As I have written about before, we recently founded the Harvard Interfaith Prison Education project (HIPE), and I am so excited about all that has happened so far, and the promise of more to come. In particular, I am thinking today about the event we will be hosting tomorrow--a conversation with Dr. Kaia Stern, Co-Founder and Director of the Prison Studies Program, visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School, and an ordained interfaith minister. Prof. Stern's talk will be accompanied by group discussion about goals for the semester and the meaning of interfaith prison work. She is a leading thinker and doer in this area, and we are thrilled that she has graciously offered her time and expertise to us. I look forward to sharing more about this event after tomorrow!
In case you aren't familiar with HIPE, here is some background information I wrote earlier today:
Founded in November 2012, Harvard Interfaith Prison Education (HIPE) was jointly organized by the Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard and Harvard Hillel. HIPE is an interfaith coalition of Harvard graduate and undergraduate students committed to mentoring incarcerated women and men who are working towards their bachelor degrees through Partakers and Boston University's "College Behind Bars" program. HIPE currently has 21 members from the College, the Graduate School of Education, Hillel staff, Episcopal Chaplaincy staff, the Divinity School, the School of Public Health, and the Law School. Although started by Episcopal and Jewish student communities, HIPE is very multi-religious, and its current members self-identify as Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist. These members are divided into 3 interfaith and inter-school teams, each assigned to a different incarcerated mentee.
HIPE was founded by Hilly Haber (HDS '12) and me, growing out of a brainstorming conversation we had at a coffee shop in Harvard Square early this fall. Hilly and I are both working in campus ministries at Harvard this year -- me at the Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard as the Micah Fellow for Social Justice, and Hilly at Harvard Hillel as Coordinator for Graduate Student Programming -- and so we were excited to find ways to do interfaith work together. Remembering a shared experience as members of Harvard Divinity School's prison mentoring team, we hatched the idea to form a similar interfaith prison team open to participants throughout the University, with intentional interfaith reflection built in to the model. We are now coordinating the HIPE team together and providing opportunities for theological reflection and support for team-members--like tomorrow night's event!
Our team is one of 26 teams throughout Massachusetts that Partakers has connected with incarcerated students in the College Behind Bars program. We follow the protocol that Partakers has laid out for visits, and we had Arthur Bembury, the Executive Director of Partakers, come and do an orientation with our teams about visiting policy, expectations, and procedures. Members visit Norfolk prison in pairs (2 visitors allowed per prisoner at a time), and the travel time provides a perfect opportunity for reflection on the experience, which we hope will be used for interfaith dialogue and make the project one of true praxis--action/reflection. In between visits, team members also write letters to their mentee, primarily to coordinate visits. Letters are the main form of communication we have with the prisoners, so we need to coordinate visits well in advance. The letters are also important for catching up about different aspects of their education. Sometimes they will send an essay they wrote for class, or ask us to find some information for them for a project.
When we do visit the prison, we go to the visiting room in the prison as normal social visitors, and basically just have a conversation. For many of the folks in the program, this is one of the only contacts they have with the outside world, so they love the opportunity to have someone to talk to, especially someone who is passionate about education and is encouraging them in a very difficult endeavor of pursuing a college degree while incarcerated. We provide support and a listening ear about the papers they are writing, the projects they are working on, the ideas that are intriguing right now, their plans for classes for the next semester, and so forth. Topics of spirituality and life's meaning and big questions tend to come up, too, and for me, it has been a great experience to have those conversations, especially across divides of religion, class, race...
The act of accompaniment in spiritual and educational journeys is truly prophetic, and one that we are excited to be engaging across lines of separation in our society.