Archive for the ‘violence’ tag
Not In Our Town’s new film Waking in Oak Creek profiles the powerful community response to the shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in 2012. After six Sikh worshippers were killed and Oak Creek Police Lieutenant Brian Murphy was shot 15 times by a white supremacist, town leaders worked together to cultivate new bonds with the Sikh community and guide the community forward toward healing. Young temple members, still grieving from the tragedy, emerge as leaders, and thousands gather for vigils and a 6K run to honor the victims. Together, a community rocked by hate is awakened and transformed by the Sikh spirit of relentless optimism.
Waking in Oak Creek is a strong resource to spark conversations and action in your town to address the need to build bridges between different groups in the community; actively respond to hate and intolerance; and engage youth in building safe, inclusive communities. A community screening and discussion of the film can serve as a way to initiate – and sustain – interfaith collaborations and vital local work on these urgent issues.
Through Not In Our Town’s partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, free DVDs of Waking in Oak Creek are available for community screenings, educational programs, and training workshops. Additional resources include a Guide for Community Screenings, an Educator Lesson Plan, and outreach tools.
Not In Our Town (NIOT) is a movement to stop hate, address bullying, and build safe, inclusive communities for all. Learn more at www.NIOT.org.
Weeks before his assassination, a journalist asked the great Indian leader and champion of non-violence, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi what would happen to his philosophy of nonviolence after his death. His reply was both prophetic and poignant. He said: “The people of India will follow me in life, worship me in death, but not make my cause their cause.”
These words could have been uttered by any of the people we worship today. Gandhi’s cause was simple: Bring peace through religious, ethnic and cultural harmony among the people of the world. Our emphasis on nationalism and patriotism, narrowing people’s perspectives to a small geographical area, was repugnant to Gandhi. In fact, he said, the acceptance of the interconnectedness and inter-relatedness of all beings is what will save this world from strife and destruction. No country, however rich and powerful, can be safe if the rest of the world destroys itself. The security and stability of any country, he believed, depends on the security and stability of the whole world.
What we are doing today is just the opposite. We are not only torn apart as nations but even in our belief in God and spirituality. The world is witnessing violent chaos. People killing each other in the name of God although God and religion are about love, respect, compassion, understanding and acceptance. If the world does not appear to have accepted Gandhi’s message of nonviolence and a life of harmony, neither has his own country of birth and dedication – India.
Not even his own Congress Party believed in or accepted his philosophy and way of life although this party has ruled over India for almost 60 years after independence in 1947. The Congress Party paid lip-service to Gandhi, printed his image on all currency notes and observed his birth and death anniversaries. Beyond that Gandhi’s legacy gathered dust on the shelves. If India could not give the lead to the world in sane living can one expect other nations to follow Gandhi’s ideology?
I believe Gandhi was a universal personality and his philosophy should appeal to anyone who believes in civilized behavior. After all he did influence many leaders in different countries! The tragedy is that everyone sees his philosophy of nonviolence as a strategy of convenience and not as a way of life. The consequence is that individually and collectively as nations we subscribe to a Culture of Violence that dominates every aspect of our lives. Nonviolence is selectively used as just another weapon of convenience.
Peace has, consequently, come to mean the absence of war and that if we are not fighting physically we are nonviolent. We do indulge, however, in passive (or non-physical) violence like exploitation, oppression of all kinds, wasting resources, encouraging disparities, and the countless other ways in which we hurt people emotionally, spiritually and psychologically. It is this passive violence that generates anger in the victim and ultimately results in physical violence. It is the fuel that ignites war and violence.
India is now at the crossroads. The extreme right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its multiple off-shoots have come into power. Their genesis is in the Hindu supremacist and militant RSS organization, that was responsible for the assassination of Gandhi. Since the assassination of Gandhi in 1948 the Hindu right wing claimed they had nothing to do with the conspiracy and that it was all engineered by Nathuram Godse, his brother Gopal and a few friends. The reality is that Godse was a member of the RSS, and withdrew himself from membership only to protect other RSS functionaries, during his trial.
With the sweeping majority that the Hindu Right wing now enjoys in the Indian Parliament their Members of Parliament have been emboldened to demand that Godse be considered a hero of the Indian revolution, that the killing of Gandhi was an act of patriotism and that Gandhi’s image be removed from the currency notes. To me this sounds like tacit admission that they were morally responsible for empowering Nathuram Godse to carry out the assassination plot, just as the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is morally responsible for the slaughter of more than 2,000 Muslims in the State of Gujarat in 2002 when he was the Chief Minister, the equivalent of a US Governor. The slaughter was the result of police inaction and the Government’s lack of intention to call in Federal troops. Either Mr. Modi wanted the slaughter to take place or he was a weak leader incapable of controlling the government and the bureaucracy. Most people believe it is the former and not the latter
The Hindu nationalists, like bigoted people anywhere, are adept at speaking from both sides of their mouths. This includes the Prime Minister, Mr. Modi, who has almost overnight become America’s wunderkind. The BJP and its numerous allies firmly believe in the Nazi theory that a lie repeated often enough will eventually be accepted as truth. Unless the people of India come together against hate, intolerance and fascism, lies, deceit and corruption could be India’s fate in the foreseeable future.
ABOUT DR. ARUN GANDHI
Dr. Arun Manilal Gandhi
Born 1934 in Durban South Africa, Arun was sent by his parents to India when he was 12 years old so that he could live with and learn from his grandfather, Mohandas Gandhi. It was then that young Gandhi learned the principles of non-violence that he continues to espouse until today. Dr. Gandhi spent much of his adult life in India working as a journalist and promoting social and economic changes for the poor and the oppressed classes. Along with his wife Sunanda he rescued about 128 orphaned and abandoned children from the streets and placed them in loving homes around the world. They also began a Center for Social Change which transformed the lives of millions in villages in the western state of Maharashtra. In 1987 Arun came to the United States and in 1991 he started the M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence at the Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tennessee. In 2007, the Institute was moved to the University of Rochester, New York. In 2008 Arun resigned from the Institute to begin the Gandhi Worldwide Education Institute, with its mission to build basic education schools for the very poor children of the world. The first school will open shortly in a depressed village in western India (www.gandhiforchildren.org). Arun Gandhi has taken the message of nonviolence and peace-making to hundreds of thousands of high school and university youth around the United States and much of the Western world. His publications include The Legacy of Love; The Forgotten Woman: The Life of Kastur, wife of Gandhi, and several others.
Parliament Board Condemns Violence in France and Nigeria; Invites All Faith Communities to Issue Joint Statement
“The Parliament of the World’s Religions vehemently condemns revengeful attacks killing 12 journalists and four Jews in France, and an estimated 1500 women and children in Nigeria. Now this cycle of revenge has engulfed the French Muslims with more than 20 attacks on Islamic buildings. We send our condolences to the families of the victims and to all of France and Nigeria as they grieve.
The Parliament believes that use of religion or any other socio-political ideology to “justify” violence is simply not acceptable.
The Parliament urges the global community to remember that such acts violate the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and asks that faith communities stand together to break this cycle of revenge by speaking out and organizing programs which enhance positive human relationship of compassion and forgiveness.
The Parliament plans to organize special programing in the forthcoming 2015 Parliament in October 15-19th on the cycle of war, violence, and hate. We invite all faith communities to participate in a joint declaration with a clear resolve to do our utmost to develop a movement against war, violence and hate.
Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.”
By Arun Gandhi
The Parliament of World Religions condemns all forms of violence any where in the world. While the world claims to be progressing toward civilization, the actions of brutal ethnic violence in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, as well as in other parts of the world, must be strongly condemned by all peace-loving people.
Growing intolerance, widening disparities, a life-style of exploitation, a burgeoning armament industry freely producing and selling weapons of mass destruction, are all the kinds of fuel that ignite people’s imagination for violence. Sri Lanka and Myanmar are the latest flash-points on the world map where ethnic violence has taken many innocent lives. But the world as a whole lives on the edge of the precipice of conflagration fueled by ethnic, economic, political, religious, national, gender and many other issues that become more contentious by the day.
It is important for all of us to understand that the path of hate and destruction destroys the very things we seek to preserve. Religious beliefs, economic progress, security and sanctity of life can only be enjoyed and preserved for future generations by respect, understanding, harmony and compassion.
The world community cannot ignore the strife in parts of the world because it does not affect us immediately. What happens in one place today will happen all over tomorrow. We are all sitting on a tinder box of intolerance that only needs a spark to ignite.
There are two main reasons for this state of affairs in the world. As Mohandas K. Gandhi said many decades ago: the more materialistic we aspire to be the less moral we become. This is reflected in the seven social sins that Gandhi said leads to violence in humanity. The world is guilty of indulging in politics without principles, in commerce without morality, in science without humanity, in religion without respect.
Massacres of people in the name of God and religion have become the norm with events like those in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and many other parts of the world. These events are not aberrations, they are a reflection of the unmitigated religious bigotry exacerbated by political chicanery.
It is this kind of religion-political exploitation and abuse that the Parliament of World Religions seeks to change. Religions is not how many times we pray, but how sincere and truthful we are in practicing our beliefs in real life and relationships.
Arun Manalil Gandhi, Born 1934 in Durban South Africa, Arun was sent by his parents to India when he was 12 years old so that he could live with and learn from his grandfather, Mohandas Gandhi. It was then that young Gandhi learned the principles of non-violence that he continues to espouse until today. Dr. Gandhi spent much of his adult life in India working as a journalist and promoting social and economic changes for the poor and the oppressed classes. Along with his wife Sunanda he rescued about 128 orphaned and abandoned children from the streets and placed them in loving homes around the world. They also began a Center for Social Change which transformed the lives of millions in villages in the western state of Maharashtra. In 1987 Arun came to the United States and in 1991 he started the M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence at the Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tennessee. In 2007, the Institute was moved to the University of Rochester, New York. In 2008 Arun resigned from the Institute to begin the Gandhi Worldwide Education Institute, with its mission to build basic education schools for the very poor children of the world. The first school will open shortly in a depressed village in western India (www.gandhiforchildren.org). Arun Gandhi has taken the message of nonviolence and peace-making to hundreds of thousands of high school and university youth around the United States and much of the Western world. His publications include The Legacy of Love; The Forgotten Woman: The Life of Kastur, wife of Gandhi, and several others.
Run, Hide, or Fight
First U.S. Government Guide Released For Confronting Gunmen in Houses of Worship
June 20, 2013
On Tuesday, U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden announced the government’s first guidebook instructing faith congregations to prepare for an armed shooter situation. Speaking at an emergency preparedness event on gun violence, Biden detailed the 38-page document’s purpose in response to the recent rash of gun tragedies in school and faith settings. The “Guide for Developing High Quality Emergency Operation Plans for Houses of Worship” outlines strategies to appoint and train congregation members on:
- assigning congregation members to assess immediate threats,
- determining the best places for shelter and useful hiding spots
- identifying who should run, who should hide, and who should fight back
- planning effective evacuations in the event of an armed gun attack
- depicting “scenarios” and considering response options in advance
- developing survivor mindset to increase the odds of surviving
Developed in consultation with clergy from the United States concerned about mass shooters, the guide attempts to address fears rising since summer 2012, when a gunman shot and killed six Sikhs inside the gurdwara of Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The team of agencies collaborating to produce the document include Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Justice, Department of Health and Human Services, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation It is addressed that training through the guidebook may become mandatory for faith houses receiving federal funds.
We invite you to discuss this landmark move by the U.S. government with us on Facebook.
What kinds of questions do you have about the guidebook? Would you ask your faith leaders to implement this training? Does the guidebook seem helpful? Do you think completing training like this increases security, or perpetuates fear?
If you are in the New York-area this weekend, we hope you will join the premiere of Faith Against Hate: A Day of Interfaith Learning and Relationship. Presented in partnership with the Interfaith Institute of the Islamic Center of Long Island Saturday, June 22, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. at Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY.
Our life experiences are shaped and colored by violence. Whether we are dealing with a child caught in the cross fire of gang activity or violence against our religious community or that of our neighbors, transformative leadership demands that we bring compassionate and proactive responses to the tragedies of our day and age. Transformative leadership also demands listening to the stories of those impacted by violence, looking critically at our own faith traditions, and strategizing on how we as religious communities can partner for the sake of peace.
The Council for the Parliament for the World’s Religions Faiths Against Hate Campaign and SCUPE (Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education) present “Touched By Violence, Partnering for Peace” on May 22, 2013 at the American Islamic College in Chicago, IL. We are sponsoring this one day workshop for leaders, clergy, and people who are called to make a difference by transforming hate and violence into partnerships for peace.
In this workshop we will…
• Share stories of how we have been touched by violence.
• Explore how our faith traditions may legitimize violence in our communities.
• Build partnerships with others leaders touched by violence.
• Learn strategies for dealing with the aftermath of violence.
• Commit to bold actions for peace in and across our communities.
Day: Wednesday May 22nd, 2013
Time: 9:00 am – 5:30 pm
Cost: *Standard Registration $100, Student Registration $60 (with student ID)
Place: American Islamic College | 640 W. Irving Park Rd. | Chicago IL 60613
*Workshop fee includes registration, materials, breakfast and lunch.
Download the flyer here.
All those associated with the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions offer our deepest condolences for the members of the Sikh gurdwara of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and our heartfelt concern for the sense of anguish and loss being experienced throughout the Sikh community worldwide, in the wake of the senseless shooting on Sunday, August 5th.
Any act of violence is abhorrent. When it targets a religious community—in their sacred space, engaged in worship—it is especially difficult to fathom.
The Council joins the worldwide interreligious movement in recognizing all that the Sikh tradition engenders in its followers: the deep devotion, the ethical clarity, the sense of communal solidarity, and the unwavering belief that all human beings are equal in the sight of the divine. The origins of Sikhism had an interreligious dimension—in the founding mission of Guru Nanak—giving it a unique relevance and poignancy for the challenge of promoting harmony and understanding across diverse communities and traditions.
The fact that, in the first hours after the shooting, the news media struggled to describe Sikhism accurately speaks to the work that needs to be done by the interreligious movement in acquainting the wider public with the diversity of communities and traditions in their midst. Though such knowledge may not have deterred this gunman in his rampage, it can only help reduce the number of incidents of harassment and violence in the future.
The world should know that any person, Sikh or non-Sikh, is welcome at a gurdwara anywhere, to be received with graciousness, offered a meal, and shelter, if necessary. This sense of hospitality that the Sikh community embodies has had a profound impact on the mission and work of the Council. The generous offering of langar—a sacred, blessed meal central to its communal practice—by the Sikh community at the 2004 Parliament in Barcelona is still remembered and cherished by all those who gathered for that event.
—Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions
“It is not an act of ‘random, senseless’ violence. Sikhs, Muslims, Latinos and Africans are increasingly targets of rising hate in the United States. These attacks are sanctioned by a political culture that tolerates hate speech and promotes xenophobia. As hate is rising in the nation, it is critical that the forces of faith mediate anger into the positive energy of relationships. We must build a stronger interfaith movement for our children and the planet. I stand in solidarity with our Sikh neighbors.”
—Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, Chair, CPWR Board of Trustees
“My wholehearted sympathies and ardent prayers are with the innocent victims of senseless violence in the Sikh community in Wisconsin.”
—Dr. Robert Henderson, Vice Chair
“My heart and prayers go out to the families and the Sikh community. This hate and violence upon a peace loving community makes the work of the Parliament towards interreligious understanding and helping our country towards inclusive and caring community all the more urgent and important. I pledge my support.”
—Dr. Mary Nelson, Vice Chair
“Yesterday was a troubling day, not only for Sikh-Americans, but for all Americans. We need to re-double our efforts to promote mutual respect and understanding. In the midst of this anguish and pain, we must also pray for the family of the assailant.”
—Dr. Tarunjit Singh Butalia, Secretary
by Tom Odula
from The Huffington Post
NAIROBI, Kenya — Kenyan clerics across the religious divide vowed Tuesday to not allow sectarian violence to erupt following attacks on churches over the weekend that killed at least 15 people.
The Inter-Religious Council of Kenya said Muslims will form vigilante groups alongside Christians to guard churches in Kenya’s North Eastern Province, where the latest attacks occurred.
Adan Wachu, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims and the chairman of Inter-Religious Council, said the weekend attacks, which are being blamed on an al-Qaida-linked militant group from Somalia, are meant to trigger sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims. Wachu said clerics will actively preach against retaliation to prevent violence from spreading in Kenya like it has in Nigeria, where attacks on churches by a Muslim sect has ignited a spiral of violence.
by Marc Schneier and Shamsi Ali, JTA
from Jewish Journal
As a rabbi and an imam, we deeply mourn the tragic loss of innocent lives in the murderous terrorist attacks in France. We express our heartfelt sympathy and compassion for the bereaved.
Amid the wall-to-wall media coverage of the attacks and their aftermath, one piece of the story has received less attention: the inspiring manner in which Muslims and Jews in France have stood side by side in denouncing these heinous acts.
Thousands of Muslims and Jews reacted to the savage killings of three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse and the earlier murders of three French soldiers, including two Muslims, by joining together in solidarity marches in communities throughout Paris.
Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur 5772
by Rabbi Brant Rosen
Cedric Cal was born to a single mother, in a family that lived below the poverty line on Chicago’s West Side. His father had left the family, married another woman and had very little to do with him. His mother Olivia worked constantly, doing her best to keep her family together. As the oldest of four, Cedric became the de facto father of the family and was entrusted with protecting his younger brother, who was legally blind.
Cedric’s family moved around a lot and he learned very early on how to make friends quickly. He liked sports, particularly baseball – and when his family lived on the West Side, he played sports in the local Park District. When they moved to the South Side, however, there were no Park District services available, so sports were not an option for him. Still, no matter where they moved, Olivia became very adept at finding ways of getting Cedric and and brothers into decent public schools. From 5th to 8th grade, he attended Alcott Elementary. Minding his younger brother, he took the public bus every day on a long trek from the West Side to Lincoln Park.
Cedric’s mother taught him how to fill out applications and interview for jobs, but there really weren’t any to be found. And those that were hiring certainly weren’t hiring African-American teenage boys. He was never really successful at finding a real job, but when he was 14 he learned that he could make money dealing drugs. He knew that his mother would be beyond furious if she ever found out, so he made sure to keep his drug dealing and his growing gang activity secret from her. Cedric never, ever, brought his earnings into their home – his mother had made it clear that drug money was not welcome anywhere near her house. Even when he bought a car, he parked it far away from their home.
I met and spoke with Cedric two weeks ago at the Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet. He explained to me that as he continued to sell drugs, as he continued the gang life, little by little, he became “desensitized to the things my mother had taught me.” It was quite poignant and sweet to listen to Cedric speak about his mother. “My mother,” he said, “has a lovely spirit,” adding: “I was scared to death of my mother.” He told me of one instance in which Olivia confronted drug dealers on a street corner with a two by four in her hand. Cedric laughed and said that even the toughest gang members in the neighborhood were scared of his mother.
The incident that changed Cedric’s life forever occurred in 1992, when he was 17 years old. According to court testimony, two individuals confronted what would become the three in front of a house on the West Side. In the ensuing gunfight, they shot and killed two of the men and wounded a third. Following the incident, the surviving victim, who was gravely wounded, identified Cedric and another man to the police as the shooters. They were both arrested – and although Cedric was legally still a minor at the time of the shooting, he was sentenced to prison for life without possibility of parole. There has never been any physical evidence – or any other evidence for that matter – that linked Cedric to the shooting and Cedric has always maintained his innocence.
There’s something of a twist to this story. Nearly twenty years later, the wounded witness, Willie Johnson, recanted his testimony. He came forward and testified at a post-conviction hearing that he had wrongly identified Cedric and his co-defendent. He explained that he did this only because the actual murderer had threatened to kill him and his family at the time. The judge however, rejected Johnson’s revised testimony and refused to reverse the convictions. (In an even more perverse twist to this story, although his recanted testimony was rejected, the witness was subsequently charged with perjury.)
When he first entered prison, Cedric joined a gang for protection, as many inmates do. He told me his first few years inside were enormously difficult until he met a man who would have an powerful impact on his life – an ex-gang leader who had become a devout Muslim. Cedric’s new mentor gave him book after book to read, and he read them voraciously. Cedric was particularly affected by “The Autobiography of Malcom X.” He identified deeply with Malcolm’s journey and struggle and was especially moved when he read about his religious awakening in prison. Like Malcolm, Cedric was inspired to convert to Islam and turn his life in a different direction.
As it turned out, his new found Muslim faith took him down a fairly dangerous road in prison. After making the decision to live as an observant Muslim, his fellow gang members approached him and told him he would have to choose between his gang and his newly acquired faith. Cedric chose his faith, knowing full well that this would obviously mean the loss of his protected status. In a very real sense, he was now putting his life in God’s hands.
The next major spiritual transformation for Cedric occurred when the Million Man March took place in 1995 in Washington DC. He was deeply moved by the sight of hundreds of thousands black men, gathered together nonviolently in one place, publicly atoning and taking responsibility for their own lives and for their families. After he witnessed this moment, Cedric decided to embark upon his own journey of repentance.
Specifically speaking, this meant following an eight stage atonement process as developed by Minister Louis Farrakhan. As part of his atonement, Cedric wrote letters. First he wrote a long letter to his mother, in which he apologized for betraying the values she taught him and for the shame he had brought to her through his actions. He vowed that he would devote the rest his life to bringing honor back to her and the family. He wrote similar letters to each of his brothers, apologizing for being absent to them as a big brother and as a role model. He also wrote a letter to his entire community – published in the community paper – and apologized, among other things, for bringing drugs, crime and gang activity into their neighborhood.
I asked Cedric to define forgiveness for me. He said that for him it was all about relationship. Seeking forgiveness meant repairing his relationships with others – and first and foremost, his relationship to God. He added that prayer plays a very central role in this process and that over time, his prayers have helped him achieve a spiritual cleansing – an unburdening his soul. He said that atonement is a never-ending process. He told me, with simple determination in his voice, that he will never stop working at making things right with others and with God.
Cedric is a warm, genuine and open-spirited man. He was happy to tell me his story and clearly took great pleasure in relating his spiritual journey. When we first met, I explained to him that I was interested in hearing his story because I wanted to give a sermon about his experiences during a Yom Kippur service. His lawyer began to explain what Yom Kippur is and he smiled and said, “Oh, I know all about Yom Kippur. It’s coming up in two weeks, right?” My conversation with Cedric was a true pleasure and I was genuinely sorry when our time was up. He gave me an affectionate hug before leaving the visitor’s room.
I’d like to tell you about another prisoner I met that day in Stateville – a 36 year old man named Addolfo Davis.
Addolfo grew up in an even more at-risk environment than Cedric. He was born to a single, drug-addicted mother who severely neglected him. Before he turned 10, Addolfo was running away from home and turning to local gangs for protection. He was just 9 the first time he robbed someone for money to buy food, which resulted in the first of many run-ins with the juvenile justice system.
Addolfo was eventually taken from his mother and placed under his grandmother’s care, where he lived in a one-room, dirt-floor cellar apartment, which already housed three other family members. Around this time, a DCFS social worker reported that he was becoming a danger to himself and strongly urged that he be placed in a contained foster home. Despite these recommendations, Addolfo was eventually removed from his grandmother and placed in a group home.
Addolfo’s incident occurred when he was barely 14. He and two older boys went to the apartment of a rival, reportedly to discuss a turf dispute. When they entered the apartment, the two older boys took out guns and shot four people, killing two. According to witness testimony, Addolfo was present but did not shoot a gun.
Later that day, the police apprehended Addolfo and interrogated him without an attorney present. The only person there to represent him was his mother, who was no longer his legal guardian and who later testified that she was intoxicated at the time. The interrogation ended with his signing a confession, though both his and his mother’s poor literacy skills likely prevented either of them from fully understanding what he had signed.
Although he was only a minor, a juvenile judge ruled that Addolfo’s case be transferred to adult court. This ruling was apparently influenced by the testimony of a therapist who cited his past criminal history and cast doubt on his ability to be rehabilitated by the time he reached the age of 21. In the end, 14 year old Addolfo was tried as an adult for felony murder and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.
I was told that Addolfo Davis was small, traumatized eighty pound teenager at the time of his conviction. The Addolfo I met two weeks ago was a grounded and articulate man. I had the opportunity to be present when he spoke with his pro bono lawyer as they prepared his application for clemency from Governor Quinn, which is his only legal recourse now that his appeals have been exhausted. As they spoke, it became obvious that Addolfo had been spending a great of time in the prison’s law library. He clearly had a far reaching knowledge of the legal aspects of his case and of the complicated clemency process. At times, it actually seemed that he was advising his lawyer rather than the other way around.
My first question was to ask Addolfo how he found this obvious inner peace. His answer was utterly unexpected. He said that his first few years in prison were horrid. He was frightened and aggressive and spent much of his time fighting with other inmates and just trying to survive day by day. As a result he was sent to the Tamms Correctional Center – a so-called “super max” prison in Southern Illinois – where he would spend four and a half years.
As at most super max prisons, prisoners at Tamms are forced to live alone, 24 hours a day, close to seven days a week in 8 x 10 concrete cement cells that contain concrete beds, stainless steel sinks and toilets. Although each cell has a window, the windows cannot be opened, and the only way to look out of them is to stand on the bed. The doors to each cell are designed to completely isolate the prisoner inside his cell. When I did a little research, I discovered that when Tamms was first opened in 1998, the warden, George Welborn was quoted as saying “Tamms is not about rehabilitation, it’s about punishment.”
So you can imagine my amazement when Addolfo told me “For some people it’s the worst – but Tamms was the best thing that ever happened to me.” He explained that as a result of his stay there, he actually experienced real solitude and inner peace for the first time in his life. Whenever he felt himself growing claustrophobic, he taught himself how clear his mind and calm himself down. He also started writing and reading. The book “Conversations with God” by Neale Donald Walsch had a particularly strong spiritual impact upon him.
I asked Addolfo if he identified with any particular religious faith and he told me no. He said, “I believe in God with all my heart, but I don’t belong to any religion.” He said it all comes down to “love your neighbor,” adding that “God is a caring, forgiving God. God will straighten everything out in the end.”
Addolfo told me he read the Bible and the Koran every day, and that in prison he was learning the true meaning of spiritual struggle. Every day, he said, is a challenge for him to hold on to his humanity in an inhumane world. He quoted his grandmother: “When you turn yourself over to God, the devil works overtime to pull you back.”
Although he is very, very happy to be out of Tamms, Addolfo did say that it is much harder to find the same kind of solitude in Stateville. He said sometimes he’ll just put on his ear buds and listen to music, sometimes even just static, and he can get back to a focused, clear minded place.
As I did with Cedric, I asked Addolfo for his definition of forgiveness. He said that the first step in forgiveness was forgiving yourself so that you can take personal responsibility for your own actions. When he was in the solitude of Tamms, he said, he learned that once he forgave himself, he was able to forgive others more easily and not simply point the finger of blame. Once he quieted down his mind, he found forgiveness for his mother, realizing that her drug use was not her. He was then able to see past her actions to her inner humanity.
Addolfo also said to me that since he never had a childhood, he was learning how to be a kid. And more than anything, that meant learning how to love unconditionally. As he put it, his challenge is learning how to truly love someone who isn’t ready to take accountability yet. It is not a simple process, to be sure. His approach, he said, is: “I love you, I forgive you, but I’m gonna keep my distance. When you’re ready, I’m always here for you.” He makes a point of talking to everyone, even members of rival gangs, which is not considered a particularly advisable thing to do in prison.
Needless to say, most of the prisoners aren’t used to this sort of attitude from an fellow inmate – but Addolfo said he has found that when they get used to it, they eventually respond. That is essentially his struggle: learning how to live the faith of “love your neighbor” each and every day.
I’m telling you the stories of Cedric and Addolfo tonight for two reasons. The first is because I believe they are truly my spiritual teachers. Indeed, I believe they are spiritual teachers for us all. I say this with some hesitation – only because I do not in any way want to patronize them or over-romanticize their situation. Still, as we find ourselves in the midst of this season of forgiveness and reconciliation, I can’t help but wonder if there are countless spiritual teachers out there just like Cedric and Addolfo, locked far away from us, forgotten by everyone but their families.
This Yom Kippur, I’m thinking of Cedric’s letters to his mother, his brothers and his community – and his burning desire to bring honor back to his life and to those he loves. I’m thinking about Addolfo sitting alone in a cell in a super max prison, finding inner peace for the first time, and struggling to live up to the teaching “love your neighbor as yourself” in a place almost wholly devoid of anything resembling love.
Of course these spiritual lessons come at a huge price – to them and to us all. And that brings me to the second reason I’m telling you their stories. It’s because I sincerely wish to God they weren’t my spiritual teachers. They shouldn’t be. And if they are, then shame on us.
I don’t know any other way to say it: we live in a country that loves to lock people away. The US has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners. We’ve locked up 2,000,000 people in our country. And to our further shame, 70% of these inmates, like Cedric and Addolfo, are people of color.
But our shame grows even deeper than this. Our country – the United States – is the only country in the world – in the world – that sentences children to life in prison without possibility of parole. Right now there are approximately 2,570 child offenders serving life without parole throughout the US. 99 of them are right here in Illinois. The total number in the rest of the world is zero.
The shame yet deepens: outside of the United States the practice of handing down juvenile life sentences has become so unthinkable, it is now illegal as a basic principle of international law. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – which the US has still not ratified – prohibits life imprisonment of children. The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice requires that imprisonment of children can only be imposed as a last resort and that it be limited to the shortest length of time necessary to protect society. And the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the United States is a party, requires that in sentencing children, states must “take account of their age and the desirability of promoting their rehabilitation.”
Now when it comes to innocence cases, I think we can all agree on the clear injustice that is being committed. No one condones imprisoning the innocent – least of all children. However, when it comes to locking children up, the injustice should be no less obvious to us. There is compelling evidence, for instance, to indicate that Cedric Cal is totally innocent of the crime of which he was convicted. But in a deeper sense, this is not and should not be the issue. The issue is that when we sentence children to life sentences for their crimes – even of murder – we as a society are essentially giving up on them..
It should come as no surprise that there is clear racial component to this shame.Here in Illinois, for instance, 82% of our imprisoned child offenders are people of color. And as my stories to you obviously indicate, there is an obvious socioeconomic component to consider as well. But again, on a deeper level, if we look deep into the heart of it, even this should not the basic issue. We simply should not be locking away our children and throwing away the key. When we lock children away without even the possibility of parole, we affirm that they are no longer our problem, that they simply do not matter to us any more. When we lock them away, we deem them irredeemable.
We say this even though we know there is considerable evidence to the contrary. Science has shown that teenagers are not yet completely formed, either physically or emotionally. Although children are able to grasp the concepts of “right” and “wrong” at a very young age, the nuances of weighing long term risks and benefits are lost on even late adolescents, making them more prone to take risks, more vulnerable to peer pressure, and less likely to understand the perspective of others or the consequences of their decisions.
We also know, through neurological research, that the brain does not fully develop until late adolescence, around or after the age of 18. Doctors have now provided a medical reason for the various behaviors identified as typical in adolescents: they are not capable of behaving like adults because they lack the developed brain structure to do so.
Psychological research also tells us that, it is precisely because their characters are not yet fully formed that children are uniquely susceptible to rehabilitation. It is reasonable to assume that given the chance, many child psychology experts say, even those young adults who commit the most serious crimes will be able to grow into mature and responsible adults.
When we deem our children irredeemable, we ultimately treat them as somehow disposable. Now anyone who has ever parented an adolescent knows that there are those moments when we are tempted to go to these dark places. But of course we resist these impulses because we know it would simply be unthinkable – unthinkable – to give up on our children.
And yet that is just what we are doing to our children in this country. In 26 states – including the state of Illinois – we are locking our children away and telling them they will have to live the rest of their natural lives in prison. We are the only country in the world that locks away its children forever.
I know these aren’t easy issues to talk about. Violent crime and criminal justice are perhaps the most gut-wrenchingly painful issues there are. The violation that results from violence goes deep and lasts life long. But having compassion for victims does not an should not exclude our compassion for perpetrators. We can and we must hold them together, especially when it involves children. This is, after all, the very essence of reconciliation – a spiritual ideal we have been wrestling for the past eight days. How can we, how will we, dig deep and discover reservoirs of compassion for all?
I’m sharing Cedric and Addolfo’s stories with you tonight because I believe we have much to learn from them this Yom Kippur. They have a great deal to teach us about how we might live our lives – and the ways we should live as a society. On this night of our vows, we must vow to do better by them, and by all the “child offenders” that are locked away in prisons throughout our state and our country.
I’d like to end by reading a letter. I received it from Cedric just this week:
Salaam Alaikum (Peace be unto you)
Dear Rabbi Brant,
May this missive find you in good spirits and health. Thank you for coming to spend a moment in time with me, to hear some of my life story to share with your community. Thank you for acknowledging our humanity. For we who are incarcerated are human beings that lost our way who are trying to find our way back. As you celebrate Yom Kippur as an individual, community and a nation, I hope that the spirit that comes forth from such activity gives you a determination to serve the voiceless and disenfranchised who desire to reconcile with the community and become productive citizens.
For once one atones, he/she has entered into God’s mercy and is absolved from past sins and transgressions and is free from it never to be judged again. I was a rebellious youth who lacked knowledge and suffered great chastisement from Allah/God. I believe I have atoned to God but yet I’m still despised and rejected by society because of being convicted of a crime. What will be the atonement process of prisoners and society at large? What will wipe the slate clean like God does for the Jews after Yom Kippur?
How long shall a child be held responsible for these transgressions? I was a 17 year old boy but I am 36 years old now. As a child, I thought as a child – now that I am a man I put away childish things, so says the Scriptures. I never experienced manhood outside the confines of prison. I truly desire the opportunity to be a father, the opportunity of marriage and to have a wife and children. To vote in an election. To own property, have a bank account. All these little thiings we take for granted, some of us have never even experienced.
I humbly ask that you lift your voice to deliver youth from inhumane sentences. We are your children. A mistake or error should not, must not, define our lives. We are redeemable. We are the product of society’s neglect and degenerative culture. I have been ashamed, abased for being such a child. I’ve repeated and made the determination to never return to such past transgressions again. I need society to give me a chance to prove myself worthy to be accepted back into the community.
I hope your speech to the larger community takes on the spirit of forgiveness and mercy. Then the action of bringing your collective voices to change a law that is against the principles of atonement. It would be a great demonstration of your forgiveness of us who transgressed the community. And a great proof that God is Most Merciful of those who show mercy.
May Allah (God) bless us all with the light of understanding.
This article was originally published in it’s complete form on rabbibrant.com