How Advent Actually Happens in Cold, Dark, Desperate Places: Compassion Cultivation at Angola

Angola entrance photo

“Desperate” is defined as “involving a hopeless sense that a situation is so bad as to be impossible to deal with.”

Synonyms for “Advent” include “arrival, appearance, emergence, materialization, occurrence, dawn, birth, rise, development.”

Compassion warriors show up in desperate places, places where there is immense need for compassion, and there they seek Advent: the arrival, appearance, emergence, materialization, occurrence, dawn, birth, rise, development that can mend the torn fabric of the world.

100 compassion warriors gathered on a cold, rainy, windy day yesterday at our Angola Louisiana State Penitentiary for “A Day of Compassion.” Some of them were from the outside. Some of them were from the inside. All of them were seeking Advent in a desperate place, and it had nothing to do with free people stringing tinsel and being glee.

Here are a few of the compassion warriors seeking Advent in a desperate place who I encountered yesterday.

Rev. Michaela O’Conner Bono is a Zen Buddhist Priest, a young white adult whose hair is shaved on one side. She demonstrated a fierce stance as a warrior of compassion. She came from the outside, where she leads Mid City Zen in New Orleans. She seeks Advent.

Rev. A. is an African-American minister of Islam, who is from the inside, serving as a mentor, and hospice worker, as well as a religious leader of a Muslim congregation. His demeanor was joyful. He glowed from the inside. How is that possible when living in a desperate place like Angola? Advent must be finding him, birthing in him.

Ariel Jeanjacques is a program coordinator for Crime Survivors for Safety & Justice in New Orleans. She is from the outside, an African-American young adult who has learned that victims, families, and perpetrators of violence are all suffering human beings. She seeks Advent with all of them.

Mr. S. is a giant of a man who lives on the inside. He is a mentor, and speaks with at-risk youth and a wide variety of groups who tour Angola. He spoke of the pain of meeting a group from Germany who said the maximum sentence for crimes there is ten years, because in their criminal justice system there can be reconciliation and healing in justice, not just permanent punishment without hope of parole. I spent much of the day with him, feeling immense sadness and the constant struggle with hopelessness which keeps him hovering near the desperate place. He really needs and wants Advent.

Lara Naughton lives on the outside but serves on the inside. She has created a Compassion Cultivation Training program (CCT) inside Angola, completing two eight-week trainings with inmates before birthing “A Day of Compassion.” She is a survivor of violent crime who used a fierce compassion for the desperation in her attacker to survive. The inmates know that, and respect her immensely. Lara told the story in her book, The Jaguar Man. She believes the survivor has the right to seek the healing of both victim and perpetrator, and is dedicating her energy to doing just that on the inside of Angola. Lara is helping to birth Advent in a desperate place.

Mr. D. has lived on the inside for decades, continually paying for a crime from his youth. He serves as a mentor for new inmates, and is now a teaching assistant in the CCT program. He speaks with a sense of power and truth. He is “woke” to the daily effects of racism at every level of American society, including our choice to stay blind to the way poverty, poor education, low wages, and hopelessness produce inner city crime from generation to generation. He spoke openly of the unending hurdles to birthing compassion in the criminal justice system. And yet, there he was, working each day to do his part to help birth Advent in a desperate place.

John Burkhart is an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, and a field director in the area of criminal justice reform. He lives on the outside, but works with those on the inside. He is a white male who is not willing to stand for the myths of white supremacy or black/immigrant inferiority which pervades the culture. He, too, is part of birthing Advent in a desperate world.

Mr. K. lives and serves on the inside. He authored a program for father’s in prison which is now used in hundreds of prisons across the country. At our last visit I agreed to send him a copy of my book, Monks in the World. When I saw him I felt bad for not taking that simple step for a month now. I reminded him I owe him a book. He simply said, “I know.” Despite how white people make promises we fail to keep with black people all the time, he still works toward Advent in a place that is the definition of desperate.

Margaret Cullen is one of the architects and core faculty of the Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) program created through Stanford University. She teaches CCT to physicians, nurses, HIV positive men, cancer patients, military spouses and now, even though she is from the outside, on the inside of a prison. She taught: “In compassion the ‘separation’ between us is gone.” She also shared some of the research showing the neuroplasticity of the brain, (meaning the brain can change), and how “compassion and altruism are trainable skills.”

In her first study right there at Angola this summer, the inmates who participated in the first CCT with Lara showed more than a 100% increase in their awareness of our common humanity. This awareness is foundational to growing in compassion for others’ suffering. Do you imagine Margaret is helping to birth Advent?

Another Mr. S. lives on the inside. He is a pastor and teaching assistant to Lara. In an increasingly soft voice, he led us through a compassion meditation. He called us down into the center of being where the heart guides our decisions and actions. There he invited us to direct compassion toward ourselves, “May I be happy, know peace, and find healing.” Then he led us to focus the compassion toward a person we care about, “May you be happy….” Then he led us to send the compassion toward everyone in the room. Those from the outside and those on the inside became one. Isn’t that Advent?

Sister Alison McCrary, SFCC, is a social justice attorney who has been leaving her home on the outside to visit death row inmates on the inside for twelve years. Despite the depressive atmosphere that pervades the places where she serves, Alison somehow stays near the Source of joy, and radiates that to all who meet her. She too is a young adult who serves from a heart of compassion, who seeks to be Advent in a desperate corner of the globe.

That is the thing really. Advent can be such a happy little moment for comfortable people like me to put evergreens and red bows around churches, to sing happy little songs about that sweet little baby Jesus coming to earth to save our eternal souls. But now I see how Advent actually happens in cold, dark, desperate places like Compassion Cultivation at Angola.

We from the outside, and our friends on the inside, closed “A Day of Compassion” by facing the camera which was filming the whole day, and directed the compassion to the 5678 incarcerated people, and the 1000+ staff members, who will all eventually see the video. We said to them all, “May you be happy, free of suffering, anger, and fear, and may you know peace and joy.” Perhaps others will soon see and know how Advent actually happens in cold, dark, desperate places like Compassion Cultivation at Angola.

*For more information about CCT, visit the website for The Compassion Institute or email the staff at info@compassioninstitute.com. For more information about the work of Lara Naughton, contact her at lara@laranaughton.com. To learn more about our School for Contemplative Living and our plans to incorporate CCT as part of our primary curriculum, contact William Thiele through http://www.thescl.net.

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About soulcare4u

I am the author of Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic World, published by Wipf & Stock and available through Amazon.com; and of a blog on Wordpress.com, "A Contemplative Path." I serve as the founding spiritual director of The School for Contemplative Living (www.thescl.net), adjunct faculty of Loyola University, and as a pastoral counselor and spiritual director in private practice.
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