Last night, I was not awakened by a coconut.
This is very good news.
You may wonder why I am awakened by coconuts at all.
It’s rainy season (aka hurricane season) here, and it rains for some portion of every day and night. Torrential rains. Enormous, unbelievable quantities of water fall from the sky.
And knock coconuts off the palm trees, which hit the neighbors’ cars, setting off the alarms.
Usually around 3 am.
A good night’s sleep is not something I take for granted.
Every day that I teach I have moments of despair. And then moments when someone understands, experiences some insight, opens their heart.
After challenging the juvenile group on Monday morning with our ideas about the possibility that we humans are all alike, despite the superficial differences we insist on constructing, we move to the auditorium to attend the graduation ceremonies for the Journey to Freedom program. The women’s class is cancelled today, because many of them have participated in Journey to Freedom and will be receiving certificates.
For those of you who are not familiar with prison environments: certificates are important. Anything that can go into an inmate’s file, that shows that s/he has done something inside to try to better themselves, is potential evidence that might sway a parole board.
From what we understand, parole boards in Belize are not often swayed, no matter how much good a person has done during their incarceration.
We’ve seen the Journey to Freedom book in the cell block; it was written by a guy from Tennessee who is present at the graduation and speaks about his own struggles with addiction and the choices we all have to make each day. It turns out that the entire Journey to Freedom program at the Belize Central Prison is offered in cooperation with his group; several people are visiting from Tennessee.
Everyone stands for the singing of both the Belize and U.S. national anthems. This is the second graduation this year, and at the first 2016 graduation, one of the folks from Tennessee felt that both anthems should be sung, to emphasize the close ties between the countries.
I find this ironic, given the lines in the Belizean anthem about throwing off despots and tyrants.
There are speeches about persevering through the trials and tribulations of prison, about the inmates using this time to move their lives forward. Hopes that those who have completed the program will encourage others to join. Lots of quotes from the Bible, and several testimonies from inmates who have gone through the program. Even in the graduation ceremony, the women, who are the ones who invited us, can’t stop fussing at each other, and the guards have to remove a couple of them for a chat, then return them to the room.
The group is reassured repeatedly that their lives are part of a greater plan. God’s plan. Every single thing that has happened to them is part of The Plan.
I know there are inmates who are not Christian, and the program is optional, but it’s clearly favored. The ceremony is evangelical, not ecumenical. (And I should disclose here, for those who don’t read my blog regularly, that I am not Christian: I converted from Roman Catholicism to Buddhism about 15 years ago. The graduation ceremony reminds me why: I admired and was inspired by the faith into which I was baptized and confirmed, but I saw no path to get from where I was to the values it espoused. Buddhism provided practical tools for change. And, however imperfectly I practice, I know it works.)
When we were asked about teaching CBCT at the Belize Central Prison, we emphasized that it is a secular program. I provided materials and web links explaining the background and curriculum. It isn’t aligned with any faith, nor does it conflict with any faith traidition.
It turns out that CBCT is one of only two secular programs at the prison. The other one is New Freedom, an evidence-based gang intervention program.
We were told that both meditation and yoga have been taught in the prison. We weren’t told that many people objected to this.
We were more than a little surprised to find out how thoroughly Christian the prison environment is. We’re constantly asked what church we’re from, if we’re missionaries. Both guards and inmates are puzzled by our response, that we’re from a university, not a church.
A version of the CBCT protocol was developed for a specific population, drawing its teaching examples from the Bible and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. We very deliberately didn’t adapt that curriculum for this course, because of the multi-cultural, multi-religions composition of the society.
In such a religious atmosphere, what we are teaching is subversive. We’re talking about people empowering themselves by gaining control over their own minds and actions. We’re teaching about taking responsibility for our actions and their consequences, and yet holding ourselves and others in compassion. We’re teaching that we can change our minds, which will change our actions, which will change our lives. And what is being broadcast all day through the loudspeakers is submission to the will of God.
We’ve had a few challenging conversations. Someone saw our singing bowl, which has a Buddha image on its inner base. The bowl was a last-minute purchase from Amazon when T. realized, a few days before our departure, that he had given away the small bowl that he had planned to bring on the trip. He didn’t deliberately pick one with an image of the Buddha, only the smallest bowl he could get delivered in two days. But when one of the students saw it, he exclaimed, “That’s Black Magic!”
And that was the same response that met my attempts to teach some chair yoga to settle down the boys. I explained that yoga is neither Satanic nor magical, simply an ancient system of movement and meditation.
I get a little more traction when I express surprise that the boys aren’t paying more attention to meditation practice, since so many top athletes do it, including the L.A. Lakers, and that yoga is incorporated into many training programs.
We’ve also tried walking meditation to get the boys to calm down. I really would like to have them go out and do a few laps around the soccer field before class. Honestly, we’re asking teenagers to do two things that are not natural for teenagers:
1. Sit still
2. Be quiet
And we are asking them to do two things that conflict with their boisterous culture:
1. Sit still
2. Be quiet
In the afternoon, T. has an opportunity to have a conversation with one of the inmates who has been attending our class regularly. It turns out that the guys like us, but some are staying away from the class (and some are attending but sleeping through it) because they don’t understand what we’re talking about, and don’t want to be the one to say that. This inmate is training to be a reading tutor, so they’re able to have a conversation about education levels. We need to simplify our language even more than we have. And I need to speak much, much more slowly.
The greater issue is that the guys were forced to attend the program, and weren’t told in advance what it was about. A group of them was ordered to the chapel the day we started teaching, and they resent being mandated to attend a course that they feel conflicts with their religious beliefs. T. asks the inmate if he can get the guys come back, so we can discuss the religion issue.
I’ve had several inmates hit on me, and some ask for my address and phone number. But none as suave or forceful as the guy who proposed to me today. It’s the last straw in this frustrating day. This is the same guy who provided us with a new definition of compassion: “When my daughter misbehaves, and I whip her, but don’t beat her to death, that’s compassion.”
This is what my life has been missing: a husband who still has a decade to serve on his murder conviction, who admits to being aggressive, who would never be able to get a visa for the U.S., who has no means of supporting me, and who admits to whipping his daughter.
Oh, and he has a girlfriend.
And he’s wearing a wedding ring.
Exactly what I’m looking for in a life partner.
I wonder how long it would be before that whip was turned on me?
Some years ago, someone asked our teacher, who developed CBCT, whether it was worth all the expense and effort to maintain a Buddhist center in Atlanta. His reply was succinct: “If just one person gets it, it’s all worth it.”
T. and I hold on to these words. We know we have helped more than one person perceive their world and their possibilities differently.
In closing, I leave you with this photograph of sharks eating sardines, taken with my GoPro last weekend when T. and I were snorkeling the barrier reef off the coast of Belize.
It’s the best description I can give you of how I am feeling right now: that I am one of the sardines.
© 2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be used or reproduced in any way without permission of the author.