‘To uphold life and say no to killing
can cost you your freedom and reputation’
Editor: In November last year, three young Vancouver pro-lifers were convicted of vandalism for engaging in civil disobedience at the city’s Everywoman’s abortuary. Jen Ziemann, Darren Holubowich and Tim Vincent, members of a group called Just Neighbours, used black paint to cover over a flower mural on the outside of the abortion facility “to tell the truth that has been hidden by [the mural’s] superficial beauty.” On the walls they wrote “Where have all the flowers gone?”, a reference to the familiar anti-war song, calling to mind that in both war and abortion, society has “legitimized the use of lethal force to serve our own ends.” Tim Vincent and Jen Ziemann were sentenced to four months in prison since they had previous convictions for pro-life activities and Darren Holubowich was given a suspended sentence. All were given two years’ probation and made to pay restitution.
Jen Ziemann wrote the following reflection while in custody at the Burnaby Correctional Centre for Women. “I write this in prayer, hope and remembrance of the least of these – all those who are hated, neglected, oppressed, killed or discarded by our society; whether they be poor, victims of war, criminals or the unborn – Lord have mercy and give us eyes to see and ears to hear.”
I’m back in jail again for a four-month sentence, facing a two-year probation order with various area restrictions and a $2,800 restitution order to be paid to Everywomen’s Health (Abortion) Center. Over the last eight years I have been arrested a number of times for non-violent actions at this abortion clinic. Every prison experience I have had has been a very rich time; the value of what I have learned is immeasurable. I have heard the stories of the broken and marginalized in our society, I have lived with them, cried with them, laughed with them, journeyed with them. This journey was not always pleasant, however. Jail poses many difficulties, struggles and questions.
After being arrested I was brought to the holding cells at the courthouse. Inside the cell is a metal bunk-bed with no mattress, a sink, a toilet, and a camera so the guards can monitor us from a distance. Throughout the day other prisoners are put in the same cell, up to four or five. If you have to stay overnight they only put you in with one or two others. I had to stay overnight because I was unable to go before a judge. The courts were busy that day; as well, the Crown prosecutor wanted me to “show cause,” which is a technical term for giving a guarantee or proof that you won’t re-offend between the time of your release and your next court appearance.
I had an interesting cell mate throughout the night. It just so happened that she was six-and-a-half months pregnant and we had a lot of time for conversation. She asked me why I was in jail and I explained to her what I had done. She was totally supportive and shared her story of how when she became pregnant she had quit using drugs. Then I asked her why she was in jail and I found out she was in for armed robbery. Apparently she, along with her husband, had held up a store using a knife to threaten the store clerk. I was dumbfounded at the inconsistency in her thinking: how could she see the value of the unborn yet be oblivious to the value of the store-clerk? I began to talk to her about how I couldn’t stop thinking of the store-clerk and how terrified he must have felt. I asked her to think about him but she didn’t have much to say about that.
At about 9 p.m. we received a mattress for the night, a blanket, a towel, no pillow and one book. Only at night are we allowed these luxuries. A rather bright light was left on all night and we were awakened at 6:00 a.m. by a guard, and our “luxuries” were taken away. The guards comments made me laugh. She said, “rise and shine ladies, it’s time to start the day.” Start another day – waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting. I was released 34 hours after my arrest and told to return to the courthouse on November 3, 2000. On this day I received a four-month sentence and was promptly escorted to Burnaby Correctional Center for Women, where I would serve my time.
While I was in jail, I lived among women who are typically considered a danger to society. Their crimes varied from armed robbery and murder to minor offences such as public disturbance and shoplifting. I discovered through conversations with these women that many of them come from very tragic backgrounds full of sexual and physical abuse as well as drug and alcohol addictions. Although many of these women live their lives as if the sacredness of life was meaningless (doing acts of violence to others and themselves), somehow they are able to see the value of the unborn. I wondered if maybe it was the innocence, vulnerability, and fragility of children that these women can see and want to protect. Many of them have only experienced abuse and rejection their whole life and they have had their innocence stolen from them at a very young age. Although most of the people I talked to agreed with me regarding abortion, even those who disagreed, for the most part were able to respect the fact that I stood up for what I believed in.
In the midst of all the hatred, pain and violence within the prison, there was a sense of solidarity, which for us meant the sharing of a common struggle; facing the reality that society has cast us aside, labelled us enemies, demonized us and locked us away. In our society “criminals” face all kinds of prejudice. These stereotypes are recognized as something like: liars, bums, useless people who don’t deserve the same rights as others, monsters, undesirable and dangerous. What I see is people just like me, people who are afraid, hurting, seeking love, insecure and hiding behind masks and illusions.
Just like anywhere else, jail has its own version of the “political,” which functions as an enforcement of the status quo. One set of politics is for the jail system, another is for the inmates. Among inmates there is a strong code; there are things you do and things you don’t do. If you fail to uphold this code you risk being totally rejected and verbally and physically brutalized. The code demands loyalty to one’s friends no matter what they do. If they don’t like someone then you don’t like them and you don’t associate with them. You don’t steal from another inmate, you don’t get too tight with the guards, and if your crime has to do with hurting children or “ratting someone out” (testifying against someone) then you will not end up living in the general population, you will be subject to verbal and physical abuse, and you potentially risk being killed. A simple example can be found in the words of one of the women on my unit who said, “What do you do when someone is shoving a knife in someone’s neck in an alley near Main and Hastings? You f—— run, that’s what I do, so I won’t have to be a witness and testify.” Brutal reality, yes, but people live and die by this code, because they are afraid to face the consequences of breaking it.
In Jesus’ day the same was true. There were things you did and didn’t do. Yet when people were suffering as a result of this code, Christ refused to co-operate. Instead He confronted the injustice of the code. At the same time He modelled a new code based on love, mercy and justice. Christ did this to the point that He was killed for it. Those in positions of privilege and power had been seeking His life for sometime; eventually the “crowds” as well as the disciples who had followed Him now abandoned Him. He was rejected, forgotten and now the recipient of oppression and injustice Himself, even though no sin or crime could rightly be found in Him. Yet Christ in His love and mercy did not return evil for evil. Some of His last words were, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
The model of Christ became important to me as I struggled to not become enslaved by the code, even though I saw the unpleasant realities of the code. Almost daily I saw women who were ostracized because of this code and I struggled to not avoid them, yet I wanted them to stay away. How could I, as a follower of Christ who embraced the most despised, be so cowardly and unloving?
Initially I found myself quite welcomed by other inmates, but eventually it was my turn. I was moved to a unit known as the “heavy unit” where most of the inmates were in for violent offences. These women have done long sentences and are quite institutionalized. They don’t accept many other inmates on “their unit,” or “home,” as they call it. If they don’t know you, they tend to dislike you and intimidate you off the unit. Partly because I knew one of the women and had visited her when I was on the “outside,” I was welcomed fairly quickly. I knew this welcome was very fragile and in fact this proved to be the case.
Close to Christmas time I began making gifts, one of them being a small home-made book of meditations. The gift was meant as a spiritual encouragement to a friend of mine. Everything seemed well and good until I later found out that my actions had absolutely enraged this woman’s lesbian lover. Once word got around that this one woman was mad at me, the code kicked in and all her friends took up her offence towards me. I was ignored, laughed at, and intimidated. Later, the guards overheard a conversation about me being told to get off the unit by another inmate and so I was quickly moved.
Although I was struggling under the negative aspects of the code, it was during this time that I met many wonderful people who were struggling to change their lives by not living according to the code, but trying to live courageously, truthfully and honestly. They were often a much better example of Christ than I was. With a few of these women I started a Bible study where we read the Gospel of Mark together and talked about what it might have meant back then and what it might mean for us today. We became a support for one another to do good in an environment which makes it costly to do so. I suppose its not much different in the “outside” world, where to uphold life and say no to killing (to do good) can cost you your freedom and reputation.
So I feel I am left to hold in tension so many seeming paradoxes: 1. The deep beauty and value of each person created by God for His purposes, yet who are capable of great sin and violence. 2. The reality that if we “seek to save our life we shall lose it” – in other words, if we maintain the way things are (keep the code) in the world and ourselves, we will not truly live; yet to confront our ill health and change is like dying. 3. In Scripture we are told that we will face many “trials and tribulations,” and yet we are reminded to “consider it pure joy.” 4. The Cross is our victory, our promise to conquer (sin, death and the Devil), yet the way of the Cross is to give up power, position and privilege. Similarly, “by his stripes we are healed”; yet “unless we deny ourselves and take up our cross we cannot be His disciples.” So, the foundation is laid, Christ crucified for you and me, for the whole world. “It is finished,” yet there is much left undone.