By Lydia Wylie-Kellermann
This Advent my dad, Bill Wylie-Kellermann, spent 10 days in jail for an action he was part of in the spring with the Poor People’s Campaign. Each night I journaled and shared them on facebook. It was a practice that held my heart steady in a rather chaotic week and a half.
Day 1 of Dad in Jail for Advent
“But who will….”
My morning was crappy. Both kids with tantrums leaving it almost impossible to get everyone where they needed to be on time. On the way to school, I pulled a completely unnecessary turn around, scraped a log next to someone’s driveway which pulled off my bumper.
So, I am driving down 96 to concerning sounds of things scraping against my tires and wind rushing through the exposed mechanics of my car. I am running late, but trying to still make it to see my dad and Tommy Tackett turn themselves in at court today. I want to get video statements. I want to help alert press releases with on the ground information. I want to say thank you to my dad and hug him goodbye.
But the noise of my car and my growing anxiety force me to turn around. I pull over and call my dad and Tommy and scribble out a short interview. I make it home and get it typed up. I find photographs from the amazing Valerie Jean. And it turns out to be useful that I am home at my computer. They are taken away and I jump into organizing mode. There are conference calls, press releases, jail support, and organizing strategies to me thought through. People pour out in support. My brain is moving a million miles a second. The work is good. But my heart hasn’t caught up.
I pick up the kids and let them know. When I tell them that grandpa is in jail, my thoughtful five-year-old who is often full of questions, simply says “I didn’t want you to say that. I don’t want to talk about it. I want to try to forget that because it is too sad.”
There is kid chaos, more phone calls to make, dinner to eat, and then we have to head to the Taize service where Erinn will play the violin and I will sing. Is this just one more crazy thing? One more place to manage kids? Or is it something that can still my heart and pull my body back to the ground?
It was both. It felt good to turn off the lights, light the candles, slow down, and sing from somewhere much deeper. And only in that time, did it begin to sink in. As we practiced, we got to the chant “Wait for the Lord” that my dad always intros on the recorder. He fumbles it almost every time often starting in the wrong key. But it is always him. And it is always gift. Who will play it this night?
As we practiced, Denise and Erinn stepped out from behind their instruments to place candles and prepare the space. They did it with such ease and quickness, that you almost wouldn’t notice my dad was missing. But I did. For years, it was him and Isaac spreading candles on the floor and turning off the lights. Who will light the candles this night?
And then when the service started, we had to find someone to sit beside the kids. For years, it was my dad that would still beside them loving them with his prayers. He could lay his soft and heavy hand upon their backs as if to say “be still.” Who will quiet their hearts this night?
My song and prayers in the darkness hold both Tommy and my dad during their long day of waiting. They are probably just arriving at the jail now and not yet in their cell. I am missing them tonight. And I am mindful of all those who miss loved ones every day. With every longing I have for them, with every prayer I hold for their hearts, I pray for all those who are incarcerated. I pray for an end to the school to prison pipeline. I pray for an end to this prison industrial complex. May our words and feet and action make it so. Who will place their bodies on the line this night?
Day 2 of Dad in Jail for Advent
The gift of a single sheet of paper
Tonight we gathered to celebrate Lucy’s birthday. I told my kids the story of the day Lucy was born. My parents were upstairs birthing at home in their bed. I was downstairs with Kim and my Grandma Bea. I remember being in the kitchen baking chocolate chip cookies in celebration of my baby sister’s arrival.
So, I whipped up a traditional batch of cookies and headed over to Lucy’s to celebrate again the gift of having her as my baby sister. It felt odd to celebrate without my dad. But just as the festivities began, a call came in from Lansing. (It is shocking the amount of money some privatized phone company makes off prisoners. I’ve only talked to my dad for a few minutes and I’ve already run past my $25 and I doubt the $50 I just put on will get me very far.)
It was a gift to hear his voice and feel his presence and love among us, but then he said “I have a poem.” We gathered round the speaker phone and listened to his voice as he summoned us all back to that sacred birthing day with herbs and groans and gift as Lucy joined the human community. It was sweet gift that left our eyes wet and our hearts full. “I wrote that on my first piece of paper.”
For a writer, time with pen and paper and solitude isn’t the worst thing. He knows in jail is short and he would happily spend it writing letters and reflecting with pen upon this Advent season. But there is no paper to be had. Other prisoners have paper, but it is forbidden to share. Tommy and my dad were able to use their money to purchase a few things. The order went in today, but won’t arrive until Friday. He somehow managed to get a hold of a single sheet of paper and upon it he laid down his love for his daughter.
It is that same love that he summons when he puts his body on the line. It is that same love that puts him in jail this night. It that same love he holds for each of us and he is interceding for the world this night with his heart and his single sheet of paper.
Day 3 of Dad in Jail for Advent
Lanterns lit through generations
This morning, I snuck up to our attic. I sat down beside a wooden box with my name wood burned on the top. It was an Advent project one year crafted in my dad’s basement workshop. It is filled with a china doll, finger paint art, and baby clothes. I haven’t opened it in years. But today, I opened it in hopes of finding an envelope I had been told for years was there.
When I was two years old, my dad did a 30-day sentence for an action resisting nuclear weapons. He was gone all of Advent arriving home just in time for Christmas. It was a long, painful time for my mom and I. We would visit my dad who was forbidden from holding or touching me. My two-year-old self couldn’t process this and my mom and I would both cry the whole way home in the car. During those days, my dad wrote me letters. I’ve never read them. I’ve been holding on to their knowledge that one day would be the right time to open them and feel the words and love and challenge that lied within them.
I went through the whole box, but couldn’t find them. I trust that they are somewhere and that I will come upon them at the right time. But I did find two things. The first is a book, cut and pasted the old way called “Daddy Loves Lydia!” Each page has a few words and a picture of my dad and I. It was my mom’s attempt to help her two-year-old understand why daddy was in jail. It is a peek-a-boo book with me looking through the house trying to find him. But it ends with these words-
“Mama says daddy is trying to stop a certain kind of war. She says nuclear war is especially bad and that it would be even worse than missing him now. Mama says that we must wait. She says that thinking of daddy and loving him will help. We will wait. We will pray for each other and the world. And my daddy will come home and tell me how very, very much daddy loves Lydia.”
Not bad words to remember in these days or to hold with our Advent hopes. I think I will read this to my own two-year-old tonight.
The other thing I found is a little glass lantern with glass panels. It must have come from a garage sale more than 30 years ago. There is a melted purple candle still in it. As a child, we would take these lanterns to Williams International each Monday after school. It was a factory that was making cruise missiles engines. We would bundle up, light the Advent candles, and sing for Emmanuel. It was these cold vigils that taught me about Advent.
On Tuesday, I will carry this lantern with me to Ingham County Jail for a candlelit vigil. We will pray with Tommy and my dad who will be on the other side of the walls. We will light the candles and pray with our feet and our hearts for an end to mass incarceration. I will take my kids and they will sing and they will learn what Advent is all about.
Day 4 of Dad in Jail for Advent
I have to admit the tensions and doubt I hold in this moment. All at once I feel worried, tired, grateful, and also some embarrassment or guilt.
The reality is I do worry about my dad. I worry when the day grows late without a call from him. I worry he won’t get his blood thinner medications knowing it took just days the last time for his lungs to fill with pulmonary embolisms. I worry about the fact that he doesn’t have his hearing aids and the space is loud and he is struggling to have conversations. I worry about his physical pain knowing he struggles to sleep as he continues to recover from knee surgery. And he has no pillow, a short blanket, a cold cell, and a light above his bed that never turns off. So, I worry.
Then I think about all the privilege this wreaks with. That it was multiple choices he made willingly and knowingly. And that it is just 10 short days.
So, when my heart and mind jump into gear, tirelessly organizing around this, I feel some shame mingled in there.
Why do I not tirelessly fight each day for all those who are incarcerated? For those there unjustly, abused, and ripped from their families for years.
The truth is that I can never look at incarceration the same way after this past year with Siwatu in prison and giving birth to her baby boy there.
And I cannot look at incarceration the same way after sitting in immigration courts seeing my neighbors over video screens before they are deported.
It is indeed a filthy rotten system that we must all fight like hell to have crumble.
So, I tirelessly organize for two white men incarcerated for 10 days??
But there is also truth in the power of civil disobedience. I believe that their actions and decisions were rooted in a cry for justice. I believe that jail time can be holy work- exposing the conditions of the inhuman place, that movements can be filled with energy, that it can bring light to injustice and inspire all of us to risk more for the sake of this world.
But the tension lingers in me. So for now, I hold it fragilely and honestly in my hands, question my own privileges and blind spots, and trust that each act of resistance that is rooted in community does indeed work towards the bending of that slow arc towards justice.
Day 5 of Dad in Jail for Advent
Trusting his pen is more active than mine tonight…
I find myself weary tonight with not too many thoughts in my heart. So, I leave these words written from my dad in 1993 in Sojourners Magazine. I trust that tonight he is breathing in this sort of Advent. And I assume his commissary purchases arrived today filled with paper and pen. I am sure those pages are getting filled with Advent power and love for us all.
“Against the manufactured and well-targeted desire for things, Advent invokes that single-minded hunger–a yearning truly for God alone. Against the awful clamor and din that silences all contenders, this season sets that Word irrepressible. Against the grandiose and pretentious pose that goes with empire, it posits the hidden and unexpected. Over against despair that has become the emblem of political rule in our day, it utters a hope that thereby becomes freedom. Against dissipation and distraction, by which we are also controlled, Advent commends spiritual alertness. As the readings from Isaiah will suggest, Advent reminds us that we are exiles and resident aliens in a strange, strange land.
For all that, it is a season to make the heart sit up and take notice. In fact and practice, Advent exemplifies the characteristic attitude of believers approaching scripture itself: an urgent expectancy, a patient watching, and attentive listening for the coming of the Word.”
Day 6 of Dad in Jail for Advent
Beloveds on my heart
This week, my heart has been so focused on my dad. I find myself reading through his writings on Advent and jail time. I find myself worried, grateful, and tired. But his voice sounds peaceful and he is finding joy in the small things. He has been for me a friend, mentor, teacher, and co-conspirator this last decade. I honestly don’t know what I would do without him.
Last week, my heart was focused on Laurel Dykstra who was serving a week in jail for an action resisting the Trans Mountain Pipeline. Laurel is someone who has mentored me for years summoning my own vocation, challenging my analysis, and encouraging a love of biblical story and earth beauty. I had the unmeasurable gift at standing at Laurel’s ordination and watching church be transformed before my eyes. Laurel’s resistance and jail time is a piece of that call breaking forth. I give thanks for Laurel and all the spirit that Laurel summons in my own heart and life.
And each day since April 4, my heart has been reminded of Liz McAlister who has now been in prison for over seven months. She participated in a Plowshare action at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base. They chose April 4, the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, drawing the connecting between white supremacy and nuclear weapons. She awaits trial with her other co-defendants and may be charged for as many as 25 years in prison. Liz is another mentor who transformed my life as we fed llamas, picked tomatoes, and shared in morning prayer. She surrounded me with love and a resting home when my mom died.
My dad, Laurel, and Liz are beloved mentors who ignite my heart. Their lives and love have nurtured who I am and will become. I am not failing to notice the connection they share this year as their acts of resistance have landed them all in jail for some time. I give thanks for each of them. And I would follow these three anywhere….even to jail.
Day 7 of Dad in Jail for Advent
I am struck by the way my body is carrying the events of the week. I keeping to Erinn, ‘why does my head ache again?’ ‘why does my stomach hurt?’ I keep pushing through the days, but my body is struggling.
Erinn keeps reminding me of the stress I am carrying….the worry…the exhaustion. She is right, of course.
But I think…he is fine! He is content, even happy. He is getting his meds. It is only 10 days!!
But we carry so much in our bodies. It carries the pain and longings we feel. It holds our trauma. It summons us to slow down and won’t let us refuse sometimes. Our bodies are wise and persistent.
The jail time for my dad is nothing…and yet I feel it. I think of all the trauma people carry from mass incarceration, from poverty, from patriarchy, and white supremacy. Our society is crushed by it and thus it is written in scars upon all of our bodies.
There is so much work to do in this world. May it begin with the healing of our bodies and memory in our ancestral blood. May we listen and nurture and trust our bodies. May we respect and honor one another’s. May we give gratitude for the strength that we hold within and also touch tenderly the wounds. Let there be gentleness, kindness, rest, and warmth upon our skin this night. May it not be our broken bodies given for you, but the healing of our bodies given to one another.
Day 8 of Dad in Jail for Advent
My prayers, my longings, my love
For the babies born in these days,
For the women carrying and laboring,
For the sliver of moon,
For the snowflake here or there,
For my father in his cold bed,
For all those in prison this night,
For the tears, the loss, the grief
The outrage for the world
Crippled by injustice,
For the children calling out in the night,
For the knocks at the doors,
For those who opens doors and bid welcome,
For those who stand before walls
Built to keep them out,
For those holding the guns, the money, the power
That they let love alter their lives,
For those cold or hungry tonight,
For those waiting on a failing beaurocracy
For food or doctors and warm house,
For those living in fear of the Homrich truck,
For the families living without water,
For the children in schools preparing for gun violence,
For the young who have risen up and cried out “no more!”
For all who listen to the quiet whispers of their hearts,
For the stories and history that can change the course of our lives,
For the elders who have called our names,
For the children who give us a reason to hope,
For the risks we take with our lives
In hopes of justice and peace,
For the time of noticing beauty
For offering gratitude to those we love,
For the gift of community in the good fight,
For the morning that will surely come,
For those who are tired or lonely,
For the filthy rotten system to come crumbling down,
Day 9 of Dad in Jail for Advent
This jail time has given be a new understanding of Advent waiting. My dad has talked about jail time like waiting for one the who will come with the key. Time slows down he says. On the outside, we’ve been waiting for the days to pass too. They have felt long and short, unusual and usual, exhausting and hopeful.
But tonight, there is a different kind of waiting happening. It feels a little like Christmas Eve. My kids are sound asleep in beds filled with excitement about picking up Grandpa at jail at 6am tomorrow.
It hasn’t been the easiest time for them. They haven’t wanted to talk a lot about it. Occasionally, Cedar would say “I am sad about Grandpa being in jail and his knee hurting.” There have been wild outbursts and stubborn throw downs that feel like they must be connected.
But it is so clear that they are ecstatic to see him tomorrow. Tonight, we vigiled outside the jail and you could tell it did their hearts good just to see the place where he is. They ran around in the cold and dark surrounded by candles held by beautiful people with a fire for justice. I love thinking of the ways that this becomes written into their histories.
Then we were welcomed with beautiful hospitality by my dad’s cousin Judy. I struggled to get a wild Isaac to bed and for the first (and probably only time), I had to say “Isaac, if you don’t lie down and fall asleep, you wont be able to pick Grandpa up at jail tomorrow!”
That did the trick. He is sound asleep filled with Advent anticipation of the long wait ending and joy being found at the end.
It has been a good night. Filled with candles shining in the cold darkness and a warmth of love and community. I too await the morning and seeing him come home. I, honestly, look forward to this being over. But I give thanks for this journey, for the gift it has been to my heart to write these thoughts down, and grateful to those of you who have found them worth reading. Love to you all on this last night of waiting.
Day 10 of Dad in Jail for Advent
The waiting is over…or it is?
I write tonight with tiredness running through my whole body. Those two sleeping boys filled with anticipation last night quickly turned to waking up to pee, falling off the bed, and for the last several hours with Isaac throwing up. In the end, he was too tired and sick to get out of the car to greet Grandpa at jail. “Take pictures of all the things you think I would be interested in,” was all he could say.
Perhaps it is a reminder that life keeps moving. That there is normalness that runs through everything…sometimes the normal of delight and other times the normal of exhaustion or pain.
But after a few hiccups and a warrant out for his arrest, he is home. He looks good. He feels centered with stories of laughter and prayer and pain of fellow prisoners.
The waiting is over. Or is it?
The Department of Health and Human Services still runs policies and systems of inhumanity and racism.
Child Protective Services is still driving around following Homrich trucks.
Children in Flint still have lead in their veins.
People are still dealing with excruciating paper work and problems with DHHS case workers.
There are still policies being dealt out around work and money that only further harm those in poverty.
People still live out their lives locked behind bars.
Corporations continue to profit off prisoners….their phone calls, their food, their nights.
Poverty still wreaks havoc on the lives of most while a few design ways to get richer.
But I was thinking about Advent and Christmas. All this waiting in anticipation of a baby being born. But in that moment, the waiting doesn’t end….the injustice doesn’t subside. In fact, he is born in the midst of occupation and poverty. Shortly after his birth, his family is forced to flee because a death sentence has come down upon all baby boys. The waiting for hope isn’t over. The waiting for justice isn’t over.
Yet it is a glimpse at beauty, a glimpse of life, a glimpse at how the world can shift. We trust that. It is why we keep waiting. It is why we keep breathing. It is why we keep working.
This was one of those moments when we saw an amazing circle of human beings stand up, take risk, and cry out for the love of humanity. It was a moment worth waiting for. I was grateful to be part of that circle. And yet, we know that nothing was fixed, so we keep waiting. We wait in a way where our eyes are open, our doors are welcoming, our hearts are full, and our lives are given to the shift of a new and beautiful world.