America’s Holy Places in the Age of Trump: Greta Ronningen’s Prison Pilgrimage 

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Can churches and organized religions counter the noxious force of Trump’s America, a country pushed toward fascism by Evangelicals, racists and anti-Semites? The answer is “Yes,” though religious men and women on the Left usually don’t make it into mainstream media.

Greta Ronningen is one of them, and she is not alone. For much of her life, she was an unlikely candidate for a Christian monastery, where she lives in a cell, and an unlikely candidate, too, for the kind of work she does in the jails of L.A.

Geographically speaking she’s not far from Hollywood, where she once lived and worked, but she’s also in a very different place.

In the 1970s, Ronningen wanted to make movies that would “change the world.” She met and married Bert Schneider, who had produced Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces and who won an Oscar for the Vietnam War documentary, Hearts and Minds.

Ronningen didn’t get far with the studios or the movie patriarchy. She left Hollywood, divorced Schneider, and entered the world of yoga, which looked good for a long time, but that she found to be “male dominated, greedy and myopic.” It’s less so now, she believes. Yoga wasn’t the way for her, though she still practices yoga in a cell that has a single bed and a window that looks out on a yard.

In 2008, Ronningen joined the Episcopal Church, co-founded a monastery in the Benedictine tradition and became a monk. Her religious order is called “The Community of Divine Love.”

For the past decade, Ronningen has spent roughly thirty-hours a week inside the jails of L.A., where she has served as a chaplain to thousands of women inmates, many of them young, poor, black and suffering from trauma as a result of rape and sexual assault.

17,000 people are incarcerated in L.A jails. That’s a lot of damaged souls.

“The inmates often have super-charged, fiery memories,” Ronningen says. “When they share them they often let go of stress, and allow the divine to come into their lives.”

Ten years after she began to listen to women prisoners, the walls and bars have not come tumbling down. Ronningen isn’t a miracle worker and doesn’t claim to be one. Women without self-respect and few survival skills are repeatedly locked up. Still, Ronningen has made a difference in the lives of inmates. She has also been able to reinvent her own life, which began seventy-one years ago in Kalamazoo, Michigan in a family of privilege.

Her parents attended a Presbyterian house of worship, and so did she, though she didn’t feel a connection to the church or the Old Testament.

At 17, Ronningen’s Kalamazoo world came unhinged. Her parents divorced, her mother remarried (an alcoholic man), and her stepfather’s best friend raped her. The church didn’t save her and no priest came to her rescue, either. She dropped out of school, ran away from home, tried drugs, went to New York to study acting, became a feminist and aimed to bring women’s untold stories to the foreground.

Ronningen tells some of her own narrative in a spiritual autobiography, Free On the Inside: Finding God Behind Bars (Cathedral Center Press)which was published in 2016. It’s dedicated to the women prisoners who took her classes at Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynchwood, California, where they had the opportunity to learn parenting skills and resume writing and carve out their own spiritual paths.

Recently, a woman who was incarcerated for six weeks in Lynchwood wrote a “review” on Yelp.

“I am still in shock that in these United States of America inmates are treated so reprehensible,” she explained. “The living conditions are inhumane. The deputies absolutely do not care or show any concern for the inmates living conditions. This facility is filthy and filled with diseases that go unreported or even treated.”

Ronningen knows that’s the gospel truth.

“Jails are warehouses for human beings,” she told me.

What troubles her soul, even more than the physical suffering she sees, is the injustice of the “criminal justice system.” As she points out, people are charged with crimes they haven’t committed. Public defenders don’t confer with inmates they’re supposed to represent in court. And there’s little if any help for people with PTSD.

Unlike Rachel Kushner, the author of the 2018 prison novel The Mars Room, in which jails are hellholes, Ronningen sees “jails as holy places.” Then, too, she says that she “loves the work” that she does behind bars, and that there is “nowhere I would rather be.”

Ronningen works closely with Brother Dennis Gibbs, a fellow monk in the Community of Divine Love. Once an inmate in L.A. County jails and an alcoholic, Gibbs is the founder and director of “Prism Restorative Justice,” as well as the author of a new book, Oblivion: Grace in Exile with a Monk Behind Bars.

Two big goals of the “Prism Restorative Justice” project, Gibbs explains, are “to be with people behind bars who have been silenced; and to educate the public about mass incarceration.” Then, too, Prism aims to “return all people to the love of God.”

Gibbs calls inmates “Our friends in exile.” He maintains connections to them long after they’re released from prison. He also prepares the volunteers who aim to work in jails.

“We have a vetting process,” he says. “We bring people into the jails to see whether or not they can be in that environment. Some weed themselves out.”

Fifty years ago, a great many 1960s rebels, protesters and revolutionaries would have dismissed Gibbs and Ronningen as starry-eyed do-gooders.

Huey Newton, the co-founder, along with Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party, might have tried to save Ronningen from her crusade. Before he turned to cocaine and was shot and killed in 1989 by a drug dealer, Newton and Ronningen were friends.

These days, she remembers that Newton talked about “revolutionary suicide” and “dying for the people.” Newton’s way isn’t her way. “I’m not doing revolutionary suicide,” she says. “I’m doing revolutionary resurrection.” She adds, “I think Huey, the Black Panther, would be proud of me and the journey I’ve undertaken.”

Some New Leftists, including Michael Lerner at Tikkun, have returned to the folds into which they were born, and after rejecting organized religion. Lerner is now a rabbi. Others have become Buddhists and Hindus, born again Christians, and even pagans, though Karl Marx, who was born a Jew, warned the workers of the world that religion was “the opiate of the people.” Later, the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW) ridiculed the notion of “pie in the sky when you die,” and, on the subject of the labor leader, Joe Hill, they sang, “Don’t mourn for me, organize.”

From time to time, American radicals have depicted Jesus as a workingman who stood with the poor and against the wealthy. Think of Art Young’s 1921 cartoon with a caption that reads, “Jesus Christ Wanted—for Sedition, Criminal Anarchy—Vagrancy, and Conspiring to Overthrow the Established Government.”

Ronningen calls Jesus an “organizer of refugees, immigrants and a condemned criminal.” Her Christ is a forerunner of Dorothy Day and The Catholic Worker, Che, the Berrigan brothers, and further back in time, the Beguine, the Christian women mystics of the 13th-century who cared for lepers, wrote poetry and used the feminine pronoun for God. Ronningen wrote her M.A. thesis about them.

Sister Helen Prejean, the author of the book, Dead Man Walking, which became a movie with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, describes Ronningen as a “first hand witness to God’s grace” and who has “lived in the trenches of human suffering.”

Ronningen spends much of her time behind bars bearing witness to suffering, and listening to the stories that women tell. Because she’s not connected to law enforcement, she’s viewed as a kind of soul sister. Many young women feel safe in the “loving environment” she creates, and in her “loving gaze.”

Years ago, American radicals in Hollywood, like Bert Schneider and Marlon Brando, worked for the release of political prisoners. In the 1960s, black and white protesters aimed to “Free Huey,” “Free Bobby,” “Free Eldridge” and “Free the Panthers.” Long after that era ended ended, white radicals, like Nancy Kurshan— once a Yippie— have decried solitary confinement, though on the whole they haven’t been affiliated with religious groups and organizations.

Kurshan wrote about the newest forms of cruel and unusual punishment in the U.S in her book, Out of Control: A Fifteen Year Battle Against Control Unit Prisons in which she argues that federal penitentiaries, like the Coleman Federal Correctional Facility, where Leonard Peltier is held, “are tantamount to torture and an abuse of state power.”

Angela Davis, who was briefly incarcerated in 1970s, has called for the abolition of prisons. Malcolm Gladwell, the-best selling author of The Tipping Point, and a contribution to The New Yorker, has said that most of the men and women behind bars ought to be released.

Ronningen doesn’t campaign for freedom for all prisoners, nor does she call for the abolition of all prisons.

“Some inmates are violent, have issues with drugs and mental illness and have to be locked up,” she says. “But prisons can be far more humane. We need programs for mental health and for detoxing.”

Sometimes the stress behind bars gets to Ronningen. That’s when she turns to her own support system and “talks it out.” She also goes to the movies and for walks. Meditation and prayer help.

She’s not planning to leave the Community of Divine Love or give up the work she does in jail. In fact, she’s in the process of ordination for the priesthood, and proud that in the Episcopal Church LGBTQ people can serve as priests.

Once she’s ordained, she’ll be able to baptize, take confessions, perform wedding ceremonies and celebrate the Eucharist. As a priest, she’ll have more latitude than she has had as a monk. She knows that jails aren’t going to go away, even if and when there are reforms, like those that are talked about for L.A. jails.

“They have to tear down the rat-infested central jail for men,” Ronningen says. “L.A. wants to get off the putative incarceration thing and into something more progressive. The ACLU has been very good.”

Still, spokesmen for the prison-industrial-complex clamor for more prisons and right-wingers demand more mass incarceration.

“Reform is slow,” Ronningen says. “There’s racism in sentencing and there are a lot of people who should not be locked up. Still, healing can take place behind bars. Some prisoners develop a spiritual life that helps them survive in a world that aims to rob them of their self-respect.”

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.