Reflections From Prison
Erik Johnson 90971 -020 MB2
P.O. Box 3000
Manchester, KY 40962
Dear Sisters, Dear Brothers,
In the first reading of the second Sunday of Advent, the prophet Isaiah lifts up
for our hearing the God of all life, who summons us to “Comfort, give comfort to my people”
and “to cry out at the top of [our] voices” the good news of the One who loves all the
people of the world.
How do our own government and multinational corporations comfort the world’s
poor? How does one cry out against the horrors directed toward whole collections of
people? How does one speak truth when voices are silenced by threats of inquisitions or
imprisonment here at home and by-torture and death in places where graduates of the
School of Americas operate with impunity?
For me. Advent is a time to live with such questions and to listen to one’s heart on
the journey of discernment. Last Advent, during my twenty five day water and juice
only fast, my sleep was achingly disturbed by a reoccurring dream, from which I awoke
on numerous occasions doused in tears and profound sorrow. I’d chosen to fast —- to keep
a mindfulness of the more than one billion who bed down each night hungry —- and pray for
peace in opposition to the war our country unleashed on Afghanistan and the
continued war against Iraq.
The dream began with what I excitedly perceived (because of my love for sailing
to be the whipping of a sail as if a-boat was coming about and ready to gulp in the wind
for a new tack. But the canvas was not a sail. It was the flap of a tent in Afghanistan,
revealing faces in a wilderness of misery, a people in despair. Comfort, give comfort?
A year later, the Church undertakes a fresh Advent journey to celebrate the birth
of Love and Life into the world. And the world is still in chaos. Our President and his
cohorts sprinkle liberally their threats for another surge of practiced terrorism against Iraq
as if there were no human equation (over 1 million Iraqis have been killed in our thirteen-
year campaign.) Comfort, give comfort?
Just shy of being halfway done in my six-month federal prison sentence, I began
another twenty-five-day fast on the first Sunday of Advent. (It seems that Manchester
prison views a water and juice only fast as a hunger strike and not as the spiritual
discipline that it truly is.) This practice of faith is just one more small thing I prayerfully
felt would enable me “to cry out at the top of my voice” the good news of nonviolent love
in our world that defends life. I watch and wait with what peace activist and biblical
scholar, Ched Myers, terms “revolutionary patience.”
There is a blessed connectedness to this watching and waiting: the experience of
being in an ever growing circle of friends on a common journey. My beloved Libby
tearfully told me over the phone this evening, that Philip Berrigan died Friday, December
6 at Jonah House in Baltimore, after his well-lived Gospel life was ended by cancer. So, I
am grieving as I pen these reflections, yet I am also mysteriously filled with gladness by
my own remembrances of who Phil was to so many of us. So many times Phil was found
willing to cry at the top of his voice the good news of justice, compassion, and peace.
Eleven of his seventy-nine years were spent behind bars because of his uncommon
courage to resist war, racism, and nuclear weapons with nonviolent acts of civil
resistance. The prophet’s, “Comfort, give comfort” resonated through every fiber of Phil’s
being. He saw things so clearly for us and dreamed so well of what we can be and do in
community with each other to give comfort to those who suffer in the world. He
enlightened our minds, nourished our spirits, cajoled and challenged our conscience.
Comfort, give comfort. Indeed, Phil!
On the bulletin board in my cell hangs a photo of Sister Dorothy Kazel. Fellow
inmates who look at my collage of photos are drawn to Dorothy’s contagious smile and
inquire about her. During Advent in 1980, she was assassinated in El Salvador, along
with Sisters Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, and lay missioner Jean Donovan by graduates of the
School of the Americas (SOA), located in Ft. Benning, Georgia.
I am currently reading Sister Dianne Ortiz’s book. The Blindfold’s Eyes: My
Journey from Torture to Truth (Orbis Books, 2002), which I commend to you. She is a
survivor. Abducted and tortured in Guatemala in 1989, the photo of her face on the
book’s cover reveals inner torment, but also, amazingly glows with hope. I suspect as I go
deeper into her memoirs I will discover more of the truth behind her healing. Her words
unfold: “There is a God who stands with victims.”
Just prior to his assassination (also by a graduate of the SOA) Archbishop Oscar
Romero punctuated his Gospel message — “crying out at the top of his voice” — “jAlto a
la reprecion!” Stop the repression! Where is the comforting word of God’s compassion
and justice for the people of Latin America while we continue the training of soldiers in
strategies of torture and assassination at the SOA and send billions of dollars to Colombia
under the guise of “the war on drugs” and “national security”?
But there is a crescendo of voices crying out, “Stop the killing!” “No War!”
“Choose Life!” There are so many good reasons to rejoice this Advent. The assembly of
over 12,000 people at this year’s SOA Watch vigil and action moves me to gratitude and
wonder. Eighty-six courageous people face trial on January 27, 2003
(www.soawatch.org) because they were held captive by a vision of a world that regards
the sacredness of all life. Comfort, give comfort.
How grateful I am for the witness of all prisoners and probationers of conscience
(SOAW, Plowshares, Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance), and my heart leaps with
joy in the knowledge that half of my co-defendants have finished their prison terms and
are home or homeward bound.
I am humbled and moved by being the recipient of letters from so many of you,
offering encouragement. I wish I could respond with a personal word to everyone. Thank
you for sharing your own hopes, dreams, and passion for justice. The future of our world
is full of bright promise with people like you laying balm to the wounds of our time. I
applaud you and give thanks for you!
Please know that I am doing well. Libby, family, and friends generously visit me
and bring much love, cheer, and news. I am blessed by the gracious support from the
Church of the Savior UCC in Knoxville, an amazing congregation of faith-filled people.
I’ve been working in food services (dishwashing), take daily walks, teach a few
inmates yoga, and lessons in nonviolent principles and actions. Mainly I try to be
available to what lay heavy on the hearts of many here.
The Saturday after the SOAW vigil/action, a group of runners for peace (“Run for
Freedom”), in support of all prisoners of conscience, ran from a federal prison camp in
Lexington, where Janice Sevre-Duszynska was incarcerated, to Manchester. It was a very
powerful and spiritual event. The prison officials went on alert —- placing a
at the entrance to the prison complex three days before their expected arrival, questioned
me several times (one of the correctional officers defended the SOA and claimed to have
been an instructor there in the 1980s), and placed the whole camp (now 410 inmates) on
lockdown in our units Saturday afternoon and evening.
Then, they incredulously asked me for days following the event if the runners
“protest” accomplished anything. My response: Not a single word, cry, smile, prayer, run,
walk, kiss, embrace, vigil, or act of civil resistance offered out of love for peace is
in the struggle for justice and the renewal of this sacred earth and space.
Dear friends, may the God of peace and Jove bless you and yours as you celebrate
in your own way the promised reign of love and justice. And may you be sustained by
that gallery of saints (Philip, Dorothy, Ita, Maura, Jean, Oscar . ..) who cheer us all
on as we “wait and hasten” that reign.
Paz, Salaam, Shalom, Pax, Peace,