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Room at the Table

An interfaith service in solidarity with our caged and incarcerated loved ones

Room at the table closing song
Room at the table interfaith service closing song Photo: Lucy Duncan / AFSC

On December 13, 2020 AFSC hosted an interfaith service as part of our #FreeThemAll days of action, Room at the table: An interfaith service in solidarity with our caged and incarcerated loved ones.

Ten months into the pandemic, the dangers of incarceration continue to multiply exponentially, making every cell and cage a potential death chamber.

This holiday season, we know that people on the inside, and their families and loved ones, are feeling the pain of separation. Those with incarcerated loved ones are acutely aware of the people who will be missing from their dinner table.

We heard testimonies from formerly and currently incarcerated and caged folks and their loved ones, together facing the reality of COVID-19. We heard prayers from faith leaders calling to bring everyone home to the community table, and songs of lamentation and petition to #FreeThemAll. We honored caged and incarcerated by calling their names, sharing their images, and lighting a candle at our tables to free those we love from the dual cruelties of incarceration and COVID-19. 

Here are excerpts from the evening, a lamentation and prayer to #FreeThemAll.

Lewis Webb

Lewis Webb serves as AFSC's Coordinator of the Healing Justice Network.

He shared, "Many of our loved ones, people we know and people we don't know are languishing behind bars and detention centers, jails and prisons because we as a community have not let go. We have not let go of the chains that bind us, the chains of fear, the chains of racism, the chains of supremacy, the chains of retribution. So as we come to this table today we, too, must be set free. We must be set free of those things that enable us to think of people as the other. And that is the call that we will bring to the God of our understanding today. To not only free our brethren and sisters from incarceration, but to free us so that we all can live in that beloved community where what you did is not who you are. Where you are from is not who you will be. But instead, you will have the space and opportunity to be in community, a community of beloved and loving friends, family and community members.So I will be praying today not just for those who are incarcerated, but for all of us. So that the freedom that we seek will be realized and tomorrow will be better than today."

Rabbi Brant Rosen

Brant Rosen is the congregational rabbi of Tzedek Chicago and a member of the rabbinical council of Jewish Voice for Peace.

He shared, "Our service tonight will really focus on two main themes that you've already heard alluded to. The first is light. This is a time of year where the nights get darker. We are approaching the winter solstice and almost every religious tradition, every spiritual tradition, at this time of year celebrates festivals one way or another that involve the lighting of lights. And of course, it's obvious why. We need light. We light lights at the dark time of the year to warm ourselves, to bring us together, and to affirm that the days will, indeed, soon be getting longer once again....The second theme of our evening as was mentioned is the table. And the table is something that is common also to all traditions and all families and homes. The table is where shared meals take place. The table is a sign of hospitality. The table is where we gather to share a meal, to share our thoughts, to share our humanity with one another. There is always or must always be room at the table if we purport to have any kind of attachment to the value of hospitality. Ultimately what we are trying to affirm this evening is the reality of a table where all are welcome. Where there is room for all. Were no one is sent away. That is the table that we are all sitting around right now, and that is the table that we will lift up until all who are incarcerated and all who are locked away are brought to the table and are given their place at the table."

Alexis Joi

Alexis Joi is an American singer, songwriter, and vocal coach.

Sahar Alsahani

Sahar Alsahani is Muslim, an interfaith peace activist, and a member of Relgions for Peace USA.

She shared, "This time during the pandemic has definitely reminded me, personally, of a time of our prophet Jonah, and the darkest time in the darkest place in the furthest place from the sun. I would like to read you a poem from a very famous Islamic poet. Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers. But for me to be fearless in facing them. ... Let me not crave an anxious fear to be saved. But hope for the patient's to win my freedom. May God bless you all. Salaam."

Jemal Tipton

Jemal Tipton was sentenced to life in prison at 17, he was recently released on parole during the COVID-19pandemic.

 He shared, "I'm not going to come down as hard as I probably should on them but they did a real messed up job in the facility I was at that allowed too many people to be exposed to a very deadly and unknown disease and before I left, we just started getting day rooms."

Dalila

Dalila is a minister who has worked in both prisons and detention centers.

She shared, "I pray and I hope that this in this virtual space that we are all knowing that imprisonment is cruel and unjust and that we continue to lift up our voices and put our faith into action."

Alexis Joi

Alexis Joi is an American singer, songwriter, and vocal coach.

Theresa Shoatz

Theresa Shoatz is the daughter of political prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz and is an advocate for prisoners through the Human Rights Coalition.

She shared, "This dropped his spirits and he asked so what do we do now? And a guard told my dad to walk down a hall that I'm going to walk with you and I'm going to show you where you go next and he said, "But where am I going? I want to go to the hospital." Daddy was told, "No, you're going down the hall." When he got to the gymnasium he says, "What am I doing here?" And he walked through the doors and there were other prisoners from his cell block that he had not seen in days. He had seen these prisoners leave but had no idea they had tested positive for COVID and that they had been placed in the gymnasium. And my dad said when he walked in he was greeted with, "Welcome Maroon, we've been waiting for you. What took you so long? We all had COVID, we tested positive and we knew you were next." My dad said the gymnasium was filled with tents and little cubicles. And it reminded him of a refugee camp."

Rev. Allyn Maxfield-Steele

Rev. Allyn Maxfield-Steel is co-director of the Highlander Research and Education Center.

He shared, "God, we ask that you can hold us on the outside. That you could hold those of us who are on the outside and help us remember the words of your prophet, Fannie Lou Hamer, who said ain't nobody free until everybody is free. Help us remember that abolition is not only a destination but also a process. One that you are in with us. So even as we wait, God help us find joy. Help us find joy in resistance. Help us find joy in your many names and in your many promises and help us find joy in knowing that we are promised freedom and we will, we will be there with you. Amen."

Joselin

Joselin is a trans immigrant from Nicaragua who fled Nicaragua and came to the United States seeking refuge in a country more welcoming to her and other gender non-conforming folks. She was put into immigrant detention for several months.

Kristin Kumpf

Kristin Kumpf is the Director of Human Migration and Mobility for AFSC.

She shared, "For all of the trans women who are behind bars right now for the 16,000 people in detention tonight in immigrant detention tonight. At for the 2.3 million people who are behind bars in this country tonight separated from their families. For all the empty tables. For all of the people waiting at the border to be reunited with their families and communities. And so God would lift up a prayer tonight for all of the separations and for all of us that as we move into a time to reflect on how to take action but you will move our hearts, God, that you will let these stories give us the energy and the courage and the folks that we need to do your work in this world so that we can bring everyone back to their tables with their families."

Demetrius Titus

Demetrius Titus directs the Good Neighbor Project for AFSC's Criminal Justice program in Michigan.

He shared, "Of making oneself present. I heard a poem just yesterday that I think epitomizes this space by Ruth Wilson Gilmore which says abolition is not absence. It is presence. What the world will become already exists in fragments and pieces. Experiments and possibilities. So those that feel in their gut deep anxiety that abolition means to knock it all down and scorch the earth and start something new let that go. Abolition is building the future from the presence in all the ways we can."

Alexis Joi, closing song

Alexis Joi is an American singer, songwriter, and vocal coach.

Watch the full video of the service here.

About the Author

Lucy serves as Director of Friends Relations for AFSC. She writes, teaches, and organizes Quakers to work for justice.