Holy Ground

The letter above arrived first in my email inbox as a series of scanned pages sent by a gracious intermediary who asked if I would like the hard copy as well. I had no idea when I said “yes,” I would feel like Moses hearing God say, “take off your sandals for you are standing on holy ground” as I held the letter and lifted the origami in my hand.

Obie wrote this five-page single-spaced letter to me and my class, the students in a course called “Until We Reckon,” inspired by the book Obie and I appreciate for calling all of us to accountability in ways that centralize our indisputable belonging.

I learned about Obie from my friend Sachi, whom I met online through a support circle for restorative practitioners in the spring of 2020. When Sachi and I spoke on Zoom, she told me about her friend who creates beautiful images of the Buddha and teaches young people to make origami cranes. A man who rises each day on death row choosing life in a cell narrower than his own wingspan. Flying high above the machinations of power and misguided policies that propagate harm.

Elsewhere, Obie has written of another book that inspired him, guiding him into art-making and spiritual retreat, where his first image of the Buddha invited a journey of self-reflection that led Obie to recognize that the seeds of his worth did not disintegrate in the red clay of wrongdoing. Slowly, he cultivated soil long unnourished, feeding the ground of his being with meditation that bloomed into compassion.

There are some who will say, “but he killed a man,” and I will say, “yes, as did Moses, born in the bulrushes, tucked away by a mother frantic to save her son. Moses, raised in a royal family, who slew a slave master for trying to beat the worth out of a man. Moses, who fled to Midian where he beheld that burning bush and heard the angel in a flame.

We come to our reckonings differently: Shema Israel, Shema Death Row.

Called to lead his people out of bondage, Moses sputtered his unworthiness and God would have none of that.

I have met my greatest teachers inside prisons and when the pandemic precluded volunteering in any facility this year, the benevolent universe sent Obie to instruct me from a dank and solitary cell, “just like I’m told that I had a choice whether or not to go into that bar with that pistol that night, we have a choice in the world whether we want to keep whatever stones we are carrying in our hearts towards another.”

“Compassion is a practice,” Obie writes in closing.

I slip off my sandals, sinking my feet deeper into holy ground.

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