The Passion of Youth, The Wisdom of Elders

College-age peace activists . . . new professors and those with long experience . . . retired social workers, doctors, teachers, pastors, peace activists and others . . . people working to build a fledgling mentoring program for women transitioning out of prison . . . founders of one of oldest programs for perpetrators of domestic abuse in the country . . . all have been part of my journey through Indiana over the past several days.

On Saturday morning, students in the Simply Brethren student group at Manchester College, led by chaplain Walt Wiltschek, asked probing questions and offered great insights from their own peace studies, after I shared a few stories of restorative justice and prison issues.

Then it was on to Fort Wayne, where the founders and staff of the Center for Non-Violence and others they’d invited engaged in a lively dialogue about victims, offenders, non-violence and the role and impact of the criminal justice system. CNV was the first program in Indiana for perpetrators of domestic abuse and one of the first such programs in the country. It was started in the mid-1970’s by a group of five men, “inspired by the dedicated work of women at the local shelter for abused women, and an understanding among the founders of the need to address the behavior of batterers with accountability and compassion.”

According to a brief write-up of CNV’s history by one of those founders, “These five men had been part of a profeminist men’s group, meeting weekly to educate ourselves about men’s violence against women, and to support each other in developing ways to be real partners with the women in our lives, all of whom were feminist activists, and to be allies with the women in the community who had started the programs and institutions that were leading the fight against violence . . . Originally, we did not intend to start an organization or program. We did want a public identity stating that challenging men’s violence is men’s work, with alliance and leadership from women. We called ourselves “Men against Violence against Women.” We marched with women to protest events in which public officials (a judge, a police officer) committed offenses against women’s right to be free of rape. We wrote letters to the editor and we spoke up at public forums, as men supporting the feminist vision. We wanted women to know that we believed that their instincts were right about oppression. We wanted men to know that our “manhood” is not at risk when we serve as equal partners . . .” (here’s a link to the rest of that history).

John Murphy Beams, one of CNV’s founders, and Beth Murphy Beams, who had been a founder or collaborator in most of the local feminist initiatives in Fort Wayne, shared some of the wisdom they’ve gained during more than 30 years of work for non-violence and equality, and their perspectives on how the criminal justice system deals with domestic violence and the impact of that system on batterers as well as victims.

The philosophy of CNV has been “consistently pacifist, feminist and anti-racist” and, “as much as possible, the Center attempts to be led by the voice and input of formerly battered women.”

On Sunday morning in Fort Wayne, members of the Beacon Heights Church of the Brethren, brought curiosity, openness and insights from their own varied backgrounds to our dialogue about restorative justice and prison issues.

On Sunday afternoon, Kay Gaier, pastor of the Wabash Church of the Brethren, assembled a panel of speakers, including Beth Murphy Beams from CNV, two Wabash County probation officers, and a woman from Wabash County Community Corrections to talk about current issues and challenges in the criminal justice system, especially those related to helping incarcerated people transition back into the community after their release from prison.

Kay and others are working hard to build a fledgling mentoring program called “Growing Grounds” to support and walk side by side with women who are in the midst of that transition from prison to community.

In the audience were others who have been involved in various forms of justice work, including Rachel Gross, who has run the Death Row Support Project for over 30 years, to connect individuals in the community one-to-one with persons sentenced to death, for the purpose of corresponding and extending “a ray of hope to the darkness of death row isolation.”

After the Wabash event, Kay invited me to stay and observe a training session for two new mentors who will join them in the work of “Growing Grounds.”

Monday was a full day spent with students at Manchester College, including Dr. Abby Fuller’s “Intro to Sociology” students and Dr. Brad Yoder’s students in a course called “Youth and the Juvenile Justice System.” Dr. Yoder teaches a segment on restorative justice in his criminal justice courses – giving the “next generation” of criminal justice workers a solid grounding in RJ. He has spent time in New Zealand learning about how restorative justice has become an integral part of the culture there. He explained that in NZ, the first approach to handling every crime is a restorative justice approach, with traditional criminal justice approaches being used only as a last resort.

Over lunch, some additional Manchester students had questions, insights and ideas of their own to offer about restorative justice and changes that need to be made in our criminal justice system. On Monday evening, a large group of the most dedicated young peace activists on campus met at the home of Ken and Viona Brown to talk with me about restorative justice, non-violence, and related topics. The group is called “Kenapoc” and they meet every Monday night for an hour to discuss pressing local, national and global peace and justice issues. The Kenapocomo Coalition (the group’s full name) was started back in the 1960’s by Ken and Viona Brown, to offer weekly opportunities for students to engage in dialogue and consider how they might take action on these issues. These students’ passion, energy, curiosity, insights and determination to make a difference was absolutely contagious.

On Tuesday, I drove back to Fort Wayne, to the Center for Non-Violence, to meet with Tasha Sare, Youth Program Coordinator at CNV. She generously offered information on CNV’s programs and curriculum to help reduce violence among youth and I came away with lots of new ideas for the LAVORP conflict resolution and anger management program for teens that I’ve been managing for the past couple of years. (are you reading this, Jon? Brace yourself – I’ll be calling you when I get home!)

Then I spent Tuesday afternoon with a group of about 50 people at the Timbercrest retirement community in North Manchester. What an invigorating conversation we had! From their long years of experience as teachers, social workers, pastors, professors, doctors and other backgrounds, participants brought wisdom and challenging questions to a lengthy discussion of how society should deal with those who have committed crimes.

Afterward, I had the opportunity to talk further with Beverly Eikenberry, who along with Viona Brown, started a program several years ago in the Wabash County Jail to give incarcerated women productive ways to use their time through crocheting and beadwork. As Viona had explained to me at the Kenapoc gathering the night before, “It’s not really about crocheting and beads, though.” With their hands occupied in constructive ways, violence between the women has decreased, networking and friendships have grown, and they’ve used their new-found skills to create handmade gifts for friends, family members and to give away, inspiring generosity and creativity in the process.

Finally, at Timbercrest, I met Dr. Lee Smith, age 90. Dr. Smith had ordered “Grace Goes to Prison” at NOAC last fall, read it, and ordered 24 additional copies to give to people who are involved in any way in prison outreach, restorative justice or related efforts. He also has established a little “circulating library” of copies of the book at Timbercrest. He puts a little note inside each copy that says, in part, “These stories will make you cry. If you don’t cry, maybe you haven’t read it carefully enough.”

When I asked Dr. Smith what had led him to give away copies of the book, he said, “People need to know what’s going on in the prisons. They need to know about the real people who are there. They need to know how one person really can make a difference.”

One person . . . whether college-aged and just starting out on life’s journey, or retired with long years of experience, or anywhere in between . . . one person, with passion, compassion, and a heart for justice, truly CAN make a difference.

Marie Hamilton and every one of her volunteers proved it.
The staff and volunteers at CentrePeace continue to prove it.
John and Beth Beams and their staff at CNV are proving it.
Kay Gaier and the Growing Grounds mentors are proving it.
Rachel Gross and the Death Row Support Project participants are proving it.
Beverly Eikenberry and Viona Brown and their Wabash County Jail volunteers are proving it.
And the young, energetic, passionate student peace activists at Manchester College are already proving it and will continue to do so for years to come.

May God bless them, every ONE.

POSTSCRIPT: In each of the places I visited in Indiana, I was hosted by wonderful Brethren brothers and sisters, including Bruce and Sue Grubb Miller, Brian and Kimberly Flory, Don and Marie Willoughby and Kate Eisenbise, each of whom is engaged in peace and justice work of their own. I’ll be writing more about them and about Brethren hospitality in my next blog entry.

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

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