3 April 2018
Masresha Tilahun displays the cross he has been carving by hand in woodworking class in the Addis Alem prison in Ethiopia. (photo: Don Duncan)
Journalist Don Duncan turns a spotlight on a remarkable prison ministry in Ethiopia in the March edition of ONE.
The assignment offered some challenges he didn’t expect, as he reports here.
Even before I made the journey to Ethiopia, I’d been warned that this would be a tricky assignment.
Through the connections of a CNEWA beneficiary, ONE had the rare and fortunate opportunity to gain access to two of Ethiopia’s prisons so as to see and understand the lives, needs and spirituality of an oft-overlooked population: the incarcerated.
I have only ever been in one prison before in my life, a medium-security facility in upstate New York which I visited with a journalism school classmate who was working with me on a crime story.
I had no idea what a prison in Ethiopia would be like but I proceeded with a certain sense of caution and even nervousness. I had been warned to be very careful about what kinds of questions I asked. Incarceration is quite politically charged and a hot issue in Ethiopia. A simple question — one that would go unnoticed in a regular context — could wreck havoc in the context of the prison, either among the prisoners or between the prison administration and the Addis Ababa Archdiocese Prison Chaplaincy, the organization that had helped to get us access to the prison.
Thus, I entered Addis Alem prison not with the thoughts of which questions I would ask the prisoners but rather which questions I would NOT ask them, under any circumstances.
I was to stay away from politics, for sure, but also stay away from any discussion of human rights; any questions that might convey an implied criticism of how the prison is run; and any questions as to the personal histories of the inmates: their homes, family lives, their specific crimes and the length of their sentences.
These restrictions, as sensible and well-meaning as they were, made for a very interesting exercise in interviewing.
I suddenly realized how spoiled I am in my usual interview practice, in the “outside world,” where the freedom of the press means that no question is off-limits. Now, I had to eventually write a colorful and insightful article based on material I was gathering under very restricted conditions. I was shot through by a low-burning anxiety that the story would be a washout, that it would fall flat on its face because of these restrictions.
But to my great surprise, the opposite happened. I’d been briefed that the prison was home to people from places near and far in Ethiopia and that their sentences varied, for crimes of gravity spanning from theft to serial murder. But when I found myself face-to-face with a prisoner, there was no way — because of the restrictions I was working under — that I could know or find out the specifics of his life or crimes. This meant that I could only focus on the here-and-now, his name and age, what his likes and dislikes were, what he was feeling in the present moment and what his spiritual life is like.
As I proceeded to interview inmates on these restricted terms, their humanity shone forth. I realized that, had I known their crimes or sentences, my rapport with them or my thinking about them would be shaded by the gravity of their past actions. Without that knowledge, I encountered everyone in the moment and I could fully perceive and appreciate their beauty and humanity as souls.
When I left the prison after a few hours, I realized how fortunate I was to have had the experience of visiting it. It was a striking manifestation of Jesus’s words in Matthew (5:43-44): “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
It is a beautiful thought — but it is often, in practice, a tall order.
Beyond prison, in the “outside world” that we live in, where there are far fewer restrictions on what we know about each other, how capable are we of perceiving and loving the soul of the sinner in spite of his/her sin?
It is rarely very easy to overcome one’s own biases, prejudices and judgments. And yet, Addis Alem prison caused me to be struck again by how truly indispensable a part of living a good life it is to be able to see beyond the sin, in spite of it, to project love.
Read Don Duncan’s report, ‘For I Was in Prison’ in the current edition of ONE.