The Common Good
January-February 1996

All of Us Are Sinners

by Joyce Hollyday | January-February 1996

On May 12, 1982, Thony Green woke about dawn to put on the coffee at the Open Door Community in Atlanta.

On May 12, 1982, Thony Green woke about dawn to put on the coffee at the Open Door Community in Atlanta. Thony had come in off the streets just a few weeks after the community had opened its doors to homeless people on Christmas Day 1981; he quickly

became an important part of its life. On this particular spring day, he was watching 2-year-old Hannah Loring-Davis while her parents were at a meeting. Mid-morning he put her down for a nap and went downstairs to ladle soup.

Moments later, four men burst through the front door, waving guns. Throwing Thony to the floor, one put a gun to his neck and hollered, "I'll blow your head to pieces if you move!" Two handcuffed him, while the fourth flashed a badge from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Thony, it turned out, had escaped from prison, where he was serving a 482-year sentence for armed robbery. He was dragged off to the Louisiana State Prison in Angola, a wretched place infamously noted in a Neville Brothers' song, "Angola Bound."

Ed Loring of the Open Door wrote after his first visit there: "Surely the year is 1845. Three men on horseback with rifles. Forty convicts in two parallel rows marching with hoes on their right shoulders." He described the prison as a 20,000-acre "Old South plantation, where 5,200 men are slaves."

Thony is paid four cents an hour for cutting brush. And there's a plasma bank at the prison. "Two bleeds equals one case of Bugler [rolling tobacco]," says Thony. "Four bleeds equals one carton of cigarettes."

Since 1980, when Ronald Reagan became president and went "tough on crime," the nation's prison population has doubled. Marine-style "boot camps" have become fashionable. Ron Jones, Alabama's chief of corrections, has taken away personal liberties from prisoners one by one, with the justification that "humans don't riot when they have no expectation that things will get better." Among his changes: a return to chain gangs. Allen Ault, Georgia's rehabilitation-minded corrections commissioner, is resigning; vengeance-obsessed prison officials have called him part of the "therapy crowd." He calls their forms of punishment "unconstitutional, demeaning, [and] sadistic."

"We no longer have a doctrine of what it means to be a human being, made in the image of God," says Ed Loring. "The people whom God calls most authentically are in need of forgiveness. The gospel is good news for sinners. And that means all of us."

LAST JULY, Ed wrote a letter to Thony Green, a man expecting to die in prison, inviting him to become a partner of the Open Door. Humbly, Thony wrote back:

"Man, you know that I would love to be a partner at the Open Door, but what could I do? I don't have nothing but an eight grade education; I don't know anything about typing or keeping books. But I can keep the place up, cut hair, cook, and put up a good fuss here and there. Maybe you can teach me a few things and also let me talk to people about the ghettos and its life, its struggle to survive. I can see a lot of things I just don't really know how to explain them."

A few months later, word came unexpectedly that Thony was going to be released in the year 2001, under the "old man's rule." Severe overcrowding has pushed officials to free prisoners who are over 40 years old and have served 20 years.

On November 19, 1995, Thony Lee Green was welcomed as a partner in absentia. His musings from prison were shared. He is amazed that Hannah is now driving. He hopes that when he stops playing for the prison football team, there will be one at the Open Door to coach (this generated a hearty round of laughter). He sent this statement:

"I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you for counting me worthy and accepting me as a fellow partner at our home 'The Open Doors,' and my promise is to be as faithful unto you all as you are unto me; and to love and serve the community as the community have loved and served me.

"I must confess one thing and that is I'm afraid, because I'm almost 30 years behind time and I've grown use to being alone, very alone with myself. I pray that God bless and keep you all."

On the communion table lay a plain green notebook, the Open Door's "covenant book." Inside were recorded the signatures of the partners, each of whom had come forward during their service of welcome to sign it. When Ed took it on the long journey to Angola for Thony's signature, he had to take along an attorney to get it inside. It is, after all, a dangerous book-a testimony to a different set of values from the ones that run Angola prison; a record of community, a reflection of dignity and hope.

It was a poignant and tearfully joyful moment when the book was raised with its newest signature. A prayer was offered for Thony, and envelopes addressed to him were handed out. The community was given this charge: "As our government cares less about those in prison, may we care more. And when Thony arrives in 2001, may he already know us as brothers and sisters." Then this afterthought: "And remember, you've only got six years to get in shape."

JOYCE HOLLYDAY, a Sojourners contributing editor, is in the Master of Divinity program at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. She is the author, most recently, of Clothed With the Sun: Biblical Women, Social Justice, and Us (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).

 

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