Monthly Archives: September 2014

Pelican Bay State Prison: Security Housing Unit

For my first assignment in theology, we were asked to write a ONE page (no more allowed) paper about an event that had changed us in a meaningful way. ONE event? ONE page? My brain racked! For days I struggled with which one and how could I say that in ONE page? Finally, I gave up. Always a good sign! And then quietly, my heart landed not on one of the many events that have carved into my heart leaving me on bare knees nor did it land on one of those times that have left me overflowing with Grace. No, my heart landed on the one that has reminded me most how (I pray) to live. Here is what I shared…

In 2007, I stepped out to check the mail in front of my school, the Tree of Life. There I found a letter addressed to me from an inmate I will call John Smith in the Security Housing Unit of Pelican Bay State Prison. Thinking it must be a mistake, I almost put it back to be returned to sender. Then, cautiously, I decided to open it. I found four handwritten pages that still leave my heart still and silent. My first book, An Ordinary Life Transformed: Lessons for Everyone from the Bhagavad Gita had just come out about six months before and, through a series of what can only be described as divinely orchestrated events, John had gotten a copy. Below are excerpts from his letter…

“I am a 39 year old inmate who, since 1992, has been serving a life without the possibility of parole prison sentence…It may appear strange to you, but I am isolated from all human contact. When I leave my cell it is always under escort while being handcuffed, and I am allowed only ninety minutes a day outside alone in a tiny cage…Rev. Stephanie Rutt I have read your book quite a few times and I am writing to say thank you for being a light in my journey. For if it was not for your book I would not be where I am beginning at now…I have a long way to go…but I feel freer than I’ve ever been in my life, that I can truly remember. I lived in the real world as a prisoner and most of my prison sentence as one also , but I am slowly freeing myself, and beginning to spread my wings…As I close this letter allow me to let you know that I appreciate and thank you for assisting me on this journey. I am sure you never would have thought that you could reach through concrete and steel and touch someone’s life. But better yet I believe this is exactly why you wrote this book and presented it as a gift to the world. So that one day all of us could feel the true meaning of ‘Welcome Home.’”

What John could not have known is that I had often used his very words to describe my book – my gift to God and to the world. “Welcome Home” is a phrase I use often in all my writing. I did write back to him, thanking him for his letter, but never heard from him again.

Every time I read his letter, I remember (again) that it is simply my job to do what I can where I am. To play my part. To contribute my small offering to the great tapestry of life. I am not to concern myself with where my Beloved may lead me. I am not to question or even to imagine what effect my humble offering might bring. No, this is not my charge or responsibility. I am to show up, offer what I am able in faith and love and trust that God will do the rest. How freeing.

Such is the mystery of knowing not.

Such is the mystery of the One Heart where we all move, breathe and have our being and are graced to say to one another, Welcome…

Welcome John…

Welcome Home.




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A Place Called Home

I can still hear the soft southern winds in the live oak trees, Don Williams used to sing. I too as I’ve just returned from walking the old roads where I was raised up as they say. Though, growing up, I was only there in the summers, it was home. Still is. That’s for sure.

There, outside my immediate family, no one knows me as Reverend or has ever heard of the Tree of Life. No, there I am known as something much more integral, familial. That’s Mrs. Bishop’s granddaughter. You know, she’s Dorothy’s daughter. Nothing else needs to be said. And, truth be known, I’ve always felt quite content with it that way.

So, absolutely nothing could have prepared me for what happened within hours of my arrival on my beloved screen porch as I sat there with my two aunts basking in the night sounds of all those katydids.

“Someone’s comin’ up the drive,” my aunt said who now lives in my grandmother’s house. “Shoot!” I thought, not wanting my sweet respite interrupted. But, in they came, two of my aunt’s lifelong friends and pillars of our home town Methodist Church. The conversation was moving along quite familiar lines with talk about all the current church and community news when suddenly my other aunt said, “Well, you know Stephanie is a minister and she’s working on her doctorate.”

My heart seemed to skip a beat and then was held still as I sensed that familiar something that told me hold on for that which I could not have known was coming.

“Really? Are you a Methodist minister?”

“No. I’m an interfaith minister. I serve the Tree of Life Interfaith Temple in Amherst, New Hampshire.”

Silence. And, I waited for the usual, “What is an interfaith minister? Are you Christian?” But, instead, one of our visitors asked, “What are you studying in school?”

Feeling it best, at least initially, to stay on semi-familiar ground, I said, “Well, I’m interested in the teachings of Jesus translated through Aramaic, the language he spoke. I’ve studied the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic and have written a book so I would like to expand on that.”

More silence. And then, a look of curiosity. “Jesus was a Jew. Didn’t he speak Hebrew?”

“Yes, he did but his teachings in the Bible are believed to have been spoken in Aramaic. Hebrew and Aramaic do use the same script so, as a matter of fact, if you want to learn Aramaic they say you should learn Hebrew first.”

A pause.

“Can you speak Hebrew?”

“A little. I am learning. It is a beautiful language. I first encountered it learning the 23rd Psalm.”

“Oh, I love the 23rd Psalm. Could you say a few words of it in Hebrew?”

“I could recite the full Psalm if you’d like.”

“We’d love that.”

And, so I did and afterwards there was just a sweet silence that hung in the air. And, then I heard, “Could you say the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic?”

“Of course.”

And, again, afterwards there was that sweet silence.

Oh my, my Beloved. What did you just make happen here?

And then, though I was fully prepared to continue our conversation in whatever direction they might desire, to perhaps discuss interfaith ministry or my broader research interests, this time, they led the conversation back to the more familiar, “My goodness, what a good job that young man did painting your house. You know, I need to get some work done on my house.” And, soon after, they were gone.

The next morning my aunts and I went to church and sat in our special family pew. We rose and sang out in revival fervor, In the sweet by an by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore and Leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms. And, I cried.

Not sure why. Felt something like a window had been opened, gingerly, between my, usually, quite separate worlds. And, just for a moment, on that small screened porch deep in the country, they had breathed together. It gave me a kind of hope.

Then, after a week of fried green tomatoes, grits, collards, southern fried chicken, black eyed peas and more than a few helpings of my aunt’s special banana pudding, it was time to come home.

Home? Where is home?

And, my heart answered…It’s your family pew in a country church down south. It’s a Sparrow’s Nest on the second floor of an old building in a small town up north. It’s leaning on those everlasting arms. It’s being lost in love with Rumi. It’s being Mrs. Bishop’s granddaughter, Dorothy’s daughter. It’s being Rev. Stephanie.

And, maybe, it’s just loving folks right where they are, and offering what we can as the Beloved may invite, that makes us most recognize when we are Home. For, perhaps, in just those moments, we remember, in the sweet silence, just in Whom it is we “all” move, and breath and have our being. (Acts 17:28).

And, if we are still enough, perhaps we just might also be able to hear the Beloved whispering…whispering ever so softly in our ear…

Welcome…Welcome Home.

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