Thinking About Our All-Church Read

Robin Mitzcavitch, Director of Religious Exploration & Education

This year we have chosen the book:  “Defund Fear: Safety Without Policing, Prisons, and Punishment” by Zach Norris, as our All-Church Read. The accompanying books for middle and young readers are “Ruby on the Outside” by Nora Raleigh Baskin and “Visiting Day” by Jaqueline Woodson.

The theme we are focusing on is incarceration and how it touches all of us, whether we are personally impacted by it or not. Zach Norris’ book has been an inspiration for me.

I had to clear my lens and automatic learned responses to settle down and read Zach’s book with an open mind. I find his approach to the subject of reform and abolition reasonable, eye-opening, and non-radical. For me, this made reading “Defund Fear” easy to do and to digest. I tried to mesh his ideas with my own uncertainties and opinions, and I did successfully.

When Zach Norris writes, he is focussed on beloved community and ways that we all can make a shift away from a “punish first” dynamic to a system of accountability and support. He writes with heart and soul and experience which shines clear light on the marginalized communities most affected by our current legal system.

When I was 16, I dated a young man whose father was incarcerated in Bridgewater State Prison. Being “in jail” really didn’t mean much to me beyond what I saw on television shows. The family, made up of a wife and 5 boys, occasionally voiced that their husband/father was wrongly accused and imprisoned. He would be up for parole soon for perfect behavior, but should have never been prosecuted in the first place.  Again, for me, listening to this talk was equivalent to watching Perry Mason, Columbo, or something. It wasn’t registering as real. I never asked any questions. It was too uncomfortable.

One weekend, my boyfriend’s mother casually asked if I wanted to come along for their monthly visit. Her demeanor was upbeat, like it was some kind of a fun field trip. The prison was about an hour and ½ drive and they normally stopped at a nice little lunch place on the way there. I was afraid, and newly confused as to how this woman could speak so normally about something so awkward and shameful. I mean, just the week before, I heard through the grapevine, that this very man was imprisoned for being involved in a rape. I never asked my boyfriend about this. But now I thought, how could she, as a woman, ever want to visit that man?  How could his sons feel anything for their dad? I felt like, if he was in jail, he did it, right?  Maybe the family was  just saying that he was falsely accused to “save face”.  But, I was put on the spot that weekend by my boyfriend’s mom, and said ‘Sure, I’ll go,” and said it to “save face” myself.  I didn’t want to have to explain my fear or my judgment about this person whom I’d never met. I would be a big girl and go on “the field trip.” 

Probably because I was scared stiff, I don’t really remember all the details of being inside that prison visiting room besides that there were multiple people, including children, visiting their normal looking, identically dressed, incarcerated male family members. My boyfriend’s father was unmemorable to me…so I assume that he acted like a “normal person” toward me and his family that day. No one was crying or angry or agitated. The time we spent there was short, and soon my boyfriend, his kid brother, mother and I were back on the road talking about things unrelated to jail cells, criminals, and barbed wire.  It was pretty surreal.  The one take-away I have always held onto, was that this family wanted to remain a family. They stood by, missed, loved, and visited their husband and dad. They may have been poor and broken and felt ashamed in regular day- to- day life among their neighbors and peers, but on visiting day, and in their minds, this was their father: this was their family, this was reality.

Years later, I heard that the father was released from prison. I have no idea how he fared in life after that. I can only make the assumption that life was still difficult, as is the case when any person is put away and then released into society again, expecting to just move along with the flow of being an engaged and purposeful human being. The fact is, that rarely happens when you have a criminal record. Maybe this father I speak of had a better chance than others because he had a high school diploma, an electrician’s license, and was white. Young men of color are disproportionately imprisoned with longer sentencing. The system that we are currently supporting makes it impossible for many of these men to make it back into society without recidivism. Maybe it’s time to seriously take another look at how we can change our fear of “not being safe” into care for the communities who we are imprisoning.

Let me leave you with these questions, given to us by the UUA, to keep in your mind as you explore our reading material.

  • What is my connection to the stories told and the harms named? Where am I in these stories? In what ways have the system’s “punish first” responses either benefited or harmed my community?
  • What is my story of public safety? In what ways has fear shaped my assumptions and experiences about public safety?
  • What is my complicity? Does my sense of safety help to create “un”-safety for someone else? What shape does, or could, my accountability take?
  • What support do I have and what do I need, in bringing my raw self to this book and the faith questions it asks me?

I look forward to the opportunities for us all to discuss these books.  Here are two organized options:

  • On Jan 31st – Side with Love is hosting a Zoom at 6:30pm for discussion.  All are welcome, and a Zoom link will be provided closer to the date.  
  • Come to our 10am service on February 5th-  give us your feelings about the book you read, or read a passage from the pulpit. Please contact Robin if you are interested in joining the service as a speaker. After, there will be a multi-generational discussion during the All Church Read Coffee Hour held in the lounge.

With Care and Respect,