Progressive Prison Project
Innocent Spouse & Children Project
What “Man’s Search for Meaning” Was to Prison,
“Religious Perspectives On Business Ethics”
Was to Seminary
Part One: Viktor Frankl & Me
by Jeff Grant
These two books were pivotal
in my survival & success in prison,
and then for the formation of my calling as a minister to
families of people accused or convicted of white-collar crimes.
Part One is my actual application essay for admission to
Union Theological Seminary – it’s an open account of
my story through the lens of Viktor Frankl’s themes. .
Part Two will be reflections on how the book
“Religious Perspectives on Business Ethics: An Anthology”
influenced my time at Union and
informs our winter/spring preaching & speaking topics.
Your thoughts & comments are welcome & appreciated. Jeff
Union Theological Seminary
A rabbi once told me that Christians pray and Jews study, and in my experience that’s essentially been true. I’m a Jew and I’ve been studying my entire life. It is only recently that I’ve found prayer.
Mine is an old familiar story. A tragedy. Like Icarus’ crash to ground, on waxed wings melted for having flown too close to the sun. College, law school, multi-million dollar law practice, I grew too big, too fast. Sixteen-hour days, a pill to wake me up, a pill to help me fall asleep, overspent, overindulged, over-enabled, overweight, deep in debt and so arrogant that I alienated my family and my friends. I had become so full, so swollen that there was no room for anything or anybody else. And yet I possessed a hero complex, and thought could and should save everyone around me. But I couldn’t save myself. Like Icarus’ fall, mine was severe, inevitable and necessary. I thank God for it every day.
On the first day I arrived at Allenwood LSCI, the low security prison where I’d be spending the next fourteen months, I was admonished not to provide my services to the other inmates. On this compound of 1500 men, five were stockbrokers and two were doctors. I was to be the only lawyer. I spent my first night in solitary confinement, as do all new prisoners, and was released to my barracks the next morning. What I found was a world I could have never imagined, with different rules, languages and sensibilities. These men were like archaea, in that they presented an undiscovered yet incredible world of diversity and texture, surviving in the harshest of environments. I had much to learn.
I read everything I could digest regarding the anatomy of a prison term including Mandela, Solzhenitsyn, Frankl and Kafka. In Greek and Norse mythology, I identified with Prometheus’ captivity and Odin’s vigil over the caves. Particularly inspiring were stories by inmates who had found hopefulness and spirituality in their imprisonment. It appeared that even in places of limited control over their movements, men could still do important work and improve their bodies and minds, and their spirits by helping others. It set them free.
With a little over a year available, I started my quest in earnest. Determined, I focused on one project each for my mind, body and spirit. I applied to work in the recreation area and was assigned trashcan duty. In my spare time I started to walk the track, recording my progress daily. I started to exercise and began the process of redefining my body. I set a goal to walk across the United States (vicariously) and recorded my 12,000th lap for 3000 miles by the end of my stay. I was completely in the moment each lap of the track, feeling totally alive, totally free. I used my time on the track to spend some real time with myself, to reflect, learn, grow and change. It was a powerful, meditative experience. It was strange and wonderfully ironic to feel so alive in a place so foreboding.
One of my walking partners was a former Israeli commando who reflected on the fences. He gazed at the entire compound and told me how much it looked like the kibbutz he had lived on in Israel. He said the major difference was that “on the kibbutz the fences keep the bad guys out; here the fences keep the bad guys in.” It was a startling revelation. Fences, like life, were all a matter of perspective. From that day on, instead of feeling closed in, I felt safe and protected and began to consider how I could make conditions betters for my fellows.
I’d played guitar when I was young but, like many things, somehow never got around to learning to play it well. Former professional musicians staffed the inmate-run music department and they proved to be enthusiastic about any student who was eager to learn. Eager I was, and I took over 200 guitar lessons while I was away. I felt privileged to have formed relationships with these serious artists, each of whom were the caliber I never would have experienced in any other setting. They introduced me to music forms I’d never before considered, and showed me how joy is intensified as their knowledge and ability increases. My heart swelled each time I walked in the doors for another lesson. After about six months, I was transferred from trashcan detail and for the balance of my term taught beginner’s guitar to the Spanish-speaking inmates. That I spoke no Spanish was no obstacle; we learned to use the language of music as our common bond. Some of the richest experiences of my time away were the smiles and handshakes that I exchanged with these men all over the compound, none of us understanding one word the other could say. I knew then that I had a calling to help others, in ways that were only beginning to be revealed to me.
Similarly, I had arrived at prison with almost four years of sobriety and was very involved in my Alcoholics Anonymous home groups with leadership, commitments and sponsorship. Alcoholics Anonymous had provided me comfort and support though the most difficult days of my life. Nonetheless, at first I found it hard to relate to AA prison meetings, as they seemed so unstructured. But as I opened up to the Spanish-speaking men in the music department, I likewise opened up to my fellows in the AA meetings and found a richness I hadn’t noticed before. These men spoke about overcoming huge obstacles and suffering on a scale I’d never imagined. I felt blessed just to know them and to be privy to their lives. I knew I had to share these stories with my AA groups back in Connecticut, to enrich their lives too. I was elected as chairman of the AA prison group and served in this capacity until I left for home. It seemed the more I became conscious of my life’s responsibilities (in and outside the prison walls), the more improved my life became.
Even though AA was the spiritual context of my life, my thirst for a true connection to a higher power was becoming unquenchable and I had to look further.
I started attending religious services with a hunger that I hadn’t felt since I was a Bar Mitzvah. Jewish services and Christian services, I was equally enthralled. On the Jewish High Holy Days, Hasidic rabbis came from Brooklyn to lead services dressed in all black. Their hotel was six miles from the prison and in their observance of the holidays they had to walk. I wanted to know what drove these men to come all this way to minister us, walking six miles each way in the dark. They told tales and asked provocative questions. They pulled answers out of us, and beseeched us to search our souls. During the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, the 15 Jews on the compound ate our meals in the sukkah, bound by the camaraderie of our faith and not our imprisonment. As we ate, we laughed as we heard the other inmates walking by, mispronouncing the name of our temporary dining hall. My guitar instructor from the music department wrote the first Christmas play I had ever experienced. It starred inmates in both male and female biblical roles. Seeing a 250-pound body builder dressed as Mary Magdalene is comical no matter where you are. For those moments frozen in time we thought about no other place in the world. I took intellectual and spiritual courses, such as music theory and Buddhist psychology. I prayed every morning and evening. I felt peaceful, and connected to God.
I was given a second chance in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous and in prison. In them I found health. And I found prayer. Prayer did not, however, come easily to me. It’s still the last place I turn. That feels like a startling admission to be making on a divinity school application.
Prayer. I get still, quiet, in a meditative state. I usually kneel and bow my head, but sometimes I sit with my face turned upwards to the ceiling or the sky as if bathed in light. Maybe a specific prayer will come to in mind, such as the St. Francis prayer, and I will recite it to cleanse my mind. Then I go to a place of no-mind, of being purely present. I think of people, places or perhaps things that no longer serve, or that may be unhealthy for me. Then I remove them to create space, a void. I become available. I have made room for the new and wonderful things that God has in store for me. I have made room for God.
To be an emptied vessel, to have had the gift of time and to have put it to good use, has been a true gift from God. Almost every message I have received from prayer has been about service and about helping others. I have been presented with opportunities I wouldn’t and couldn’t have conceived of a few short years ago: taking a leadership role in my Alcoholics Anonymous home group, facilitating dual diagnosis and adolescent groups at Silver Hill Psychiatric Hospital, facilitating recovery groups at Liberation House residential drug rehab, participating in religious services at Temple Shaaray Tefila in Bedford, New York, and Second Congregational Church in Greenwich, Connecticut, becoming active in bible study classes at the church, taking a religion & psychology course at Purchase College, completing the National Alliance for Mental Illness Family-to-Family course, becoming certified in non-violent crisis intervention and in CPR & AED.
As my vessel has emptied again, I’ve prayed for direction as to what to accomplish next. I’ve sought counsel from good competent advisors. My decision to apply to divinity school, and to study ethics in particular, has arisen from this prayer and counsel; I believe it is the next step in becoming the man God intends me to be. Divinity school is a place of both study and prayer, combining the best parts of both my old and new lives, and my yearning for nourishment in God, service and intellectual fulfillment.
Throughout history great progress and innovation has occurred at the intersection of disciplines: law and medicine, medicine and physics, physics and religion. I can foresee a day where I can combine the disciplines of law, recovery and religion/ethics for important social change, as a lobbyist perhaps, or to advocate for important religious or social causes on behalf of non-profits or institutions. Given my particular experiences in the past few years, I have become especially interested in prison reform and in prisoner re-assimilation programs. To this end, I am becoming intimately involved in an organization called Family Reentry, based in Norwalk, Connecticut, which lowers ex-prisoner recidivism rates by helping them with their spiritual, vocational, recovery and family growth and skills. My background and experience can be of similar service to my classmates to promote a richer experience in and out of the classroom.
I had two important and reasonable criteria in applying to a divinity school. (1) I was interested in a divinity school that will provide me the best broad-based theological education I can obtain, (2) in an ecumenical atmosphere where I will be welcomed as a Jew.
My search for an ecumenical religious education began with institutions sponsored by my own faith. I looked at Jewish seminaries on-line but not one of them seemed to have a universal approach to religious education. I moved next to divinity schools of world renown and at major universities. I found that Union Theological Seminary had an ecumenical approach, and that it had a longstanding tradition of honoring and recognizing the Jewish faith in its policies, curriculum, exhibits, library and lectures.
As Brandeis said, “most of the things worth doing in the world had been declared impossible before they were done.” Not long ago, it would have seemed impossible for me to even be applying to Union Theological Seminary. And yet, my application is submitted herewith. Having done all I can do, I turn the outcome over to God.
Progressive Prison Project/
Innocent Spouse & Children Project
Christ Church Greenwich
254 East Putnam Avenue
Greenwich, Connecticut, USA 06830
Rev. Jeff Grant, JD, M Div, Director
Director of Prison Ministries
First Baptist Church of Bridgeport
126 Washington Avenue, 1st Floor
Bridgeport, Connecticut, USA 06604
Lynn Springer, Advocate