This guest blog post is by Michael Cluff, one of the pen pals with CFI’s Freethought Books Project. The Freethought Books Project provides donations of freethought and secular literature to inmates. We also have a pen pal program that matches up freethinking volunteer pen pals with inmates looking for a connection with someone who shares their worldview.
“I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Living in the hopeless, hungry side of town.
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
but still is there because he’s a victim of the times.”
– Johnny Cash, “The Man in Black.”
I’ve always admired Johnny Cash’s concern for the oppressed—especially prison inmates. In fact, I often use my impressions of Cash’s Christianity as a reference point to see if I’ve become reflexively anti-religion in my views. So if something doesn’t pass the Cash Test, then it’s probably unfair to generalize to all believers.
The problem is, I look like crap in black. So I’ve been forced to find other, less sartorial ways to show solidarity with those inside prison walls. CFI’s Prison Pen Pal effort has given me one opportunity to channel my inner Johnny Cash, allowing me to connect with inmates on a deep and personal level. (So call me “The Man in Earth Tones” if you must.)
The Pen Pals Project started as a part of CFI’s Freethought Books Project. I heard about this program not long after I ‘d been invited to speak to humanist inmates at a local penitentiary, and I was so moved and motivated by this experience that I volunteered to participate. It wasn’t long before I got a response from my pen pal, an eager and bright young gay man struggling with a recent loss of belief in God. He wrote movingly about how he misses the feeling that God was present and protecting him, and asked me when I thought this sense of loss would pass. We also discussed the unrequited love he felt for another inmate and how his feelings of loss and despair were similar to his feelings about God. He had a million questions about evolution, looking for armor in his frequent arguments with other inmates. On the topic of atheism, he holds Guy P. Harrison’s books in very high esteem, wanting to share copies with inmates and family members.
Despite what might seem to be a wide gulf between me and my pen pal, our common humanity—and our shared lack of faith—was plenty enough for us to relate to one another. To me, one of the most important paths for Humanists is to reach beyond our own experience and to develop a richer sense of compassion. I’m grateful to my pen pal for what I’ve learned, and I hope he feels the same way.
Michael Cluff is the coordinator of South Jersey Humanists and a pen pal volunteer with the Freethought Books Project.