – had to take about 2/3rds of it back to the van in a “to go” box…) and a Yazoo dos Perros, brewed right here in Nashville.

Tomorrow, I’ll head north and west to Peace Valley (great name!), Missouri, by way of Cadiz (Kentucky) and Cairo (Illinois). I’ll cross the great Mississippi River, will spend the night with Sandy Bosserman at her home, then will speak at the Cabool Church of the Brethren on Sunday morning. After that, Springfield, MO and Oklahoma City. And one week from today, Hannah will join me in Albuquerque to travel together during her college spring break. Can’t wait to travel with my girl! But for now, onward!

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: grace goes to prison restorative justice criminal justice book tour

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