Progressive Prison Ministries, Inc.: the first ministry in the United States created to provide confidential support and counseling to individuals, families and organizations with white-collar and other nonviolent incarceration issues. Greenwich CT & Nationwide.

Friday, January 30, 2015

With A Little Help From My Friends, By James Dyer - Guest Blogger

Progressive Prison Project

Innocent Spouse & Children Project

Greenwich-Weston-Bridgeport

Connecticut


With A Little Help From My Friends

By James Dyer - Guest Blogger



James Dyer is a Master of Divinity student at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York and a schizophrenic. He is courageously speaking the truth about  a topic that is often stigmatized. Our mission at prisonist.org is to bring compassion and light to people who 
suffer in silence . - Jeff
_________

My name is James Dyer, and I am an addict, an alcoholic, and schizophrenic.

How often does that last diagnosis get lost in the shuffle of the diseases that inevitably lead to jails, institutions, and death?  How often do I try to relate to people why I am having a bad day, only to get squeamish uncomfortable and unsympathetic answers in return.  Why must I make people so uncomfortable by being sick with a disease that has yet to gain the respectability of addict or alcoholic?

I will share my story.

I got sick with schizophrenia at  nineteen, and was treated improperly until I was twenty-one.  Those years were hell.  And yet I am one of the lucky ones, because I had the gift of desperation.  I reached out and said that I wanted to kill myself, and was making plans to do it.

Straight to the psych ward.

Prescribed: Zyprexa, (astronomically high dose leaving me near comatose, it is an anti-psychotic) Lexapro, (an anti-depressant) and most importantly NO MORE ADDERALL.

That was what made me so sick so fast.  People underestimate the danger of amphetamines for ADHD.  I faked the symptoms because I liked the high of Adderall, staying up for three days at a time, ostensibly doing homework, but more often smoking pot to take the edge off the speed. A word to the wise: do not try this at home.  I learned the hard way.

I am human.

I want love.  I pursued the sensual feeling of love through the pills, the bottle, and the pipe.  Why is this more acceptable than psychosis?  It is because psychosis scares people because they don’t understand.  Let me enlighten you.  Please.

I am a romantic, and painfully shy.

I see the world as though I am living in a novel, seeing metaphors and backstories of conspiracy everywhere.  I see connections in philosophy because of this, but there is no off switch when I leave the classroom.

Luckily I got help again just over Christmas break 2014 in a rehab in Florida. I was put on a new regime of drugs, some abusable, and some definitely not.  I go to recovery meetings and they tell me that if I work the program then I won’t need the pills or the therapy: the very system that keeps me from slipping into a waking nightmare.  I brush these comments aside.  What else can I do?  I am not understood, and that romantic streak in me goes another day without connection, except from some of my chosen classmates who are willing to shoulder the burden with me.  I want to carry it myself but it is too much.  I love my comrades.

I am human.  Do not be scared of me.  Please.

I crave justice: I marched in Ferguson for Michael Brown, and stormed Times Square for Eric Garner.  I love my family beyond description, as well as my pet bird of 15 years named Sydney.  I am human.  I have a life that is worth living.

Sometimes.  And sometimes, the answer is that it is truly not worth living except for the hope of tomorrow.  Hope!  Such a beautiful idea;  I live on hope, like a car running on fumes.

I should have gone to jail many times, but for my sneakiness, street smarts, and let’s not forget that I am affluent and white!  Imagine what I would have gone through in jail…isolation, lack of proper medical treatment, and the stigma of the convicted felon once released.  But then again I am used to stigma.  I wear it like a badge of honor.  I am James, I am an addict, an alcoholic, and schizophrenic, HEAR ME ROAR!

I roar to the night, I roar to the day,  spread my message on blogs and in school assignments!  I wrote my Master of Divinity thesis on Psychosis Liberation Theology, gaining a Credit with Distinction as graded by both the Reinhold Niebuhr chair and Dr. James H. Cone, the founder of Black Liberation Theology.  I have a high functioning brain, but it is oh so fragile.

I have set my sights on becoming a VA psychiatric chaplain, because I understand what a doctor never will.  How many people have told me, “I can only imagine…” how true, and how inadequate.  I connect with other people that are mentally ill because they know my pain.  They know what it is like to have your Central Nervous System, the master of operations of the body, the master in the Hegelian sense, perverted into a slave because it thinks thoughts I never want to think.  Many times I do not want to own “I think therefore I am,” because I am ashamed.  And this could land me in jail if I do not comport myself sanely in front of officers of the law.

Absurdity you say?  It is a lack of the system’s ability to feel compassion.  Institutional racism is a problem, and so is Institutional prejudice against mental illness.  To some WE are willfully allowing ourselves to be possessed by demons that others fear with every fiber of their being lest they turn out this way.  If you want to be scared for me, just look in the New York Times for stories about medical treatment at Riker’s Island, where I could end up if I mess up just once, at the wrong time, in how I dose out my medications.  That is if I don’t get my addictions under control.  All of these are treatable illnesses, but they are treated like crimes!

I have one indisputable law I must live by: a fact, beyond the human concepts of right and wrong.  It is this: I will be taking an absurdly large regimen of pills probably for the rest of my life.

And I am grateful: grateful to be in recovery, grateful for a loving family that has unfalteringly been by my side and helped in every way, sometimes to a fault.  I am grateful for not being in jail for driving drunk (or other crimes I dare not admit here) because I just needed to escape it all.  I am grateful for modern medicine, and the spirituality I am learning here in seminary to back it up and sustain me in the tough times, of which there are aplenty.

In closing, I ask, I entreat, I beg of you to go to a NAMI meeting.  (National Alliance for Mental Illness)  Please educate yourself about my demons.  If schizophrenia boggles you too much, learn about autism, another misunderstood and prevalent illness.  Please do this because I am tired of hating myself because I feel internally what the world sees of me; a raving lunatic that is a danger to society.  I am human.  Love me.  Love my brethren.  If you walk in and act in love you could be rewarded by a deeper friendship and bond than you could ever imagine now.

This is my story of disability, of illness.  Forgive me…  But understand me.  I need your forgiveness because I torture myself with my own conscience and do not know how to forgie myself.  I have so much to give, so much love to share, that I ache bodily with the desire to be of service.  And I can, just let me blossom on my own schedule, “With a little help from my friends.”


 James Dyer is currently a Master of Divinity candidate at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, with a focus in Christian Social Ethics. He is a graduate of the The Masters School and SUNY Purchase, and has served as a maintenance worker, a chef, and as theater staff. 
James can be reached at: james.dyer3@verizon.net. 914-325-6783.



__________


Rev. Jeff Grant, JD, M Div, Minister/Director
jgrant@prisonist.org
jg3074@columbia.edu

(o) +1203.769.1096
(m) +1203.339.5887


Lynn Springer, Advocate, Innocent Spouses & Children
lspringer@prisonist.org
(m) +1203.536.5508

George Bresnan, Advocate, Ex-Pats
gbresnan@prisonist.org

Michael Karaffa, Advocate, Disabilities
mkaraffa@prisonist.org


_


__________

Donations

We are grateful for donations from individuals, religious groups, charities, foundations and the like. Donations can be made by credit card/PayPal or by sending your check payable to: “Progressive Prison Ministries, Inc.” P.O. Box 1232, Weston, Connecticut 06883. Progressive Prison Project/Innocent Spouse & Children Project are missions of Progressive Prison Ministries, Inc. We are a CT Religious Corp. with 501c3 status - all donations are tax deductible to the extent permitted by law. Thank you for your support and generosity.


If transformation and redemption matter to you, a friend or a family member with a white-collar or nonviolent incarceration issue, please contact us and we will promptly send you an information package by mail, email or via Dropbox. The darkest days of a person's life can be a time of renewal and hope.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Child Of An Incarcerated Parent, By Melissa Tanis - Guest Blogger


Prisonist.org: Blogs, Guest Blogs 

& News Concerning National and

International Criminal Justice Themes


Child Of An Incarcerated Parent
By Melissa Tanis - Guest Blogger 


We asked Melissa to write a guest blog for 
prisonist.org after she contacted us looking for a job.  
She sent us one of the most poignant, moving
 and authentic pieces we have ever
 had the honor of reading. - Jeff
__________


When I was five years old my father was sentenced to a maximum of 50 years in prison. I was not able at that age to comprehend how much my life would change from that moment on. I visited my father in prison when I was eight years old and then went 17 years without any contact.

During that time, my mom was a single mom for five years, working as a teacher and trying to support four kids. She was (and still is) amazingly strong and a positive example for me of what it means to be an empowered woman with enough vulnerability and strength to rely on and receive help from others. I remember members of our church would just show up at our doorstep with dinner or groceries or a new refrigerator when ours broke.

My mom said at the sentencing that the judge looked at her and told her that we were the “silent victims”. I understand what he means by that. When your family member has committed a crime against others, especially one that has been followed by the media, there is a level of guilt, shame, and embarrassment that can hinder self-care. Your only desire is that the victims feel no more pain at whatever cost. You suddenly become a source of pain, a reminder of what happened. I only know this now as an adult and by looking at the story through my mom’s lens. But as a five year old, I was not fully aware of the situation and therefore could not understand why I could not be around my friends anymore. My mom was wise enough to not neglect self-care, and put us all in counseling. Although counseling to me was getting to play Chinese checkers while my friend asked me if I ever felt angry at times, I enjoyed time with my counselor and at a young age had a positive view of counseling.

Even with the immense help of friends and family, we still struggled financially and emotionally. We were all hit with an unexpected bomb and my mom did everything she could to keep us on our feet.




__________
There was a 17 year gap where I was indirectly the child of an incarcerated person. He was my father through genetics but was not in my life at all. One day as a 22 year old in college I had this random realization that I was not even sure if my father was still alive. As I am learning now, the prisons do not tell you much and especially not in a timely fashion. When my father almost died in prison in 2013, my aunt did not know about it for almost a month after the fact.

Back to being in college, I decided to google my father’s name to see if I could find out any information. This was the first time I had ever done this. What I found was pretty life-changing for me. My father was in a rehabilitation program called Shakespeare Behind Bars and a documentary was made about the program. My father is in that documentary. Suddenly, I had a way of seeing him after 15 years at this point. I worked myself up to watching it by reading reviews and watching trailers. I downloaded the documentary that night and watched it. I was hit to my core. My dad would say things throughout the film like “those who need mercy the most are the ones you think deserve it the least”. I felt as if he was crying out for someone to take notice of his pain, for someone to not define him by the worst thing he has ever done.

It took me two years to work up the courage to write him, but I finally wrote him my first letter in February 2014. Since then we have written countless letters, spend time on the phone weekly and I have gone to visit him twice. Our relationship is very unique in that my dad knew me as a child, and now all of sudden I am a woman. He missed out on very crucial years, and yet he gets to see the result of those years. We have moments where we feel really connected, and then moments where we’re reminded how much we do not know about each other. I knew my dad as a five year old. I did not know anything about his life, his growing up years, even how he met my mom. I do not know that much about him, although I am learning, and yet he is my dad and I feel like even though I do not know facts about him, I understand him.

He is my dad. And he is incarcerated.

I can tell him about my day, about what is going on in my life right now, but he does not get to experience it. I cannot just call him up whenever. He tells me about life inside the wire but I will never really be able to understand or truly relate to what he is going through. I can only sympathize when I wish to fully empathize.

My dad will sometimes reminisce about what could have been. He was a computer engineer and ahead of his time. He was on the edge of the technology boom and who knows what kind of apps, websites, etc. he could have created or invested in. He tells me if he had not gone into prison, he imagines we would be millionaires. Whether or not that is true, when he talks this way it reminds me of how drastically my life did change when I was young. I am happy with the person I have become and the adversities I have been through have allowed me to see the most important things in life, things other than potentially growing up as a millionaire’s kid. As much as I wish my father did not commit his crimes and leave my life at such a young age, I like the relationship we have now. Reminiscing about the past does little good. All we have is now. I remind my dad of this when he begins to look back. I can imagine he has a lot of time in prison to think. But I try to keep him moving forward, to think of what can be, to not try to correct his past mistakes but to see what he has in front of him: a daughter who supports him and cares about him now, not what he could have been had he not gone to prison or who he was before he committed his crimes.

I have learned so much about the prison system and the brokenness on the inside that is easily kept on the inside. I am grateful for what seems to be a push in more awareness of the conditions of our prisons and the problem of mass incarceration. I have sat in a visiting room and held back my own tears as I watch grown men unsuccessfully try to fight back tears as they hug their wives, children and mothers goodbye, some of them not knowing when they will ever see them again.

And I have learned the power of human connection. For someone inside the wire, contact with someone outside of it speaks so deeply to their soul. It helps them feel heard. It helps them feel like they are not forgotten. One thing I have seen in my dad is that it is easy to slip into oblivion. It is easy to push people out because they are already out and going through the pain of letting them in is a huge risk. It is easy to feel forgotten because to many people, you are.

The challenges of being an adult with an incarcerated parent mainly consist of a constant worry that they will be ok. I do not have unrealistic expectations that he would ever be at a point of thriving. If he calls and does not seem depressed, that is a win. One of my biggest fears before I wrote my dad is that he would die in prison without ever knowing that I care about him. That fear was almost a reality. A year and a half before I wrote my dad, he found out he has cancer. He is almost in full remission. A year later, something in his bowels ruptured and although he cried for help, no one did anything until a nurse came and ordered them to rush him to the hospital or else he would die. Many people do not survive what he went through. He just had a surgery to repair the rupture last month and before he went into it, he told me there were some risks and that I would be a person on their list to contact if anything happened to him. Thank goodness he came out of it fine. But I cannot rush to the hospital to see him. I cannot help him in his recovery. I have to trust him to a system that sees him as a number, a criminal only deserving of the minimal amount of care and not even that at times. He told me about a nurse at the hospital who was kind to him and that made everything so much easier. She treated him like a regular patient. When I cannot be there for him, I am grateful for people like that nurse who exhibit compassion beyond the norm.

I know I am not capable of making everything in his life perfect, nor should I try because that is too big of a task to bear, but I do carry around his pain. It is unavoidable. However, I choose to carry his pain with him. I choose to sit with him through the mess that is prison, through the ugliness that is depression, through the pain of loneliness, through the moments of shame and self-loathing, and through the joys that come through reconnecting.

Because not only is he my dad, he is a human being who is not invincible, no matter how much he wishes he was.



Originally published in Jan. '15, this became our most-read blog ever! Melissa soon became sought after in the NY reentry community and accepted a job with The Osborne Association - you can read about it in her follow up blog, From Darkness Into Light, Dec. '15. She happily resides in Brooklyn, NY, loves to travel, learn new things, binge-watch Netflix, and is currently teaching herself Spanish. Melissa can be reached at mntanis89@gmail.com. Twitter: @meltanissa


__________




Rev. Jeff Grant, JD, M Div, Minister/Director
jgrant@prisonist.org
(o) 203-769-1096
(m) 203-339-5887



Lynn Springer, Founding Advocate, Innocent Spouses & Children
lspringer@prisonist.org 


(203) 536-5508

George Bresnan, Advocate, Ex-Pats
gbresnan@prisonist.org
(203) 609-5088

Jim Gabal, Development
jgabal@prisonist.org
(203) 858-2865

Babz Rawls Ivy, Media Contact
mediababz@gmail.com
(203) 645-9278   




__________

Donations

We are grateful for donations from individuals, religious groups, charities, foundations and the like. Donations can be made by credit card/PayPal or by sending your check payable to: “Progressive Prison Ministries, Inc.” P.O. Box 1232, Weston, Connecticut 06883. Progressive Prison Project/Innocent Spouse & Children Project are missions of Progressive Prison Ministries, Inc. We are a CT Religious Corp. with 501c3 status - all donations are tax deductible to the extent permitted by law. Thank you for your support and generosity.


If transformation and redemption matter to you, a friend or a family member with a white-collar or nonviolent incarceration issue, please contact us and we will promptly send you an information package by mail, email or via Dropbox. The darkest days of a person's life can be a time of renewal and hope.
___________
Comments from Social Media: 

Kate Rolston 
Founder at Mana HQ
That was a great post and opened up my heart today. We are all human and fallible. This young lady suffered a lot as an innocent victim but now, how much compassion, strength and forgiveness she is able to show is impressive and will go a long way to inspire others. She is a beautiful example of the most important part of what it means to be HUMAN.

Richard Sampson 
Vision of Life, Founder,Director,Advocate and Public Speaker
There are literally thousands of children of incarcerated parents. Maybe it's time to step up and help them

Barbara Dudley 
Business Owner at Awakenings Treatment Services
Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful piece of a relationship in the making...I feel you would be a huge asset to work with families of incarcerated members...I notice you don't mention your mother much ( except in the beginning) and get the idea this is clearly your journey...The part where your dad was hospitalized felt as though he was being punished again rather than like any other human being as the nurse you mentioned was able to do...Fear, bias and generally someone Else's anger gets in the way...This was very moving and I find it so interesting to hear about your developing relationship...Good for you...

 Ronald Simpson-Bey 
Research Assistant at University of Michigan
Kudos to Melissa! She is a young woman with wisdom beyond her years. Many family members use prison as an excuse to turn their backs on their loved one, which is made easier with the passage of time. Yet this young woman let her humanity dictate the order of the day. Her's is a lesson from which society, victims, offenders, and all families could learn. Thank you Melissa. . .

olanda Ortega 2nd
Director, Faithbased Mental Health Initiative; Consultant Wellness Center for Families of Faith
This column is inspiring. I have no direct experience with prison although I have 3 nephews from Michigan who have been there--one is finally out and working on building a life on the outside with family support. The other 2 are still in prison. All three have mood disorders, or "mental illness." My brother, the dad of one, was in prison 20 years, is married and has not re-offended since his release more than 20 years ago. He had depression when he committed his violent crime that sent him to prison. I live in Texas so I'm not close to the prison issue. I do know that many in prison have mental illness, and that it runs in my family. I have been a mental health advocate since the '80s and now am involved leading an effort in San Antonio, TX, to have churches become part of the safety net for those affected by serious mental illness.

Laura Lillian BestThis is a heart wrenching story. Thanx 
Carol Goldstone Incredible. I would love to meet you to learn more about this organization.
Linda Jorgenson Excellent article! Very well written. Thank you for sharing. 

Nancy Mattox

Wow how poignant
Thank you, this is very beautiful. My late husband and I did prison ministries and my heart would go out to the families when they would have to say goodbye. Those children would cling to their parents and the majority of them would leave with frail grandmothers. The guards would treat the families rude and disrespectful in many cases. Somewhere along the way the love of humanity stopped and domination and ugliness emerged. I always felt I had walked into the documentary Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes. Yes the incarcerated person did a crime but when was it okay to treat them or their families like dirt? The families suffer greatly but many don't care because the inmate is "getting what they deserve." I found this so disgraceful that I wrote to the warden. All I can say is where is the love of God?
 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Five Years of Prison Ministry, By Richard Tunstall - Guest Blogger



Progressive Prison Project

Innocent Spouse & Children Project

Greenwich-Weston-Bridgeport

Connecticut



Five Years of Prison Ministry
By Richard Tunstall - Guest Blogger



Dick Tunstall and I serve on the Editorial Board of the new book, "The Justice Imperative: How Hyper-Incarceration Has Hijacked The American Dream" about the state of criminal justice in Connecticut and our country. - Jeff 
__________




After 5 years of prison ministry, (2 days/month) at Garner Correction Institution in Newtown, CT, I have the following observations:

1)     Each inmate (person) is unique. In other words, instead of categorizing all prisoners or inmates in a certain way, each is a unique person. Whatever way you want to categorize someone, (e.g., by size, intelligence, age, color, etc.), you’ll find prisoners within the full spectrum of all these categories: tall/short, skinny/fat, smart/not so smart, dark/light, etc. In other words, each is unique.

2)     They are not shown proper respect.  It is one comment I have heard often, “they disrespected me.”  I remember one inmate coming into the chapel seething because he was patted down three times on the way to “Catholic Sharing”. We had a situation when a CO kept needling one of the inmates …..already in the chapel………who after taking it for about a minute used the “F” word, was cuffed and spent two weeks in SEG. Should he have kept his cool?…..absolutely. But seeing how the more effective COs perform their duties, you realize they engender more cooperation with inmates. In our Weekend Retreat, we were singing a song when a CO came in, the music stopped and in front of 9 volunteers and 28 inmates, the CO announced, “XXX XXXX, you need to get your meds.”  Gene looked up and responded to the CO, “I don’t take meds now”. The CO said, “The nurse is here, gotta take your meds.” 

3)     There aren’t enough programs to ensure successful reentry into society. Although guys participate in AA, NA, Anger Management and other programs, there aren’t enough skills development programs to help inmates secure employment once they are released. In one of our sessions, we went around the room with what they’d like to do once released. After 5 guys responded, it became clear they wanted to get into trades such as carpentry, plumbing, sheetrocking, etc. I actually said, “Hey, let’s build a house.” But when they get out (95% are released), they will not have the opportunity to build those skills to realize those dreams.

4)     Inmates have kids. During the first few weeks at Garner, I was surprised when many would pray for their kids at the end of the session.  I expected few if any would have children – after all, they’re prisoners. They must have thought of that before committing a crime. Or, since many were so young, you wouldn’t expect a kid to have kid(s).  If you look at the broader statistics: there are 2.2M prisoners in the US, and 2.7M children of prisoners. What is the impact? Recent studies show the impact is greater than losing a parent or having your parents divorced.  The impact is almost always negative!  First there is the stigma of seeing a parent being arrested – having the police in a show of force, breaking into a home and forceably cuffing and taking away your Mother or Father. There is the social stigma – how do you tell your friends your parent is incarcerated. There is significant guilt. There is a negative impact on social behavior resulting in increased violent outbursts. There are increased mental health issues.  School performance suffers. There is a lowered level of family income since a parent is not able to provide for the family. Because of a loss of parental rights, many children are placed in Foster care.  Many children don’t get the support they need to properly handle a difficult situation.  There is a term which applies to most children of incarcerated parents: Family Boundary Ambiguity. That is, children are not clear who is, or who isn’t a part of the family. Who is performing what role? With an incarcerated Mother, the situation is further exacerbated. With an increased family dysfunction, there is a resulting individual dysfunction. In high crime areas, there can be a Community of Violence – children experience so much criminal behavior, it becomes routine. They become numb to it – their chances of escaping it are limited.

Again, do inmates have children? You bet! Not only do we see the statistics that confirm this, anecdotally we see the same thing. In fact, in our last session at Garner, I sat next to an inmate with....................…7 children!

So, you can see with increased incarceration, we are NOT creating a safer environment; we are in fact creating MORE problems – not only today, but more importantly in the future. There are very few good outcomes when parents of children are incarcerated.



Dick Tunstall is on the Board of Malta Justice Initiative and has been involved with criminal justice reform,  Faith enhancement and scripture study programs for over 8 years. He is active in prison ministry at Garner Correction Institution, Newtown, CT conducting "Catholic Sharing" sessions every other Tuesday. To reach Dick: rltunst@gmail.com, 203-377-7053. 

__________


Rev. Jeff Grant, JD, M Div, Minister/Director
jgrant@prisonist.org
jg3074@columbia.edu

(o) +1203.769.1096
(m) +1203.339.5887


Lynn Springer, Advocate, Innocent Spouses & Children
lspringer@prisonist.org
(m) +1203.536.5508

George Bresnan, Advocate, Ex-Pats
gbresnan@prisonist.org

Michael Karaffa, Advocate, Disabilities
mkaraffa@prisonist.org




__________

Donations

We are grateful for donations from individuals, religious groups, charities, foundations and the like. Donations can be made by credit card/PayPal or by sending your check payable to: “Progressive Prison Ministries, Inc.” P.O. Box 1232, Weston, Connecticut 06883. Progressive Prison Project/Innocent Spouse & Children Project are missions of Progressive Prison Ministries, Inc. We are a CT Religious Corp. with 501c3 status - all donations are tax deductible to the extent permitted by law. Thank you for your support and generosity.


If transformation and redemption matter to you, a friend or a family member with a white-collar or nonviolent incarceration issue, please contact us and we will promptly send you an information package by mail, email or via Dropbox. The darkest days of a person's life can be a time of renewal and hope.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Authentic, A Sermon by Rev. Jeff Grant

Progressive Prison Project
Innocent Spouse & Children Project
Greenwich-Weston-Bridgeport
Connecticut


Norfield Congregational Church
Weston, Connecticut

Sunday, January 18, 2015, 10 am
Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday



 Authentic
A Sermon by 
Rev. Jeff Grant 





Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight Oh Lord – our Rock and our Redeemer.



YouTube Video of Jeff's Sermon, "Authentic,"
Jan. 18, 2015, Martin Luther King Sunday
Norfield Church, Weston, CT

Good morning, and welcome to Martin Luther King Sunday at Norfield Church.  What an auspicious day to be speaking, to salute the work and life of Dr. King in song and scripture, and to introduce our ministry to this wonderful congregation in the town in which we live.

My name is Jeff Grant. The title of today’s sermon is, “Authentic.”  And I’ve received a lot of lessons in being “authentic.” That is, lessons not in talking about authenticity, but lessons living an authentic life, and speaking from an authentic place.

Over the next fifteen minutes or so, I am going to do my very best to be authentic. I’m going tell you the story of a how I was transformed from being a successful New York corporate attorney, to becoming addicted to prescription painkillers, to surviving almost fourteen months in a Federal prison, to receiving my Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, to becoming an inner city minister in Bridgeport, to founding, with my wife Lynn, a prison ministry that supports the families of white collar and nonviolent criminals and their families.

I have an admission to make up front – I am a very flawed guy.  I have a lot of other issues that often prevent me from living and working a full day without collapsing. I suffer from bipolar depression.  I have diabetes and kidney problems. I have communication problems with my kids.  And I’m old.  Perhaps you can relate to one or more of these issues?

__________

Let’s start first with the issues I had in writing today’s sermon for Martin Luther King Day.  When I first was asked to preach on this particular day, I had lots of ideas.  I picked out special scriptures to interpret.  I researched deep into the life and ministry of Martin Luther King.  Lynn and I even went to see the new movie “Selma,” about Dr. King – (a great movie, by the way).

I tried to do all these things, but frankly nothing authentic was coming.  I was feeling dejected.  And then, last Sunday we attended church here at Norfield, and in his sermon, Reverend Bernard reminded me that “God Loves Me Just As I Am.”  And in the coffee hour after church, our great friend Jim Hodel came over to me and told me that, when I preach next week, he can’t wait to hear MY STORY.

MY STORY, of course!  MY STORY is why I was asked to speak here today.  MY STORY what has gotten me this far.  And in order to preach on Martin Luther King Day, or any day, all I have to do is be authentic, and trust you with the story of Who I Am and Why I Care.

In so doing, hope and pray that, by fully my revealing MY STORY to you, in some small way it helps you to have the courage and agency to reveal your own authentic story own too.

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MY STORY began when I suffered a sports injury in 1992.  I was a young, successful corporate and real estate lawyer with all the trappings – big house in Westchester County, NY, BMW, and vacations to the Caribbean.  You get the picture? 

Anyway, I was playing basketball with my biggest client when lightning struck and I ruptured my Achilles tendon.  And in the course of the rehabilitation from that injury I got hooked on painkillers.  I never meant for it to happen – but it did and for over ten years I took them almost every day of my life.   The problem with taking pain killers – at least for me – was that it was insidious.  Day after day, little by little, they cut away at my soul, ate away at my judgment.  If I had had the ability to pull back and look at my life from a distance and see it in five or ten year slice, I probably could have seen how different everything looked over these different time periods.  The compromises I was making.  The physical changes. The mood and behavior issues.  The money problems.  It probably would have been obvious.   But I couldn’t do that – instead, day-by-day the cumulative effect was imperceptible.  I had no way of understanding that I was self-medicating my undiagnosed bipolar disorder.  I was miserable – my weight had ballooned to 285 pounds – I was vomiting up blood from anxiety.  I was spending way more money than I was making.  I was taking more and more painkillers.  I stopped showing up for client meetings.  The law firm was spinning out of control.

One day my office manager came to me and told me that we had a problem.  She told me that we weren’t going to make payroll that week.  How could that be possible?  I had been in business as a lawyer almost twenty years – and despite all the problems, all the madness, the business had grown to become one of the most successful law practices in Westchester County - something I still have no explanation for.   But we were out of cash – I could have done a lot of reasonable things.  I could have called a friend. I could have called the bank.  But my mind was reeling, and the drugs wouldn’t let me focus.  And that’s when I made my deal with the devil.  I told her to borrow the money from the firm’s client escrow account.  She asked me if I was sure that’s what I wanted to do, and I told her to do it.  And with two keystrokes of a computer, my fate was sealed.

I wound up borrowing and replacing client escrow funds a few more times – but the damage was really done the first time.  As these things go, soon there would be a grievance against me that started out over something small - but my client escrow records would be subpoenaed and I would start a three-year battle to retain my law license.  To defend the indefensible.  Racked with shame and guilt, my pain killer use escalated and I got really out of control.

On Sept. 11th, when I saw the plane hit the second tower, I went into sheer madness.  It was as if the world stopped spinning.  I couldn’t think and I couldn’t work -  I started to lose clients and staff.  I was in a pit of denial and was looking for my way out.  There were commercials on TV and the radio for small business loans for businesses that had been adversely affected by the tragedy – I called and described my problem.  They told me that I qualified for a 9/11 loan.  But even having qualified, I was just too desperate and stoned – and I embellished my loan application to make sure I got the loan.  In a few weeks I did get the loan and I thought I was on track to save my law firm.  But it didn’t help – within a few very short months all the evidence had mounted and it became clear that I was going to lose my grievance case and was going to be disbarred from practicing law.

One day in July 2002 I had enough – I had no more fight left in me.  I just couldn’t take it anymore.  I called my ethics attorney and told him to throw in the towel and resign my law license.  That night, after my wife and kids went to sleep, I sat down in the big easy chair of the den in our house in Westchester, and tried to kill myself.  I swallowed an entire bottle of painkillers.   I just wanted the pain and the madness to stop.
 

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I woke up a few days later in the Acute Care Unit of Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, CT and there was no way of knowing then that instead of my life ending, that my new life had begun.   I made it through seven weeks of rehab and started the long arduous but incredible journey of a road back to life through recovery.   I went to my first recovery meeting on my first night out of Silver Hill Hospital – and at that meeting I did exactly what I was instructed to do.  I raised my hand and said, My name is Jeff, I’m an alcoholic and I need a sponsor.  I met my first sponsor at my very recovery meeting, and have attended almost 9000 meetings since then and have never again touched another drink or a drug.  I am very proud to say that on August 10th of this year, God willing, I will celebrate my 13th sobriety anniversary.

But, of course, we already know that there was more to my story.  I did what any "sane person" would do with no money and no job – I moved my family to Greenwich, Connecticut – perhaps the wealthiest community in the country.  There I became a very involved member in recovery, and took on a lot of responsibilities and commitments.  After all, recovery had saved my life.  Over the first year or two, with so much wreckage to take care of – I had lost my career, my money, I lost our home in foreclosure, my marriage was in shambles.  But recovery was my bedrock – I was staying sober.

One morning, when I had about 20 months of sobriety, I received a call from the FBI.  The agent on the phone told me that there was a warrant out for my arrest in connection with my fraudulent statements on the 9/11 loan.  It had been four years, I was now sober almost two years - and I couldn’t believe that anybody was looking at that loan.  But one of the gifts was that I was able to face this as a sober man, and be there for my family, for my community and for myself sober.

I was sentenced to eighteen months in Federal prison.  For those of you who don’t know how the designation process works in the Federal prison system, basically on the day your name comes up you are designated by your security level - lowest to highest.  I had a security level of "zero" – so I could have been designated to a camp anywhere within 500 miles of our home in Connecticut. But on the day I was designated there were no beds in camps in this area – so I was designated to a Low Security Prison.  And that’s where I went.  On Easter Sunday, 2006, I reported to Allenwood Low Security Corrections Institution in White Deer, Pennsylvania.  And soon found out inside that there was one former lawyer - that would be me - two former doctors, five former stockbrokers, and 1500 drug dealers.  This was real prison and would be home for the next thirteen and a half months.

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I was released from prison in 2007 and had to do a stint in a halfway house in Hartford, home detention and then three years of Federal probation.   I also had court ordered drug and alcohol counseling.   It was my counselor – a former Catholic Priest turned drug counselor- who recommended to me that I rebuild my life through volunteerism.  I called my old rehab, Silver Hill Hospital, and asked them if I could come interview for a volunteer position – they told me to come over that day.  We sat and talked for almost two hours, and importantly, I fully disclosed everything that that happened in the past few years.  They asked me to fill out an application and told me that they were going to do a background check – I was nervous.  I figured that if my own rehab wouldn’t take me for a volunteer job, who in the world would ever let me work for them?  I didn’t have to wait long.  Two hours later my phone rang and I was a recovery volunteer for Silver Hill Hospital.   This led me next to becoming a volunteer house manager at Liberation House in Stamford, CT, and then to Family Reentry, a nonprofit serving the ex-offender communities in Bridgeport and New Haven, CT. This was the first organization that asked me to serve on its Board of Directors.  My first project was with my then girlfriend Lynn – now my wife.  We worked with Family Reentry ex-offenders of and converted a blighted inner city block in Bridgeport into the largest privately owned public use park and garden in the State of Connecticut.  It is an oasis and completely revitalized that neighborhood.

All this time we were living in Greenwich and attending recovery meetings – and I became known as the “prison guy.”  I was sharing about going to prison, surviving prison, and staying sober through the entire experience.  Soon hedge fund guys and others who had white-collar legal problems were seeking me out.  Over those ten years, I must have met with and counseled over one hundred guys in various stages of going to or coming back from prison.  It was an eye opening experience and I had no idea that it was going to turn into a ministry.  I was just putting one foot ahead of another.

I went to a Reverend at the church that we were attending in Greenwich, and told him that I was searching for something more meaningful.  He recommended that I apply to Union Theological Seminary in New York City.  I told him that I thought that was a little crazy – for one thing, I’m a Jew.  Next, with my story, how would I ever get accepted to the preeminent urban seminary in the world?  But, he told me that seminaries are in the redemption business – and that I should apply.  And I did.  I was accepted to Union Theological Seminary and went to school there for three years. 

In April 2011, I was baptized with water brought back by a friend from the River Jordan. In May 2012 I earned a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary with a Focus in Christian Social Ethics. 

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A few months later, while still working with white-collar families in Greenwich and doing reentry work in Bridgeport, I accepted an offer from The First Baptist Church of Bridgeport for Lynn and I to start a prison ministry at the church.  You have no idea how blessed we felt to have come from where we came from, and to have a life of service in a community where we could really make a difference.  And where they could make a profound difference in us.   I started to blog about the experience of working in the hood during in the day, and with white-collars in the evening - when lightning struck again.

I received a call from a reporter at a Hedge Fund Magazine who had read my blog – he asked me if I was the “Minister to Hedge Fund Guys?”  He asked if I would do an interview.  And I told him that I would on one condition:  that the story is about the creation of new form of ministry – An Authentic Ministry – that offers a safe space to people from our communities suffering in silence, to share their stories and find support.  It is from this place of authenticity, we can bring together suffering people from affluent and inner city communities, to communicate authentically with each other, and learn from each other.  What resulted was a sensitive and powerful interview that caught the attention of a lot of people.

The Progressive Prison Project and the Innocent Spouse & Children Project are the first ministries in the United States created to support the families of people accused or convicted of white collar and other nonviolent crimes.  These families are everywhere around us – they are in our own town of Weston – suffering in silence.  They receive so little compassion and empathy - and are so easy to "other" - by a world that is all too eager to believe the next sensationalized headline and to ignore the human side.  

Since then, so many incredible things have happened in our journey.  Among them, I was invited to join the Board of Directors of Community Partners in Action, in Hartford, CT.  I was asked to join the Editorial Board of the new book, The Justice Imperative, about the state of criminal justice here in Connecticut and in our country.  And we moved from Greenwich to our new home in this lovely town of Weston and started to regularly attend this wonderful church.

Lynn and I now split our time doing inner city prison ministry, and ministering to white-collar people and families.  The wives and children are innocents of situations not of their own doing, in situations where they have often not been independently represented, in which husbands and fathers have gone to prison often leaving them penniless, homeless, shunned by their communities.  For these mothers and children, we have assembled teams of ministers, advocates, lawyers, counselors and other professionals to protect them and get them safely through to a new life in a new family dynamic on the other side of prison.

As I see it, the biggest tragedy of all about white-collar and nonviolent crime is not how big the matter is, or sensationalized the headlines - it is in our failure to see it as an authentic human story, with real people, real brokenness, and real families left behind.
 

Thank you for this opportunity to be authentic, and share with you My Story.  May God Bless You and Keep You Always.

Amen. 


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Rev. Jeff Grant, JD, M Div, Minister/Director
jgrant@prisonist.org
jg3074@columbia.edu

(o) +1203.769.1096
(m) +1203.339.5887



Lynn Springer, Advocate, Innocent Spouses & Children
lspringer@prisonist.org
(m) +1203.536.5508

George Bresnan, Advocate, Ex-Pats
gbresnan@prisonist.org

Michael Karaffa, Advocate, Disabilities
mkaraffa@prisonist.org


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Comments from Social Media: 


Bid Desk Analyst at Safeguard Properties

Amen and to God be The Glory for Great things He has done! 


Independent Arts and Crafts Professional

Buddha philosophy was, "It is impossible to change past, but We have free will to chose Right from wrong" to build our future. Buddha taught to practice Yoga [any exercise] & Meditation to control the Temptation {Ego, Anger, Greed, Lust & Attachment} to achieve [Nirvana] freedom of [Karma] incarnation. "Jesus had the greatest control on (Temptation) & never got angry at the end prayed for forgiveness for people crucified him. {people should follow Jesus foot steeps & learn not to discriminate}. 

Hezekiah Olujobi 1st
Investigator at Centre for Justice Mercy & Reconciliation
Jef you are doing a great work, i shared with you some time a go that we have similar story as an ex-inmate in Nigeria prison over spent 6 years in detention over a crime i did not commit and how God send me back to advocate for those people who are wrongfuly detained and sentence to death. Last year my ministry free 17 inmates who have spent 6 to 10 years in detention. I am bless by your testimony "AUTHENTIC" Pleas think of it i will like to partner with you. You can send me your e mail so that i can share with you some of my work. Have wonderful day.

Ronald Simpson-Bey 
Research Assistant at University of Michigan
Fantastic story of redemption Jeff. As we well know, nothing in life happens by accident. God always has a reason even though we may not understand the reason at the time of our adversity and tribulations. Thanks for sharing. . .

Beth Johnson 
Minister for Clergy Health & Vitality at United Church of Christ Southwest Conference
Awesome sermon. Just awesome! Thanks for your authenticity.



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Donations

We are grateful for donations from individuals, religious groups, charities, foundations and the like. Donations can be made by credit card/PayPal or by sending your check payable to: “Progressive Prison Ministries, Inc.” P.O. Box 1232, Weston, Connecticut 06883. Progressive Prison Project/Innocent Spouse & Children Project are missions of Progressive Prison Ministries, Inc. We are a CT Religious Corp. with 501c3 status - all donations are tax deductible to the extent permitted by law. Thank you for your support and generosity.


If transformation and redemption matter to you, a friend or a family member with a white-collar or nonviolent incarceration issue, please contact us and we will promptly send you an information package by mail, email or via Dropbox. The darkest days of a person's life can be a time of renewal and hope.