MLK and the Academy Awards

In January of 2013, while still incarcerated at Oakdale, I gave a speech in a Toastmaster’s contest in the prison chapel to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (I got second place, by the way).

I am re-posting the speech, partly as a belated tribute to him, but also as a direct result of the debate swirling around about the Academy Awards. Now, to the best of my knowledge, MLK never directly addressed them directly. Indeed, he was too concerned with basic civil rights and freedoms.

But I do believe that had he lived, he certainly would have been disappointed in how what is meant to entertain, enlighten, and enrich us has also been used to divide us.

Perhaps you can imagine for yourself what he would have had to say about it all, were he with us today. The speech:

“WE ALL HAVE AN OPPORTUNITY TODAY” by Tony Casson

“With this faith we will be able to hew out of the Mountain of Despair a Stone of Hope”. Those words, spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963 became the theme for the four acre memorial honoring him in Washington, DC.

The figure of Dr. King is sculpted to appear as if he is stepping out of a 30 foot tall block of granite, which represents the Stone Of Hope. The expression carved into his face has been variously described as ‘determined’, ‘resolute’, ‘stern’, and by some, ‘angry’.

In preparing this speech, I looked to the words of Dr. King himself and I tried to imagine his voice as he spoke about his hopes and his dreams, not just for the black man, but for all of mankind; and not just for America, but for the world.

After carefully considering all that I had read, and after looking around at the condition of the world today, I came to the conclusion that the expression on the face of the man emerging from the Stone Of hope was one of disappointment.

Even though we are preparing to inaugurate an African-American as President of the United States for a second term, I believe Dr. King would be disappointed that it has taken so long, and that we still find it necessary, and appropriate, to refer to him as an AFRICAN- American, rather than simply as an American.

I believe that Dr. King would be disappointed that words he spoke during a lecture at the University of Oslo in 1964 are, sadly, just as true today as they were the day he spoke them. He said, “There is a sort of poverty of spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have grown materially, the poorer we have grown morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not yet learned the simple art of living together as brothers.”

While it is true that the law prevents us from posting signs over doorways, drinking fountains, and places of business that state ‘white only’ or ‘colored only’, INVISIBLE signs that separate people are still in existence today.

Within the confines of this institution, one doesn’t have to strain to hear reference to the ‘white side’ of the dining hall, or to the ‘black side’; to the ‘white entrance’ or to the black entrance’. And in the housing units themselves, official signs may contain words that are within the law and are politically correct, but it is the INVISIBLE signs that tell us we have ‘white TVs’ and ‘black TVs’.

In his Nobel Peace prize acceptance speech, Dr. King said, “I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies; education and culture for their minds; and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits”.

I believe Dr. King would be disappointed because poverty in the United States of America, and around the world, is at the same levels, or higher, than when he had the AUDACITY to believe that it could be otherwise.

Dr. King’s efforts opened up opportunities for education that previously had not existed for many people, but I believe Dr. King would be disappointed to know that cases of school segregation still languish in Federal courts in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama; cases that were begun BEFORE he was assassinated in 1968.

And he would be further disappointed that those opportunities are willingly rejected today by so many young people who choose, instead, faster, far more dangerous and deadly ways of traveling on the road to what they perceive is success. A road that leads many of them only to death, or to incarceration in institutions such as this one.

And on the issue of dignity for the human spirit, I believe Dr. King would be PROFOUNDLY disappointed that the most undignified, vilest, most derogatory term that a white man can use in reference to a black man is used with disturbing casualness and frequency BY black men in reference to other black men.

I believe Dr. King would be the FIRST to stand before us all and tell us that word has no business crossing the lips of ANY man, black or white, at any time, for any reason.

I believe that Dr. King would be disappointed that many of those he left behind have chosen to honor him with symbols, but have somehow forgotten his substance. I believe Dr. King would rather see safe, healthy, educated, and well-fed children playing on the streets of progress, rather than see his name on signs marking the streets of his forgotten hopes and dreams.

But we have an opportunity today, to resolve to pick up the hopes and dreams of Dr. King and carry them into the promised land that he glimpsed before he was murdered.

We have an opportunity today, to resolve to become a small part of the solution so we can never be accused of being a BIG part of the problem.

In 1963, in Detroit, Michigan, Dr. King challenged the world when he said, “If a man hasn’t discovered something he is willing to die for, he isn’t fit to live.”

We have an opportunity today to prove to the world that not only was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. VERY fit to live, but that what he died for was worth the price that he paid.

That what he DIED for was worth the price that his wife paid.

And that what he DIED for was worth the price that his 4 little children paid.

We have an opportunity TODAY to resolve to work to change the expression on the face of the man emerging from the Stone Of Hope from one of disappointment, to one of SATISFACTION for a job well done.

And I pray to God we do not fail to take advantage of it.

(Author’s Note 1/24/2016: Unfortunately, it seems we never really seem to.)

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What Can Kill You Can Also Save You

I am not a chef, and I wouldn’t insult anyone who learned the things necessary to proudly make that claim by stating otherwise.

That said, I did evolve into the life of a restaurateur during the late 70’s and the 80’s and the business seemed to be a perfect fit for me – were it not for my obsession with drugs and alcohol which constantly created obstacles in my professional – as well as my personal – life. I recall the need to dip into the office for a quick ‘line’ of coke, and after work it was Bacardi and a drinkable, legal coke. Throughout the day, while working, I would sneak bottles of Michelob into the office and drink them down to take off the ‘edge’ produced by the coke.
The restaurant business didn’t produce the drug and alcohol habit. Indeed – had I not had those habits, I could have taken life more seriously and actually learned a more professional approach to a business I actually loved (and still do).
Those habits, however, went on to almost kill me, literally, as my inability to cope with myself led me to death’s doorstep following a nearly successful suicide attempt in August of 2009. It was turning to God that actually prevented that attempt from being successful, but that is a story for another time. The fact that I lived meant that I could face the monster I had become and 7 months after that attempt I went to federal prison for 4 years.
Upon my release, I moved from the prison in Louisiana to Central Union Mission in Washington, DC where I quickly became a volunteer in the kitchen, which led to a job on the Mission kitchen staff. Today, I am in the final stages of developing a career training program for men served by the Mission. Men who have surrendered to hopelessness due to a lack of education or vocational training, a history of alcohol or drug abuse, growing up in extreme poverty or in a physically or emotionally violent environment, as a result of a lifetime of making poor choices, or of having a criminal history.
The individuals we select become part of a six month “Work, Learn, and Earn” program developed around a retail business featuring a line of baked goods consisting of muffins, scones, and handheld pies that are produced, marketed, and sold by program participants in a retail environment while we work with the business community to secure permanent employment or entrepreneurial opportunities for them.
We believe we can help to eliminate the “Will Work for Food” mentality and replace it with a “Will Work for my Future” mentality that not only sees the potential for a future, but is accompanied by the determination to work for it. No matter what is in a person’s past, we believe each one of God’s children can have a future, and we consider it our obligation to help them, see it, work for it, and realize it.
We believe that by giving an individual the best we can offer of ourselves we can teach him to reach for the best he has within himself.
The name under which we will operate is ‘Mission Muffins’, and we believe that ‘Muffins with a Mission’ can change a person’s life.

This business (the restaurant, or food-service, business), which can be more draining and demanding than any of us could ever adequately describe, can provide us with excuses to dismantle our lives through the use of drugs and alcohol.

But this business can also be used to rebuild lives – even the same lives it helped to dismantle. By focusing on the future, the demands of this industry can actually be a crucial part of providing a future for individuals who thought that a future was for other people.

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At the Intersection of Freedom & Hope

(also posted on The After-Oakdale Chronicles)

“Freedom”

“For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love.”
Galatians 5:13 NLT

When we have found the path to true freedom, we have discovered the joy found in service to others. By exercising our individual freedom serving others, we become beacons of light for others to follow.

“Serve one another in love.”

In those five words can be found the steps we need to take to follow Jesus. In those five words is the key to understanding the true nature of Christ. Those simple words contain the road map to the complexities of living on this earth that will lead us to eternal life in God’s Kingdom.

Following the admonition of the Apostle Paul, we discover a way to use the talents and gifts God gave us in a manner that serves Him and glorifies His name. God never said we couldn’t own things. God never said we could not be successful. In fact, God gave us the ability to design, develop, and build the images of our dreams into the reality of successful businesses, but He also gave us the ability to do it in a way that gives Him glory and serves our brothers and sisters with love.

In a post from August 24, 2013, I wrote about the freedom that comes with allowing God to open the ‘eyes’ of our hearts:

“God has opened wide the eyes of my heart, and He can open YOURS as well. With our eyes wide open we can see many things we could not see before: We can see hope; we can see peace, happiness, joy, love, and forgiveness; we can see the goodness that lives and breathes all around us.

And with our eyes wide open we can also see the hunger, the pain, the suffering, and the desperation of other people. But these are not bad things to see, because once our eyes are open, we can also see our place in God’s plan to HELP those who are afflicted. Seeing our place will allow us to take the action necessary to improve the condition of our brothers and sisters who are all God’s children.

And THIS, my friends, is freedom.”

“Hope”

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Jeremiah 29:11

Imagine a place where leather goods, pottery, jewelry and other quality hand-crafted items are produced and sold; a place where a variety of unique restaurants are clustered; a place where tasteful Christian-themed apparel is printed and embroidered, then offered for sale in an attractive shop containing other Christian books, gifts, and music; a place where fine herbs and a colorful variety of gourmet tomatoes and other select produce items are hot-house grown and sold the day they are picked; a place where beautifully re-upholstered sofas and chairs and professionally refinished and refurbished dressers, tables and other furniture can be found; a place where you can take your car to get an oil change or perhaps even a custom paint job; a place where vehicles laden with workers and tools leave daily to go out and assist those in need while helping to make the community a more beautiful place; a place where you can drop off a load of canned goods to be distributed to area food banks and then park your car and peruse some locally produced Christian-themed paintings and sculptures; a place where adults can go to learn how to read and then enroll in a group to read about God; a place where Christian musicians are offered training, the opportunity to join with others to create music and then afforded the opportunity to record that music while others learn the art of doing the recording; a place where anything that can be produced by the hands of man is produced and sold in an environment of restoration and renewal of the human spirit; a place where anything is possible if it can be imagined; a place where no one is refused the services or the opportunities offered, regardless of their faith, but where everything is done in an attitude of Christian service and love.

Such a place will be built by people who believe that there is, indeed, hope and a future for those who are ‘hopeless’ and cannot see the future. Such a place will be called “HOPE CITY”.

Imagine that you are a part of it.

Imagine yourself standing at the intersection of Freedom and Hope.

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Helping Muffins Speak.

Can something as small and seemingly insignificant as a muffin really have a significant impact on a person’s life?

For the last several months I have immersed myself in an idea called “The Mission Muffin Co.” with exactly that premise in mind. Having benefitted from being taken in by, and made to feel welcome (and safe) in, this place called Central Union Mission upon my release from prison in May of 2014, God finally provided me with the courage to ask David Treadwell, the Mission’s executive director, a question that has since changed my life and will – with the help of many people – ultimately change the course of other men’s lives as well.

The question?

“Have I ever told you about my idea to make ‘Mission Muffins’?”

I hadn’t, to that point, but I did, and here we are.

This is an exciting time, and it is truly an exciting idea. Not because it’s mine, and not because it is particularly original in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, but because it is something new for Central Union Mission’s 130+ years of service to Washington, DC’s neediest residents, and it is something that possesses tremendous potential to impact men’s lives in remarkable ways.

The world is in such a terrible state that it is often easy to throw up our hands in despair and declare that nothing can be done. I know that from the perspective of people living in homelessness, it is difficult sometimes to avoid the feelings of hopelessness that can creep in. So many things can contribute to an individual’s sense of loss and lack of purpose: lack of adequate education; growing up and living in poverty; addictions to drugs or alcohol; errors in judgment that leave us with criminal records hindering or impeding any forward progress.

I believe that hope is never lost, and that something as tiny as a muffin can provide the spark that will make it burn brightly in a person. I believe that a muffin can speak to a man’s soul and inspire him to want to move forward, to learn, and to build a future. Many who have lived ‘normal’ lives and have grown up in ‘normal’ circumstances may look at the men the Mission serves and see a collection of ragtag individuals who are ‘not salvageable’, ‘unmanageable’, ‘beyond redemption’, ‘irredeemable’.

Muffins with a mission can change a man’s life. And you can help.

Check out The Mission Muffin Co. website and find out how.

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“Using Pride to Redefine Prison”

Far too many people who have experienced incarceration allow the negative aspects of their time spent in prison to publicly proclaim who they are and to dictate what they will do with the rest of their lives once they are released.

In many ways, this is understandable and I can relate to it. After all, I was there.

I did my time, short though my 50 months was compared to the decades others faced or had served. There were moments when I felt the negativity that existed in every corner of the prison compound nibbling at the edges of the positive bubble I surrounded myself with. It was definitely not easy to prevent it from breaking through the delicate exterior of that bubble, but it was easier for me than many others because I had decided to allow God into my life and His presence and involvement produced the peace within that is required to look at things through eyes that see things differently.

God certainly does not prevent all negative things from happening in our lives, but His accepted – and welcome – presence within us does allow those things to be confronted with a positive attitude and a peaceful confidence that we are not alone.

It is not always easy.

Let me repeat that.

It. Is. Not. Always. Easy.

It is quite difficult at times, in fact, and I would be lying if I alluded to anything different. Some days it is harder than others, but when our focus is on God, we grant ourselves a vacation from ourselves, and that is most often where the majority of our problems lie anyway. With hard work, constant prayer, and intense focus on Him, that vacation can last the rest of our lives.

Of course, how we focus is important. We have to look to Him through the eyes of surrender. We must seek the sound of His voice with the ears of obedience. And we must feel His presence through hearts of Faith.

Understanding this will help you to understand what follows.

No matter how long a sentence one serves in prison, or how different the crimes which caused the sentence to be imposed, everyone serves their sentence the same way: One day at a time. Society sentences men and women to do specific amounts of time in prison. Once we have entered the system we actually have a tremendous amount of say over how difficult that time is.

Please do not misunderstand me: Prison is still a place where you have no family, very little freedom or say in day-to-day activities, and there is always the possibility that someone will find something about you irritating enough to want to cause you harm. That said, all of that takes on considerably less significance when God is within us, shaping the way we think, act, and see other people around us.

In the Bible, pride is repeatedly pointed to as a dangerous, sinful thing to display, but having God within us gives us the ability to see pride as an entirely different word with an entirely different meaning. My preferred definition is something I recall being on signs in the break rooms of a west coast drugstore chain I worked for 35 years ago. Those signs boldly proclaimed PRIDE as meaning, “Personal Responsibility In Daily Effort.” I am confident that interpreting pride that way is not in the least offensive to God or considered sinful or disobedient in any way, since being personally responsible in whatever we do on a daily basis ultimately helps us to be obedient to God. Personal responsibility is required of us if we are to obey God’s commands and the ability to be personally responsible on a daily basis is not only possible with God’s direct control over our lives, it actually comes naturally as a result of it.

Now that we have redefined PRIDE, we can use it to redefine PRISON. Prison is generally seen as being a negative place, and on many levels, and in many ways that is correct. But looking at it through the eyes God gives us, we can develop the ability to exhibit “Personal Responsibility In Spite Of Negativity.”

When we have allowed God to help us learn to be responsible for our actions on a daily basis and to do that regardless of whatever negative forces may be at play around us, we are ready to view the world around us differently and a desire begins to grow in us to lead others to a better place.

It is from that place I began praying and asking God to open my eyes and help me to see how I could use some of the talent and abilities He had blessed me with which, until that time, had essentially been wasted. During my last 2 years in prison I began to work on plans for ways to help others alter the course of their own lives. I believe that God guided the development of  those plans and would reveal to me how to implement them at the right time.

As I have written in the past, I have lived and worked at Central Union Mission in Washington, DC since my release from Oakdale FCI in May of 2014. I began working in the kitchen as a volunteer, and was hired as a staff member a couple of months later. I worked preparing meals for almost a year until the middle of June when the opportunity arose to begin implementing those plans.

For the last 3 months I have worked on developing a career training program for the Mission. It is a program through which men will learn to develop and produce a line of baked goods and sell them as:

I have begun a fundraising campaign at GoFundMe, for which I will provide the link, but I am more interested in you taking the time to watch the 2 videos provided there and learn about this project. You may not wish to donate to the campaign, or you may not be able to, and that is perfectly fine. What is more important is that you understand that my ability to develop this program came from allowing God to help me redefine 2 small words in a way that has had a huge impact on my life. I continue to pray that He uses that impact to help impact the lives of others.

If you can donate, please do so. But whether you can or not, please share the link that follows with as many people in as many ways as possible: Email, FB, Twitter.

Please go to www.gofundme.com/missionmuffinco and see how God can use PRIDE to redefine PRISON.

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