This is a story in two parts: the first a few years ago involving a beautiful client organization; the second yesterday involving a convicted felon (also beautiful, it turns out); both related to the concept of “serving life.” It’s a story of the surprising depth of meaning and possibility that has unfolded for me within that phrase.
The first story is about a Montreal-based company called Crudessence – a successful chain of raw, vegan, organic restaurants and catering operations. As I started to work with them, I spent time with the three founders in conversation about what it meant for their organization to become more aligned with and in service of life. It was a natural, easy exploration, especially for a company that serves raw – living -food. Then, one morning, one of the founders came to me excitedly, saying, “You’ve helped us find a new tagline!” Previously, their company slogan had been “Manger la vie!” which means “Eat Life!” “You keep talking about serving life,” he said, “and that’s really what we’re doing, isn’t it? We serve you life in the form of living food, and in everything we do in our company, we’re serving life.” So that’s their tagline, to this day. I love it!
Right away, they started using the hashtag #ServingLife in their tweets. But to their disappointment, they discovered that this was also the hashtag used by some prison inmates serving life sentences. It was clear that they couldn’t use it any longer. And that was the end of that.
Fast forward to yesterday, in Oakland, California, where I met a well-spoken young man named J.R. Furst, who explained that he has spent much of his life searching for ways to move beyond his feelings of fear and inauthenticity and other internal barriers. His community held a great deal of collective grief, and creative expression has been an important way for him to deal with that, including artfully handcrafted letters to family and friends. Though his letters occasionally inspired responses in kind, he craved a richer and more reliable exchange. And so he turned to a website that matches people with penpals who are in prison, scanning through the different profiles until he found one that seemed to resonate. His initial letter went to Glenn Robinson, a young man with 35 more years of incarceration ahead of him. With a drug addicted mother and an absent father, he had grown up in a part of New Orleans in which a black boy could be sure that by the age of 21 he would be either dead or in prison. True to the expectation, Glenn had fallen into gang life, crime and prison. And there, he wrote to J.R., he had found new insights and meaning in life:
“Prison has a tendency of revealing the soul of a man. In the most convoluted, sad, confusing way imaginable, prison can sometimes be an enforced blessing. It can provide zen-like awakenings. The only problem is you have your zen-like awakening, and then you’re still staring at 30 more years in this vile, short-sighted, inhumane jungle. Yeah, it’s sort of a weird type of monastery. Ha!”
Glenn wrote that he felt a strong urge to contribute something good in the world. And that inspired J.R. to organize workshops with youth in troubled communities. At each workshop, he and the kids read some piece of Glenn’s writing and talk about times when they feel free, about what it means to be free, about the kinds of “internal incarceration” that they deal with. They create artwork to help them process and express their thoughts and feelings. Some of those pieces of art make their way back to Glen. And in all of it, J.R. explained, “He’s helping me as much as I’m helping him.”
As I listened, I realized that #ServingLife had come together in his story to mean one and the same thing.
“A man doesn’t need years of institutional confinement to know that it’s time to change. Sometimes we must imprison ourselves, so that we’re able to let the silence of life speak to us.”
J.R. continued his story, explaining that he now has five pen pals and an urge to grow the number of workshops he offers. And he shared his resolve “not to fail” as he sought to build this project, not to give in to fear and self-doubt ever again, as he had in the past. “You know,” I said, “we’re all serving a life sentence. We get this one whole lifetime to find our way to freedom from internal incarceration, as you say. And so, we can forgive ourselves if we stumble along the way, or if we feel afraid. And we can just keep going. ‘Cause we’re in it for life, right?”
The project is called Beyond This Prison. On the website or on Facebook, you can read more of Glenn’s powerful writing. And you can contact J.R. to learn more about the project and ways you might support it.