The following is a reflection written by our sister house–the Guadalupe Catholic Worker co-founder Tensie Hernandez, who spent one week in federal prison for a nonviolent direct action last August at Vandenberg Air Force Base during a vigil commemorating the 73rd anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This reflection was originally published in the Beatitude House Newsletter
By Tensie Hernandez
The marshal took one look at me and asked, “What is this you’re wearing?” “It’s my prayer shawl,” I said sheepishly, thinking he would ask me to remove it.
“Well, I guess it’s okay since you have a right to keep a religious article of clothing while we’re processing you,” he said while handcuffing me. I couldn’t have been any more surprised but grateful to have this shawl with me for the next six hours as I was transferred from holding cell to holding cell, waiting to be led to the Metropolitan Detention Center where I would be for the next seven days.
The shawl was given to me by my community the day before at a liturgy where I received their blessing and sending forth. It was the same community that also stood alongside me at the gates of Vandenberg Air Force Base on the 73rd anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, when we cried out for an end to the madness of nuclear weapons and their testing, and I crossed the green line. With the shawl around me, I felt the love and prayers from them and many others who affirmed the decision. The holding cells are, if nothing else, a place to wait. In the cold concrete cells, one enters into a certain space where the anticipation of what is to come along with the fresh memories of what was just lived come together in a kind of vortex that leaves one feeling hollow inside. It is an invitation to pray. And that is exactly what I did.
Arriving on the prison floor, I was greeted with the barking orders of the guard telling me to carry my mattress to the cell assigned to me. Immediately, a young woman prisoner ran over and offered her assistance in carrying the mattress. Having made it to the cell, another woman offered pants and a shirt as gifts so that I could remove the oversized jump suit that had replaced my street clothes and shawl taken from me minutes before. After initial exchanges and welcome from the three women in the cell, food was then offered. Within the first 15 minutes of being in federal prison, I was greeted with kindness, clothing and food; all offered by the ones this society says are despicable enough to cage like animals.
In a country where so much lip service is given assuring us of our collective freedom, those imprisoned are often considered pariahs. Incarceration is the trump card held by authorities wanting us to comply or else. But the prisons that cage our bodies can often be more secure than the ones that cage our spirits. The women in my cell had a certain freedom that could not and would not be confined. Many of the women, for example, had no one to give them extra money to put on their books and so they shared with one another. Elaborate meals were created with each putting in something from their commissary. I learned that you can even make Pozole (a traditional Mexican soup that’s usually made with hominy) using corn-nuts soaked in water! The letters that arrived for the few would be shared among the many and all would celebrate the pictures of the babies or other family members being passed around.
As I observed all of this, the richness of humanity overwhelmed me and inevitably I would start crying at the sense of wonder and awe in observing the Kin-dom of God created among the women at M.D.C! Often they would gather around me wanting to console me as they thought I was crying because I missed home. I hadn’t anticipated finding renewed hope in humanity in prison and yet there it was together with the noise, sensory deprivation and confinement.
It is no accident that Jesus was born in a stable; that our Savior shared space with the cows and farm animals and that he had only his parents and the shepherds to celebrate his arrival into this world. God’s genius of incarnated love in the place you least expect it – incarcerated! Unexpectedly, Advent arrived early for me. I’m sure Judge LaMothe who imposed this “punishment” had no idea she was gifting me with a window into the mystery of God; One who wants to be born in a stable, in prison, in soup kitchens, in refugee camps, in the fields with the farm-workers. The radiant star that guides us is suffering humanity. The bad news, it’s everywhere. The Good News, it’s everywhere!