(Copyright © 2000 Al Aronowitz)





Here's the whole story. It's an important one to me because it was one of two incidents that happened behind the walls at Leavenworth that helped me gain the reputation of being a person who could be trusted. The incident stretched over a year and involved the formation of a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in the federal prison system.

It was a community organizing experience---organizing under the most difficult, repressive conditions. Just the kind of challenge that a rag-tag group of religious malcontents needed to make their year. And what a year it was! We were surrounded by adversaries: the prisoners' "religious leader," the chaplain, who was a Baptist; the warden and the
assistant wardens for custody and treatment; the ever-present guards; and a directive from the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington to deny the UUs everything. The highlight of the year was our publishing coup---a slick issue of an illegal underground magazine, published and distributed throughout the prison---and not a single UU group member or supporter busted.  

The incident began in 1968 when a Chicano named Frank Sepulveda somehow found out I was for the most part a Unitarian Universalist. He had been trying to start a Unitarian Universalist discussion group for years with no success. He asked me if I would like to join his non-group. I was new and wary, but since Frank wasn't looking at me like I was a love object I signed on. 

The group now had two members.

Our request was a simple one. We wanted to get some free thinkers together to talk about religion. Among other topics we wanted to discuss were the conflicts between reason and creed. Frank had a way with words. Of course he had been working with words for nine years. He was serving a 15-year sentence for possession of an amount of pot that was so small it couldn't be measured---so small it couldn't even be smoked---in the bottom of a jacket pocket. Those were the days when they locked you up for not paying tax on your pot. Frank claimed that forcing a person to pay taxes on pot was unconstitutional. He had been trying to get the federal courts to stop and reread what the constitution says about self-incrimination. He had filed actions on those grounds again and again. He had a son who was nine years old whom he had only seen in the visiting room.  

Frank not only had a way with words, he was patient.

Normally prisons love to see groups form. It looks good on paper. People with drinking problems had a group. Gamblers had a group. Drug, sex, and food addicts had groups. The Jaycees, Toastmasters, Catholics, Jews, and Black Muslims all had groups.

The request that we submitted and resubmitted was really quite simple. Yet the request continued to be denied.  

When we pressed the chaplain for reasons we were told: 1) We didn't have a sponsor (there were no UU fellowships or churches in the area, but in such cases the chaplain automatically sponsored any group with a religious affiliation), 2) there were already too many groups in the prison, and 3) we required guard supervision because we were a security problem and they couldn't spare a guard.

Something was wrong. We called a meeting. By now we had four members.

We asked Frank if we had missed something. There were many very crazy organizations in that prison. How could the religion of Thomas Jefferson and Albert Schweitzer be considered crazy or dangerous? Certainly not the religion of Walter Kellison, a poet and the minister of the People's Unitarian Church, Cedar Rapids, Iowa---the only Unitarian I personally knew until I met Frank Sepulveda.

No crazies in that crowd.

When Frank and I asked the associate warden in charge of treatment for help, he told us to go to church on Sunday if we wanted religion.

We went back to the chaplain. He was hot. In prison "No" means exactly that. "No!" When a prisoner doesn't accept the "No" he is considered either stupid or a troublemaker.

"What you two do with your lives is your business," the chaplain told us, "but as long as I'm in charge of religion around here there will be no anti-Christian groups meeting in this prison."

Unitarians are many things, but they are not anti-Christian. Since we couldn't get a room for our UU meetings we decided to meet out on the yard. We posted hand-written notices around the prison announcing the meeting.

The notices had been up about two hours when Frank and I were told to  report to

More unapproved notices of religious meetings
 would mean the ‘hole’ for them

the captain, the man who handles discipline problems on a day-to-day basis. He told us that the notices were contraband, they had not been approved by the chaplain, we had not been authorized to enter the areas where the notices were posted---and if it happened again we
would be sent to Building 63---the hole.  

We resubmitted requests and sent copies to George Marshall, minister for the Church of the Larger Fellowship at UU headquarters in Boston. We also asked him for literature and books.

After about a month, we wrote to George Marshall again and asked why they hadn't sent the books. We got a fast reply. "First order was sent. Two more boxes of replacement books and literature sent today."

Another month passed. No books from UU headquarters.

By this time, six or seven months have passed. Seem strange? You have to remember that nothing happens fast in prison-except killings.

During this time other prisoners were becoming interested. But since it was becoming known that being a Unitarian Universalist wasn't going to count for points at a parole hearing, most of the prisoners who came to listen and ask questions decided it wasn't worth being hassled about.

But some stayed.

We began proselytizing. The jailhouse lawyers were informed that every time they raised a constitutional issue on behalf of themselves or a fellow prisoner they could thank a Unitarian. Since many of the best jailhouse lawyers were doing heavy time, they were unconcerned that the administration was hassling us. To some, the hassling was what attracted them.  

The Black Muslims asked, "If we can meet but the Unitarians can't, just exactly what is it the Unitarians advocate? Must have `bad' politics if you can't meet without a guard."

As a diversion, our group began attending regular church services, but we refused to allow the chaplain's clerk to add our names to the attendance list. We claimed that taking attendance was only crowd insurance and that it was discriminatory. The church attendance record was part of the information given to the parole board. It took a long time to get the practice stopped. When we did, the number of prisoners attending church services declined drastically.

Meanwhile, the chaplain would scream at us when we went to his office to ask about our books. Since George Marshall had told us he had sent the books we knew the chaplain had them. Drastic action was needed.

One day, as soon as the chaplain and his clerk left for lunch, one of our new members, who was also a lock expert, walked four of us into the chaplain's office so fast I couldn't believe my eyes. Quickly, he locked the door behind us, then picked the locks on both desks, both filing cabinets, and the closet. In the closet were the four boxes of books and literature.

Our mission was half completed.

All books of a religious nature that came into the prison had to be stamped and signed by either the chaplain or the head of education. While the books were being spread out on the

The chaplain’s signature
was forged in 57 books
in five minutes

floor the rubber stamp was located and the books were stamped while I signed the chaplain's name---I'd worked on duplicating his signature since we decided to take      
the "law" into our own hands. I signed 57 books in five minutes. The pamphlets were all stamped but I only had time to sign 15 or 20. Everything was carefully put back, desks, closet, and filing cabinets were locked, and we were out of there. We had made it in and out in 13 minutes and 28 seconds without anyone seeing us.

My first B & E had been planned perfectly, but what fascinated me most was watching a man walk up to a locked door and, with what appeared to be three little steel "toothpicks," open it in seconds, with barely a pause in our forward motion. Twelve years later, James Caan starred in a movie called The Thief, which used this man as a model. The man was a professional. Contrary to what the movie portrayed, though, he did not use guns in his work.

That evening we had our regularly scheduled, unofficial, non-meeting to determine a future course of action. Only four people knew about the break-in. Actually five. The chaplain knew. We decided he couldn't say anything without admitting that he had grabbed our mail. He would have been in the clear if he had simply rejected the books and returned them. Keeping them was a "no no," and that "no no" determined our course of action.

First, we sent him a letter thanking him for approving the books and literature and being so supportive. We asked him which room he wanted us to meet in.

Needless to say, he provided us with a meeting room, but only under certain conditions: We couldn't post notices that we were meeting or that the Fellowship even existed, only 10 Unitarians could meet at one time, and a guard had to be present at all times to ensure that   nothing threatening the security of the prison was planned.  

Over a year had passed---but organizing and the risks involved had kept the juices flowing.

Once a month Emil Gudmundson, director of the Prairie Star District of the Unitarian Universalist Association, drove down from Minneapolis, 800 miles roundtrip, to lead a discussion group. Don Vaughn, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Wichita, drove over from Wichita once a month---a 400-mile round trip.

We named the group the Michael Servetus Fellowship, after the young Spanish writer who searched for, but could not find, mention of the Trinity in the Bible. Servetus not only wrote about his fruitless search, he traveled around Europe discussing it publicly. He made a serious mistake when he inadvertently wandered across the border into Switzerland, home to the infamous Calvin. Servetus, unaware that Calvin had a standing arrest warrant out for him, was arrested and brought before this godfearing, Protestant reformer. Calvin had no time for any "truths" other than his own. The kinds of truth Servetus was seeking and discussing were so abhorrent to Calvin that he promptly tied Servetus to a stake in the town square and burned him alive.

We felt a distant kinship with Servetus after being forced to interact with the chaplain for so many months. Servetus only knows, that punk chaplain would have burned our books if he'd had the cods for it.

Then, as if dealing with the chaplain wasn't enough, the Bureau of Prisons objected not only to our forming the group but to our choice of name. Don Vaughn informed the warden that the American Civil Liberties Union was taking the case. That threat removed the final barrier.   ##



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