In his opening presentation to the UCC’s National Youth Event on Tuesday night, writer, filmaker and professor MK Asante (to his credit, he’s also a Philadelphian) told a story about an incarcerated man, Jordan.
Asante was teaching creative writing in a Pennsylvania prison. He explained that many of the inmates, perhaps surprisingly, turn out to be very good writers — people with something to say who are creative when given the chance to express their stories.
But one man in his class that day was particularly talented. Jordan had an impressive sense of narrative direction, dexterity with word play, and striking ideas behind his stories. Asante was excited, after his class, when one of the guards offered to take him to see Jordan’s cell, where he spends most of his time.
Asante explained that the cell looked like most of the others he had passed walking through the prison: cells are after all unremarkable in their uniformity. But there was something different about Jordan’s that Asante couldn’t quite figure it out.
He looked deliberately. Took a second glance. Then a third. Finally a fourth time. It was almost a minute before he realized what was different. Jordan’s room had everything the other cells contained (which wasn’t much), but it was missing a mattress. The bare metal cot sat there, springs exposed.
Asante wondered if Jordan had lost the privilege of a mattress, as a punishment for something. He didn’t really know what he was offering, when he said, “Maybe I can talk to someone, a guard or the administration, and see if I can do anything to help you get a mattress.
Jordan smiled in response, then reached under the metal cot and pulled out a mattress, “I got a mattress. You don’t get it, do you?”
Asante said he was left feeling sort of stupid, but he did not get why this man would refuse to use the mattress given him. What beef could his new friend could have with a mattress? Asante asked himself, “What, was the mattress talking bad about his mother or something?”
Jordan explained. “I sleep on the floor. I sleep up against the wall. I sleep on the springs. Because sleeping on the comfort of a mattress belies the inhumanity of this place I find myself. It keeps me from recognizing the cruelty and injustice of so much of how humans treat one another.”
I appreciated Asante’s relaying the story. And Jordan’s recognition.
They made me think again about some of our rougher accommodations in Nicaragua. Of families without beds. Of people without freedom. Or a fair chance.
It even made me think about our uncomfortable overnight on the bus, and the luxury of getting to travel such a distance and for such a gathering. It even occurred to me that my early morning nap on the asphalt of a parking lot — when the bus broke down– might be a luxury some cannot imagine.
Are there ways that your discomforts, real or possible, could open you to realities — particularly others’ challenges — that would be easier, more self-interested, more comfortable to overlook, ignore or forget.
The mantra of Asante’s whole presentation was:
“If you make an observation, you have an obligation.” In churchier terms, we say, “Those with eyes to see…” and talk about “what God’s calling us to do.”
I’m not really one who believes that suffering is redemption. But could some of it be revelatory?
What ought we see?
How ought we be responding?
This are some of the themes presented to the youth this week at the National Youth Event. They can be equally and fruitfully address to and asked of each of us.
See you in church on Sunday,