223rd Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren
San Diego, California — June 29, 2009
“The first time Marie Hamilton walked into a cell block she felt ashamed, seeing men with haunted eyes staring out at her from steel cages from both sides of a corridor,” Melanie Snyder said at the Brethren Press breakfast. “Her first thought was, ‘We do this in America?’”
Snyder, a member of Elizabethtown (Pa.) Church of the Brethren, is the author of “Grace Goes to Prison,” to be published by Brethren Press this fall. Having worked for Fortune 500 companies for two decades, she is now a mediator and free lance writer.
According to Snyder, Hamilton never thought about what is done in prisons until “…that steel door slammed behind her for the first time in 1975, Marie knew this was a very different world from her peaceful small-town Brethren upbringing.”
But it was that upbringing–growing up in a small Brethren town in a home with no indoor plumbing and a garden that provided all their needs, lessons in Sunday School at Curryville Church of the Brethren teaching that all people are loved by Jesus, camp, and Brethren Volunteer Service service with Native Americans (having been recruited by Dan West)–that gave Hamilton the answer to the question, “How did a nice Brethren lady like you end up in prison?”
Her reply is that the Brethren are to blame. “The principles of love for all people, looking for the good in others, and practicing peace laid the foundation for her 33 years of volunteering in prison,” Snyder said.
Hamilton never intended to give so much of herself to the program, which involved commitment to weekly visits in the prison. She had hoped to work in foreign missions. But when prisoners confided to her that they felt forgotten and abandoned, she felt a deep call to serve them. And a 1975 Annual Conference statement on prisons and prisoners made it clear that this is the ministry to which she was called.
Snyder shared stories from Hamilton’s work. When a prisoner’s mother, after a single visit, stated that she could not bring herself to visit her son ever again, Hamilton committed herself to weekly visits over eight years to help restore his humanity. Her visits had a transformative effect that led to his release. “She showed me if you love, you will be loved in return. Marie told me I was not an animal, but a real being,” the prisoner later said.
Snyder’s audience listened in absolute silence as she related how Hamilton asked to work with the toughest women in prison. Despite the staff’s misgivings Hamilton led a two-day workshop on nonviolence that began badly. On the second day she led “group one-on-one affirmations” in which everyone in the group was given the task of praising each prisoner. When they were through every woman was crying and lives were changed. “We aren’t monsters even though the staff tells us we are,” one woman said.
A prisoner later told Snyder that mercy is when God doesn’t give you what you deserve, but grace is when God gives you what you don’t deserve. That prisoner was the one who revealed to Snyder that Hamilton’s real first name was Grace. When asked why she didn’t use her real first name, Hamilton replied that she didn’t feel worthy!
The book “Grace Goes to Prison” can be ordered in advance through Brethren Press (800-441-3712).
–Frank Ramirez is pastor of Everett (Pa.) Church of the Brethren.
The News Team for the 2009 Annual Conference includes writers Karen Garrett, Frank Ramirez, Frances Townsend, Melissa Troyer, Rich Troyer; photographers Kay Guyer, Justin Hollenberg, Keith Hollenberg, Glenn Riegel, Ken Wenger; staff Becky Ullom and Amy Heckert. Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, editor. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.