“Incarceration Breaks Hearts” by Sandra Miller


November 13, 2022

O God, may you touch my mind, heart, and mouth, that the words I utter are the words you have put there for me to speak, and may you and those present hear well what I offer freely. 

May it be so.

Both prayer and service to others reveal to us the tremendous truth that to be a person is to be a gift, and to give that gift is to receive the gift of being a person.”

-James Finley, Merton’s Palace of Nowhere, p. 98 (Inward/Outward)

I’m not sure that this is where I want to start, but I was, and still am, at such a loss as to how to proceed. What I do know is that I strive to be both gift to others, and a grateful gift recipient, and trust all of you to bear with me knowing I am flawed in my striving.

I was going to forego any biblical reference in this sermon as I was blinded by my fierce emotions around the subject matter of incarceration. I couldn’t see that there was a glimmer in our readings that should in fact be sited. Yet I read to you a small portion from Isaiah 65:17-19:

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.

Truthfully, the glimmer I saw of a new Jerusalem in our carceral system has grown so very dim since I started writing. My doubt that the sound of weeping will no longer be heard in our jails and prisons, that the carceral system can become something different, with a focus on meeting people where they are with what they need, has grown into a certainty that it will not happen in my lifetime, if at all. What I know is that it is likely that I will weep today, as I have been for several days. Incarceration breaks hearts, inside and outside the fences and barbed wire.

A recent Richard Rohr meditation included the following: “The depth and mystery of God leaves all of us as perpetual searchers and seekers, always novices and beginners. It is the narrow and dark way of faith.” My journey into issues of injustice have often been, and still are, down a narrow and dark way of faith.  My message may lead some of you to examine a portion of that narrow and dark way. With more companions on the journey, shedding light on that path and working to widen and illuminate it, we might see progress toward a time when the sound of weeping and cries of distress diminish until humanity, and the entirety of creation, reaches the time when the Holy One’s promise is fulfilled. The Holy One did not, promise that all of us do not have to work to make it so, though it remains that each of us has to freely choose the work that is ours to do.

For me, one of the lessons from Jesus is that not a single one of us are to be judged by the worst thing we have ever done in our lives. Remorse and redemption are possible. While it is true that I haven’t committed a felony, I have hurt some people in my life quite badly emotionally. I have atoned where possible, and hold one heavy stone where I was refused the possibility of atoning. I can certainly say that the damage I’ve done has a direct correlation to damage I have experienced, who I have been, and who I am becoming. That is as true for those incarcerated as it is for me. Gordon Cosby said “In the struggle to become Christ’s Body, we have only one weapon and one alone: Love…. Love is what first softened your heart and mine. Love brought us into the struggle. Love alone has the power to break hearts open so that we will all lay down our defenses and join in the cosmic movement toward a new heaven, a new earth, in a Holy City whose foundation is Love.” Love is the gift we can give, and the gift we can receive.

You’ve heard me talk many times about my two current connections to nonprofits working to change, or at least ameliorate the systems of incarceration in this country. As a refresher, they are Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR) and Justice Arts Coalition, known as JAC, both of which Seekers supports. Another connection comes from my pretty deep dive into poetry by formerly and currently incarcerated persons, which is a rich source of the sound of weeping and cries of distress, and of remorse.

My life changed on Wednesday afternoon with a call from one of my pen pals, and changed beyond measure my own inner landscape, as well as throwing me into turmoil about what I might bring to you today. It also highlighted that my motivation is a tremendous love, even overwhelming love, for the men with whom I am communicating. There is no expectation of reward of any kind, and in some cases the end of those relationships will be painful and everlasting, as I know from the ending of many of these relationships over the years.

In August of 2020 I attended a JAC ArtLinks event and was moved to write to Chad for the first time, the following:

I am a sometime volunteer with JAC, and an artist.

The piece of yours that I am currently in “conversation” with during the online workshop with JAC and the Phillips Collection is untitled. It captured me the moment I saw it.

I admire the lengths to which you went to create the drawing. How many people would think to empty the ink out of a pen in order to paint, not to mention the risk of breaking rules on the inside. You’re awesome!

The image is still up on my computer screen, and it is literally staring at me. The one “clear” eye strikes me in so many ways – beseeching, vacant, seeing everything, and hollow. And there’s, to me, an interaction happening between that eye and your signature – an invitation to see your personhood.

And there is so much more! You evoke a sense of melting away in how you’ve painted the whole image – drips and empty spaces like wax in the heat, or a lava flow. For me there’s also a sense of persistence of existence in the grey areas that hint of the shadow of being still present despite that the person is “incomplete.” There’s also something very strong, (well, the whole piece is very strong) in the emphatic darkness of the segment in the lower left corner.

This drawing/painting will be with me for a long, long time.

I also have a tremendous curiosity about your feelings about this work, and what the story is behind it for you. That’s something you may not want to share, but if you do …

…and I provided my contact information via the church address.

He wrote back a wonderful letter that included

I am still in a state of disbelief at how people respond to my art. Whenever I sit down to paint with my junky paintbrush and pen ink I’m transported out of this cell and am totally consumed with filling that piece of paper full of my emotions, my stress, anxiety, fear, love, etc. I’m able to let it all out with each little stroke and it never fails to surprise me when I’m finished at how cool it comes out. I’m completely in love with painting. Thank you for allowing me to “set free” each portrait I do. It’s stupid but I like to think that just because I’m in here it doesn’t mean they have to be as well.

Chad and I have been corresponding ever since, and as you can see, he gifted me with the painting I have referred to, as well as the two others you see, in the order they were sent.

Chad’s resourcefulness in his circumstances in order to live his life as an artist is astounding. He has had access to paper, however is deprived of all other tools. He blows the ink out of BIC pen cartridges, almost always black, and in short supply. He rejoices when the one guard who doesn’t treat him badly brings him an extra black pen, or even the occasional red or blue pen. And when ink runs out, he makes ink from hair grease, and/or candle soot. And that is hardly a hint to his resourcefulness. His commitment to being an artist and maintaining his humanity is beyond anything I am capable of, and calls me to be better than I believe I am.

Time has continued, and about 5 or 6 months ago his letters contained darkness not present before, as represented by the skull painting, which he gave the wings to fly to me. It has an inscription on the back that says: “For my friend Sandra, Thank you for being strong when I can’t be. With Love, your friend, Chad” This was painted after his transfer to solitary confinement at a maximum security facility, where he is still incarcerated. His one year punishment has just been extended by another 90 days.

I wish I could tell you more of Chad’s story, but it is not mine to tell, and is, of course, confidential. His sentence is life in prison. What I will share is that about 2 months ago he stopped writing and started calling, which is a blessing beyond compare. The calls cost him $1.40 for 20 minutes, which by nationwide standards is cheap. Unfortunately, the timing of those calls is not of my choosing, or they would be far more frequent, especially now.

This last Wednesday he confided that since last October he has been planning on committing suicide at this one year mark. In that 20 minute call he talked about having “a ravenous f-ing thing inside me”, and being “afraid of hope – they steal everything about you.” He also talked about his historical family roots, and his almost daily phone call to support a beloved aunt in a difficult time for her. Our call timed out, and he said he’d call back later in the day when as he had more phone time, but that call never came, nor has he called since. I am distraught. I do not believe that he has taken his life now, however I do know that he intentionally overdosed about 3 weeks ago and spent a week in the hospital. I believe that accounts for the extension of his time in solitary, but have no proof of that.

This in contrast to his reaching out to the Restorative Justice Project in his state in order to be in touch with the victim’s family of his crime. The project has been supportive of him in many ways. He has read Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning at the urging of one of his lawyers. He is extremely well read about many subjects including art. He painted his solitary cell in black and white with Van Gogh’s Starry Night, one of the images from the book of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings I sent him, and several other paintings. The project has arranged for a fairly lengthy number of sessions, in person, with a well-known therapist that will begin shortly, and they believe they may be able to get him out, though it could take 10 years. How do I reconcile Chad’s incredible personhood and goodness with his inability to live long enough to see the possibilities through? My heart is broken, and I am totally helpless. All I can do is to support him on his journey wherever it takes him, pray for him, and love him.

Life is full of paradoxes, and while I am currently consumed by the very present crisis that dims my view of the new Jerusalem, there is another side to my engagement with incarcerated people. Sam and I started corresponding in February 2020, when I bought his small painting of a cardinal. New Jerusalem rose bright and beautiful when he, a 10+ year Navy vet injured in Iraq, pursuing a degree in sociology online from prison, confided in me that he was attracted to a man, a hard turn from his disapproval of nonconforming persons, and that slowly but surely, and secretly, they were developing a real relationship. He credits the sociology classes for broadening his mind.

New Jerusalem rose bright and beautiful with a brief correspondence with Jordan Earls after reading his poem:


The sun
is a helpless lover.
I know this because,
evening after evening,
she returns
to her significant other,
that dark, mysterious horizon,
and plants the gentlest
of kisses upon his head;
yet every time,
she dissolves
and is absorbed into
his long body
where she disappears
to do what
helpless lovers do.
It matters little
if I understand
what she is doing or
where she has gone,
for every dawn,
she returns
bright, beautiful,

My sermon can’t end before I share about Rob, who in nearly every letter, brings about the New Jerusalem by making me laugh. His terrible treatment and environment while being held 6 years, yes years not weeks, in county jail, complete with leaking tin roofs, and constant condensation on concrete walls, and poor pandemic procedures, without trial, rarely dims his spirit or sense of humor. There was the ventilation fan above his bunk during pandemic housing, that he was sure was responsible for the hurricane in Puerto Rico, as a tiny example. He finally went to trial, and retrial, with two 11 to 1 hung juries in favor of acquittal, and took a plea deal for 17 years. He had a mental health breakdown, and no one was injured. Fortunately, he will get time off for a multitude of understandable reasons, including time served, and will end up serving only as much as 7 more years. I wish I could quote from his letters, but trust me, when he writes about discovering at the prison where he will serve out his term: he is only 45 minutes away from his sons, and can’t wait to see them, that he discovered not one, but two libraries stocked with great books, and an ART ROOM, about which he is over the moon, all couched in his inimitable comic style, I laugh, cry, and smile.

From JAC’s recent email newsletter I quote, “As a way of highlighting our wonderful collection of writing by the artists in our network, which includes everything from poetry to political essays, we would like to begin the newsletter with a brief reflection on an excerpt of writing. Our excerpt for November is from a letter sent in by Obie Weathers, entitled “On Paper Cranes.” (You can read the full letter, and understand that Obie wants to do a project with JAC, here.) 

After we paint our cranes, I would like us to have a discussion about who in our lives have been a source of good fortune for us? Who have been sources of peace? I would like for us to consider this because it has been my experience – and maybe you can relate to this – that so much of my good luck in life has come from people in my life, or people I have met along the way. The peace I have had in life seems connected with help that I have gotten from others. So what I would like us to consider is some of the people in our lives who have been a source of good fortune or peace. And how we are all helped by another.”

There is so much more I could share. Brian, Sean, J. Scott, and Jordan have their places in my heart, though we correspond just a few times a year. What is most important, inclusive of everyone I am in touch with, and have been in the past, regardless of whether they are artists, is that there isn’t a single stereotypical incarcerated person among them. Just like all of us here, and all of us in the world, we are each a unique and powerful gift to creation. I will continue to try to pray into the passage for strength and hope, despite my broken heart:

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.”

Should you choose to reflect on this sermon once posted, please refer back to the sermon that Jeanne Marcus offered here on October 22nd for the ties that bind them together.

With gratitude to those of you in Seekers who are pen pals to those incarcerated. I ask you to stand if you will, or raise your virtual hand if you’re on Zoom. I hope that if others in the community want to talk to you about your experience, you will be happy to engage with them. The Racial & Ethnic Justice Ministry Team is hoping to have a Freedom Friday event on writing to incarcerated pen pals, so stay tuned if you’re interested. To those who have listened to me, and offered support these last several days, my appreciation knows no bounds.


Further reading idea: https://cac.org/news/finding-god-in-the-criminal-justice-system/?utm_source=cm&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=we_conspire&utm_content=reg

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