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by Rev. Jeff Grant, JD, M Div
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The Parable of the Prodigal Son
Emanuel Episcopal Church
Sunday, March 6, 2016, 10 am
Please pray with me.
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight Oh Lord – our Rock and our Redeemer.
Good morning. Welcome to Emanuel Episcopal Church in Weston CT. My name is Jeff Grant. My wife Lynn Springer and I moved to Weston about 2 ½ years ago, and we are so pleased to call this community our home. We are members of Norfield Congregational Church here in town, and have probably run into many of you on our many excursions to Peter’s Market.
We want to thank Rev. Katy Piazza and the vestry for inviting us to worship with you this morning, and to be a part of your journey through Lent and up to Easter.
On Easter Sunday 2006, exactly ten years ago, I reported to Allenwood Low Security Corrections Institution in White Deer, Pennsylvania, to serve my sentence of eighteen months in Federal prison for a white-collar crime.
Upon reporting, a guard came out and I showed him my court orders – he did not seem happy about my reporting on Easter Sunday. As we went through the metal door he spun me around, held my hands behind my back and slapped handcuffs on them. I had been anticipating this moment for over a year and not once did I consider that I would have to be handcuffed. At that moment I had my first inkling of how little I knew about surviving in prison.
Next, I was brought to a section called R & D, Receiving & Discharge, that felt very much like its title – a place for FedEx packages. I was processed and then told to strip naked. While I was standing naked in this cold room, on a cold cement floor, a man entered who I would later learn was the Head Lieutenant. He basically ran the day-to-day operations of the prison. Looking me up and down, he then asked me if I was the lawyer. I told him no, but that I used to be one. This answer seemed to please him. Then he told me then that inside there would be one former lawyer – that would be me – two former doctors, five former stockbrokers, and 1500 drug dealers.
I was given an orange jumpsuit to put on, was re-cuffed and then was marched across the compound to the SHU (which is the prison acronym for segregated housing unit or solitary confinement). When I got to the SHU, it looked like something out of the worst prison movie I had ever seen – dark and dimly lit, with rows of metal doors with tiny holes in them. Inside the cell was a narrow bunk bed – barely wide enough for a grown man’s shoulders – a toilet, a sink, a desk and a chair. And there I met my first “cellie” – a black man, about 50 years old, with dreadlocks down to his waist. When I came in, he didn’t acknowledge my presence at all. He just pointed to the upper bunk. I understood – that was mine.
His first words came about ten minutes later when he told me to move fast. The sound of a cart moving down the hall meant we had no time to lose. The slot on the metal cell door opened, and very quickly, four covered trays of food slid in through the slot. I understood what he meant by moving fast. If we didn’t catch the trays they would have dropped to the floor and the food would have spilled all over. He caught each tray and quickly handed them to me. I put them on the desk. We sat on the floor, dividing the dinner between us. Looking at the trays, I saw there was a little meat of some sort, and lots of bread, potatoes and rice. Starches were apparently the mainstay of the diet – I asked him if he wanted my potatoes and rice. With this offering, we became friends in no time. He told me his name was Raoul.
Almost everybody who was designated to Allenwood was first brought to the SHU, Raoul explained. There was no way to know how long I’d be in the SHU, but Raoul suspected that I wouldn’t have to wait long: I was a first timer, middle aged, and most importantly, I was white. I later learned that some inmates are kept in the SHU “waiting for a bed” thirty days or longer. I only had to wait 16 hours before I was released onto the compound.
About a month ago, Lynn and I met with Rev. Katy to discuss this morning’s sermon. We met in Katy’s study next door, and what happened in that meeting was filled with the Spirit. We opened our hearts and souls to one another. We discussed our family issues, our pain, our brokenness, and the ways in which we navigate life in a world that often has little or no compassion, empathy or tolerance for those who are weak, different or suffering. Katy challenged us regarding this morning’s sermon. She challenged us to be disruptors, to speak our truth this morning, to be real, and to be authentic, so that everyone in the congregation and community might be empowered to speak their truths as well.
So, I have come here this morning to live up to Katy’s challenge, to do my very best to be real and authentic. My job is to testify about my story of being transformed from a successful New York corporate attorney, to becoming addicted to prescription painkillers, to surviving almost fourteen months in a Federal prison, to receiving my Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, to becoming an inner city minister in Bridgeport, to founding, with my wife Lynn, a prison ministry that supports individuals and families with white-collar and nonviolent incarceration issues.
The title of today’s sermon is, “Shame, Schadenfreude & Metanoia.” I know those are mouthfuls. But they are perfect words to talk about the difficulties and redemption stories in our lives, and to hold against today’s scripture reading from Luke, The Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Shame is a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.
Schadenfreudeis pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.
And Metanoia is a change in one’s way of life resulting from penitence or spiritual conversion. Shame, Schadenfreude, Metanoia.
How many of us have experienced feelings of humiliation from having done wrong or foolish things? Or experienced the indignities of stigma and ostracism by others? Or experienced a life altering event that led to a completely different way of looking at things? I’m obviously not going to ask for a show of hands but I can tell you that I have experienced all of these things, and on many days I still do.
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, The Parable of the Prodigal Son, is all about shame, schadenfreude and metanoia. It is a story in which we learn that God wants us back even when we turn away from him. It is a story about a family – a family in which each member has feelings and motivations, both conscious and unconscious, about the things he does and the things that his family members have done. It is about shame, stigma & ostracism, and a new, redemptive way of looking at things.
We can read into this story so many deep feelings: the younger son’s wanderlust and need to break away from the family, the deep shame and remorse he felt when he exercised such poor judgment and squandered his inheritance, and his humility and penitence in returning on his knees to his family stripped of all worldly things;
We can imagine the older son’s envy and jealousy, and perhaps sense of loss, in his younger brother’s leaving the family to experience the world; and his schadenfreude, and the stigma and ostracism he tried to inflict when his younger brother was greeted by their father with open arms. To a feast of fatted calf, no less.
And the father’s own shame when his younger son left home and then lost all of his inheritance, and then his welcome in greeting and honoring his fallen son, and in so doing teaching both of his sons new and transformative lessons in metanoia, that is, moving from shame and schadenfreude to lives of love, compassion and empathy.
I was released from prison in 2007 after serving 13 ½ months, and had to do a stint in a halfway house in Hartford, home detention and then three years of Federal probation. I also had court ordered drug and alcohol counseling. It was my counselor – a former Catholic Priest turned drug counselor- who recommended to me that I rebuild my life through service and volunteerism. I called my rehab, Silver Hill Hospital, and asked them if I could come interview for a volunteer position – they told me to come over that day. We sat and talked for almost two hours, and importantly, I fully disclosed everything that that happened in the past few years. They asked me to fill out an application and told me that they were going to do a background check – I was nervous. I figured that if my own rehab wouldn’t take me for a volunteer job, who in the world would ever let me work for them? I didn’t have to wait long. Two hours later my phone rang and I was a recovery volunteer for Silver Hill Hospital. This led me next to becoming a volunteer house manager at Liberation House in Stamford, CT, and then to Family Reentry, a nonprofit serving the incarcerated affected community in Bridgeport and New Haven, CT. This was the first organization that asked me to serve on its Board of Directors. My first project was with my then girlfriend Lynn – now my wife. We worked with Family Reentry’s formerly incarcerated persons and converted a blighted inner city block in Bridgeport into the largest privately owned public use park and garden in the State of Connecticut. It is an oasis and completely revitalized that neighborhood.
All this time we were living in Greenwich and I was attending recovery meetings – and I became known as the “prison guy.” I was sharing about going to prison, surviving prison, and staying sober through the entire experience. Soon hedge fund guys and others who had white-collar legal problems were seeking me out. Over those ten years, I must have met with and counseled over one hundred guys in various stages of going to or coming back from prison. It was an eye opening experience and I had no idea that it was going to turn into a ministry. I was just putting one foot ahead of another.
I went to a Reverend at the church that we were attending in Greenwich, and told him that I was searching for something more meaningful. He recommended that I apply to Union Theological Seminary in New York City. And I did. I was accepted to Union Theological Seminary, went to school there for three years and earned a Master of Divinity with a Focus in Christian Social Ethics.
A few months later, while still working with white-collar families in Greenwich and doing reentry work in Bridgeport, I accepted an offer from The First Baptist Church of Bridgeport for Lynn and I to start a prison ministry at the church. You have no idea how blessed we felt to have come from where we came from, and to have a life of service in a community where we could really make a difference. And where they could make a profound difference in us.
I started to blog about the experience of working in the hood during in the day, and with white-collars in the evening – when I received a call from a reporter at a Hedge Fund Magazine who had read my blog – he asked me if I was the “Minister to Hedge Fund Guys?” He asked if I would do an interview. And I told him that I would on one condition: that the story is about the creation of new form of ministry – an authentic ministry – that offers a safe space for people from our communities who are suffering in silence, to share their stories and find support. What resulted was a sensitive and powerful interview that caught the attention of a lot of people.
The amazing response from this article resulting in our founding of the Progressive Prison Project and the Innocent Spouse & Children Project, the first ministry in the United States created to provide support and counseling to individuals and families with white-collar and other nonviolent incarceration issues. These families are everywhere around us – they are in our own town of Weston and in the towns surrounding us – suffering in silence. They receive so little compassion and empathy – and are so easy to “other” – by a world that is all too eager to believe the next sensationalized headline and to ignore the human side.
Lynn and I now devote our lives to ministering white-collar individuals and families. The wives and children in these matters are innocents of situations not of their own doing, in situations where they have often not been independently represented, in which husbands and fathers have gone to prison often leaving them penniless, homeless, shunned by their communities. For these mothers and children, we have assembled teams of ministers, advocates, lawyers, counselors and other professionals to protect them and get them safely through to a new life in a new family dynamic on the other side of prison.
As I see it, the biggest tragedy of all about white-collar and nonviolent crime is not how big the matter is, or sensationalized the headlines – it is in our failure to see it as an authentic human story, with real people, real brokenness, and real families left behind.
So where does this leave us now? Well, it certainly leaves me filled with gratitude that we live in a wonderful and welcoming community, doing the purposeful and fulfilling ministry that God has called us to do.
But I would be lying if I didn’t admit to you that on some days I wake up feeling the old tug of shame. Feeling like I don’t have a friend in the world. Feeling like we don’t fit in, like everyone around us has more, like nobody could possibly understand what our life is about, or anything that we have gone through. Feeling like everyone is staring at us with schadenfreude, pointing at the guy who went to prison.
On these days, when I can feel helpless, alone, sad, or depressed, my job, my calling, requires me to get back to a state of metanoia. Spiritual practice is key. So I go through my morning ritual of faithful prayer, meditation, spiritual reading and recovery meetings. Most days, by 8:30 am I am recharged, feeling God’s abundance, full of the Spirit and re-committed to a life of service, and compassion and empathy for others. One day at a time.
Thank you for this opportunity to be of service to this congregation and our community. May God Bless You and Keep You Always. Amen.
We are grateful for all donations to our Ministries that enable us to grow, reach out and serve this community for which there is far too little understanding, compassion and empathy. Donations can be made by credit card/PayPal here, at the “Donate” button on on our site, prisonist.org or by sending your check payable to: “Progressive Prison Ministries, Inc.” P.O. Box 1232, Weston, Connecticut 06883.
Progressive Prison Ministries, Inc. is a CT Religious Corp. with 501c3 status – all donations are tax deductible to the extent permitted by law. Thank you for your support and generosity.
If you, a friend or a family member are experiencing a white-collar or nonviolent incarceration issue, please contact us and we will promptly send you an information package by mail, email or via Dropbox.
The darkest days of a person’s life can be a
time of renewal and hope
Progressive Prison Project/ Innocent Spouse & Children Project
Rev. Jeff Grant, JD, M Div, Minister/Director
George Bresnan, Advocate, Ex-Pats
Jim Gabal, Development
Babz Rawls Ivy, Media Contact