Justice, Healing, and Reconciliation: EDS Alumni/ae Serve as Instruments of Social Change

By Rebecca Grossfield

We’re approaching the criminal justice inflection point. Fifty years after the civil rights movement, 40 years since the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws were enacted, and 25 years since broken windows and zero-tolerance policing rose to prominence in American cities, the situation seems ripe for change.

The situation is this: for the last quarter century and more, America has kept its cities safe by putting thousands upon thousands of people in jail. We have criminalized poverty and a range of anti-social behaviors. We have sanctioned police brutality and engendered multi-generational cycles of oppression, racism, and suffering.

But now, something seems to be happening here. It’s happening when President Obama commutes the sentences of non-violent drug offenders. It’s happening when the mayor of New York puts an end to the baldly racist policy of stop and frisk. It’s happening when the Rockefeller Drug Laws are repealed and communities of color refuse to live under the boot of violent and feckless police.

What happens next, though, isn’t exactly clear. Will we resolve, finally, to address problems of poverty and racism at their roots or will we backslide and continue to criminalize these societal problems?

For more than 50 years, EDS (as well as ETS and PDS) graduates have been serving in criminal justice ministries, from creating third spaces where the formerly incarcerated can better transition back into society, to working in communities to prevent youth violence. Now, as America grapples with what to do about police violence and a patently unjust criminal justice system, EDS Now spoke with three alumni/ae in criminal justice ministry about their work.

Aimee Altizer imagePreparing a Third Space: Aimee Altizer (EDS ’15)

Ask Aimee Altizer about the significance of “middle space” or, as she describes it, the “healing space.” Simply put, Altizer says, “middle space is the center between two opposing points on a binary.” Her work as chaplain, horticultural therapist, and executive chef at ACQUA Recovery Center in Midway, Utah, centers on this simple principle. Altizer also launched Unshackled, a third space community ministering with the formerly incarcerated, operating in Salt Lake City.

Altizer’s time studying theology at EDS provided her with the necessary framework to cultivate these communities of change. While her interest in food stems from her background as a pastry chef, she has a passion for combining that vocation and working with “those on the margins of society.” And while initially Altizer, who is a postulant in the Diocese of Utah, was considering military chaplaincy, she stumbled upon EDS through a chance Google search. Altizer pursued her master’s through a combination of Traditional Learning and Distributive Learning courses and was able to extend her work to include a cross-population of the homeless, drug addicted, former military, and incarcerated.

At EDS, Altizer further studied marginalization and oppression. She said her coursework with the Rev. Cn. Ed Rodman (recently retired John Seeley Stone Professor of Pastoral Theology and Urban Ministry) and the Rev. Dr. Stephen Burns (former associate professor of liturgical theology and the study of Anglicanism at EDS) was especially meaningful. “Those classes took the seeds of my interests and helped me develop a fuller understanding of this population,” Altizer said. “This program was the missing link to pulling it all together.”

“The population that I’m working with [at ACQUA and through Unshackled]—some of them have come out of prison. Some of them are young people, between ages 19–30, some have found their way to heroin or meth addiction. Some of that is related to trauma and identity experiences. I am trying to foster a better space to recover,” she told EDS Now. Through ACQUA, Altizer is bringing people together around daily common meals that provide the sustenance for healing. “Only in that space can people get to know one another,” Altizer said. “Populations who are seemingly dissimilar can heal and there is a better understanding of identity.”

In 2013, she launched Unshackled, developed in part by funding from the Episcopal Evangelism Society and EDS’s Jonathan Daniels Memorial Fellowship. Through urban farming and gardening projects, Altizer brings together formerly incarcerated and other members of the Salt Lake City community with a focus on love, empathy, and restoring humanity. The project’s mission and goals center on “faith, hope, and community.” Unshackled’s vision statement notes, “In our world, formerly incarcerated individuals experience high barriers to entry and low expectations. Unshackled is an instrument of social change, working with people on the margins of society to restore hope and dignity to our lives, while creating opportunities that foster growth and self respect through meaningful work.”

Unshackled recently secured their first space in downtown Salt Lake City. “Our work has been greatly supported by Suzanne Ehly (Artist-in-Residence and Faculty in Voice, Body, and Culture at EDS) and the VISIONS training she provided with the support of a grant f rom the Jonathan Daniels Memorial Fund,” Altizer said. For more about Unshackled, visit the Facebook page, www.facebook.com/UnshackledSLC.

Ann Perrott imageThe Story and the Journey: Ann Perrott (EDS ’13)

Ann Perrott’s route to ministry was a lengthy one. Prior to attending EDS, she spent nearly 20 years as a social worker with developmentally disabled adults. After spending some time volunteering at a local prison on the North Shore of Massachusetts through St. Peter’s Church in Beverly, Perrott wanted to learn more.

“I felt called to do this,” she told EDS Now. “I felt I was called to serve God in word and sacrament inside prisons.”

Several years ago, Perrott began facilitating an emotional healing course at the Pre-Release Facility of Middleton House of Corrections in Lawrence, Massachusetts. She has since facilitated a similar course at Suffolk House of Corrections in Boston.

The course was modeled after Houses of Healing, a powerful rehabilitation curriculum created specifically for prisoners and the formerly incarcerated. This emotional literacy program offers prisoners guidance to encourage examining life experiences, taking responsibility, changing patterns of violence and addiction, and building productive lives.

“I’m all about journey and story,” Perrott said. The course includes personal discussion (covering everything from childhood to the crime itself), reading the book Houses of Healing, and viewing videos. “We all have a core self,” Perrott said. “And this allows us to examine what is at the core—to really peel back the onion and realize that we are all beautiful and we are all loving.”

“Some parts of these sessions are really tough,” Perrott said. “But unless we go back and understand our pasts, we can never really reconcile with ourselves. It’s a really powerful program and the reactions are simply amazing.” Perrott currently splits her time between Massachusetts and Connecticut. She hopes to complete her ordination to the diaconate next summer followed by the priesthood. “I believe a big part to this is mission and how we ‘do’ mission in the church,” Perrott told EDS Now. “And for me, this work is my one little tiny piece—holding people up as worthy of their higher power.”

John Calhoun imageRunning the Gamut: John Calhoun (ETS ’65)

John “Jack” Calhoun, a lifelong social justice advocate, community organizer, public speaker, and author of Hope Matters: The Untold Story of How Faith Works in America believes the faith community plays a crucial role in fostering social change.

Calhoun, who was first inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, launched his career during a deeply tumultuous time in American history. “Something struck a chord that really resonated with me,” Calhoun said. Through his local church in Pennsylvania, Calhoun was offered an opportunity to work with Native American youth in Eagle, Alaska—a small city along the Yukon River.

Calhoun focuses on building safe and nurturing communities across America “that don’t produce violence.” Now in his “retirement,” Calhoun directs the 13-California City Gang Prevention Network for the National League of Cities and serves as senior consultant to the U.S. Department of Justice for its National Forum to Prevent Youth Violence.

During his time working with youth in Alaska, Calhoun was inspired to attend seminary. After some time attending school in Berkeley, California, Calhoun returned to Boston. But he told EDS Now he once struggled as both a student and activist while attending Episcopal Theological School (now EDS). “I was very involved with a lot of the civil rights stuff and I almost quit [seminary] after my second year,” he said. However, something then ETS dean, John Coburn, said stuck with him.

“I remember storming into his office one day. I said, ‘Why is this school still open? Why isn’t everyone out in the streets?’ He looked at me and said, ‘Somebody has to keep the arc of the covenant alive so you know why it is you’re doing what you’re doing.’”

Calhoun said the church continues to be a key piece of social justice work and that successful community building must involve various groups. “It takes a city rolling up its sleeves,” he said. “The approach must be comprehensive and include early childhood education, intervention, mentoring, school retention, enforcement, re-entry of returning prisoners. We need people to raise their hand and say I’m going to do this.”

“The church was prophetic and a source of the action pre-federal funding, pre-Job Corps, pre-Headstart—before all of that,” Calhoun said. “The faith community’s role runs the gamut—everything from advocacy to political stuff, acting as a communications outlet, assisting with crisis intervention,” he said.

Today, he believes the church’s engagement around social justice continues to serve as the backbone of our faith. “That is part of the call,” Calhoun said. “That is the commitment.”

Pictured top to bottom: Aimee Altizer, Ann Perrott, and John Calhoun

This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2015 issue of EDS Now.