Soul Killing and Redemption

Soul Killing and Redemption

When you see your mom yelled at and beaten up by the man she loves, when you’re four years old, what do you do?

When you realize that your dad was never, ever around for you, and isn’t in your life, what do you do? Now, at 22, you hear he wants to see you, but in your heart, you figure he hasn’t been around for your whole life, so why start now? The care and the love just hasn’t been there, not when you’ve needed it. Why make the effort?

When you are standing in the yard when you’re five, and you see a guy with a knife, chased by a cop, and you watch them fight, and you see the knife, and then the gun, and then the blood, what do you do?

When your sister dies when you are four, and no one can tell you why, what do you do?

When your mom’s boyfriend yells at you and beats you up, and throws you out of the house when you’re’ seven, and then you start setting fires around town, what do you do?

When the people at school think you are a bad boy and don’t fit in and therefore stupid, you must need to be in a special needs program. Just because you already know all the answers in class and are bored to death, and you don’t like to sit still and you yell when you get angry, because that is how your family does it, and you don’t think anyone cares about you, because of everything you are inside, what do you do?

When you are fourteen, and the best thing to do is to hitchhike a thousand miles and come back in a few weeks, and people decide you need to go to detention and sit in a cell for a month, what do you do? Is “runaway” such a bad thing to be, after all that?

When the only man in the family is a drunk and has been in prison, and there’s no other guy around who even talks to you, what do you do?

When childhood and adolescence is a long list of institutions and court appearances and a long road of counselors and programs and treatments, and that is just what life is, now, what do you do?

When you’re nineteen, and you beat up a prison guard, and you find yourself in a ten foot cell in the penitentiary for six months, what do you do?

When the rage and the anger burn deep inside of you, and then someone calls you a dumb Indian, AGAIN, what do you do?

When all the “bad” labels someone can try to pin on you have all been slapped on you, your whole life, and you’ve had about all you can take, what do you do? And, then, you also know that you’ve been treated like all your family and your people have been treated for the last two hundred and fifty years, and not much has gotten any better, what do you do?

And, when you read a book by Sherman Alexie and the story of the boy on the Rez is also your story, and the rage and anger and love and beauty of that boy is also your story and your life, and that you are not alone in all of this, what do you do?

When you can take a few scraps of leather, and make it into a beautiful work of art, or when you write and then sing a beautiful song, deep from within your own precious, sweet soul, and you know you really are a wondrous child of God, what do you do, inside these walls?

When all this churns and simmers inside of you, and so many voices keep telling you that you’re stupid, and poor, and a criminal and won’t ever amount to anything, that no one comes right out and says that they love you, and the world keeps locking you up, in so many ways, and all you want to do is run through the woods, and feel the sun on your face, and be one with God, what do you do?

When you are close to getting paroled and you get accepted into a halfway house that you actually think is a good place, and then the date you get out keeps getting moved around, and now you don’t know for sure if you get out this week, or next month, or maybe in a few months, or ???, and no one seems to care enough to answer your questions about that, what do you do?

And, we wonder why some guys don’t do very well once they get out of prison, why they can’t seem to adjust very well to life “on the outside”, and follow all the rules, and don’t use drugs and alcohol and don’t get into fights. And, then, when they become husbands and fathers, we wonder why there might be some “issues” at home about life and relationships and parenting and being good citizens.

But, we should be “tough on crime” and “put away the bad guys”, and then we will have a peaceful and safe society, just because we put a higher percentage of our population in prison than any other country in the world. Is that what defines this country?

As Dr. Phil might ask, “How’s that working for you?”

And we spend all this money, and time, and people’s care and concern for young people in prison, and give lip service to “rehabilitation” and “crime prevention”, when maybe we should look back a bit in time, to when kids first come into this world. And we know they are looking to have a mom and a dad, and live in a quiet and safe and “normal” home, and love to go to school, have good friends, and do wonderful, loving things in their lives.

And, when none of this happens, and instead life is filled with rage and the distractions of a crazy and lonely society, self medication and self deprecation, and not having a place in this world to grow and put down your roots and feel cherished, and then, if you don’t fit in, we lock you up and institutionalize you, and reinforce criminal thinking, we wonder why you don’t do better?

We know what works. We know, now, how the brain grows and learns about relationships and how love, the right kind of love, waters and nourishes young souls, and how the wrong kind of relationship is a poison, not just for the community, but for every precious soul in this life.

We know that all this good work takes time, it takes love, and it takes compassion.

And, not that our schools and prisons aren’t staffed with kind and committed people, who toil in these fields day after day, dealing with the toughest and most challenging situations and personalities. And, not everyone can be “saved”. Yet, they don’t give up.

We can’t give up. We can take the time, and we can make the commitment, maybe just with one person. Have that conversation, make that connection, get a bit involved in their life. Listen, and then listen again. Listen with your heart, with your humanity, and not with the expectations, and biases, and the vantage point of someone who hasn’t lived how they have lived.

Transform a life. You may think that young person you listen to will learn from you, and, by listening and caring about them, their lives will change. And, perhaps that is true. What will really change, though, is your life. You will see things differently, and you will understand who you are, and what you are all about, and how to change the world.

Put an end to the soul killing. It kills all of us, slowly and surely.

–Neal Lemery April 29, 2013

Searching for Potential


from Ruralite Magazine, February 2013

Searching for Potential

Neal Lemery spends Sunday afternoons demonstrating ‘normal’ to young inmates

by Denise Porter

Neal Lemery plans to continue his volunteer work at the Tillamook Youth Correction Facility now that he is retired. He wants to help break the cycle of violence.
Every Sunday, cup of coffee in hand, Neal Lemery and a few buddies sit at a table in a small canteen swapping stories. Sometimes they play guitar or a game of cards. Mostly they talk about their future goals, trips they would like to take, dreams.

Other times, the conversation gets deeper and one of the buddies opens up about his childhood: his addict parents, the homelessness and sexual abuse that were what he understood to be a normal childhood.
Neal’s buddies are among the 50 inmates serving sentences for some type of sexual offense at the Tillamook Youth Correctional Facility.

Neal visits several times weekly. The task both gives him joy and mentally exhausts him.

“It’s pretty draining,” Neal says of his visits. “When I come home Sunday afternoon maybe all I’ve been doing is sitting at a table having coffee and playing a game. But this ‘normalcy time,’ is such a new thing for them and they drain you. They’ve never had it before and so they just absorb it. You have to monitor yourself.”

Neal has spent his life working with Oregon’s judicial system. He retired January 2 after 12 years as the Tillamook County Justice of the Peace. He was an Oregon lawyer for 32 years, served as a defense attorney and judge and has spent his entire career in Tillamook—the town where he was raised.

“I’ve sat in all the seats in the criminal justice system here,” he says.

As the Justice of the Peace, Neal officiated nearly 1,800 civil marriages and doled out traffic and fish and wildlife fines.

He says he has always tried to be fair-minded. Rather than locking people away, Neal values educating them. He asked drunk drivers to attend classes—and then report to him after the class with an essay about what they learned.

His biggest challenge as a judge was enforcing mandatory sentencing laws.

“We used to give judges discretion to do the right thing,” he says. “Certainly we’ve taken that away in criminal court. I think you need to consider the person and their circumstances and what’s best for the community.
“We have our own unique values and my job is to reflect the community’s values. The way to fix it is one person at a time, one day at a time. I think if you can change one person, it’s a good day.”

Two years ago, Neal took a call from a friend asking if he could mentor a young sexual offender whose father had died when he was only 15, and whose drug-addict mother would visit her son stoned. Since then, he has made regular visits.

These young men are locked away for a reason, he says. They committed a crime. But the truth is, their behavior was learned. Most were sexually abused as young children.

“People want to blame the ‘neighborhood pervert,’ but really, for nearly everyone there, it was a family member that abused them,” Neal says. “From them, they learned to victimize people.”

Some inmates will never recover from their own trauma, he believes, but he says others can and will, with the correct guidance and can be shown how to break the violent cycle they have known.

“We’re trying to figure out who they are, because they don’t know,” says Neal. “I come, we play Scrabble, have a nice Sunday afternoon like ‘normal’ people would. They’ve never had that. They’ve never gotten mail or a birthday card in their lives.

“One kid freaked out because we gave him a birthday party. He’d never had one. Can you imagine that? There’s been so much sexual abuse and violence; they just don’t know who they are as people.”

Neal’s wife, Karen Keltz, a retired high school English teacher, comes for many visits, too. Karen helps the young men finish high school paperwork and mentors them through college courses.
“She loves it,” says Neal. “They need a mom figure—a sober, decent mom that cares about them, too.”

There is one inmate who Neal has especially enjoyed mentoring. Perhaps it is because the young man is a gifted musician, learning the guitar from Neal in just a few weeks, or perhaps it is because he took the initiative to finish high school, is enrolled in college online and has nearly a 4.0 GPA.

“He writes songs, jazz, blues, rock and he wrote one about me,” says Neal. “It makes me cry every time he plays it for me. The lyrics say something like, ‘You never yelled at me, or gave up on me; you showed up and changed my life.’”

One of the ways Neal pledges to help is by being there when the inmates are released. As part of their terms of release, each needs to spend the first six months in the town where he committed his crime.
Neal sees them settled, enrolls them in college, takes them camping—a longtime wish of one inmate—and gives each every chance to succeed.

Neal plans to learn new hobbies and travel during his retirement. He also will continue to volunteer and mentor and will draft new legislation.

“I want to work on something systemwide around the state for better and more transition services,” he says.

Neal has roughed out a book about mentoring young men.

“There really isn’t a book out there that talks about the crisis in our country of growing up without a father,” he says. “The message I got at home from both my parents, and especially my dad, was ‘You have a brain and a body. You are a child of God, go out and do something!’ A lot of people don’t have someone in their lives to tell them that.

“That’s where I came in—in court as a judge and now, as a mentor. I say, ‘You have potential. You need to use it.’ And I will follow through the next time we meet and ask you, ‘Now tell me, what have you done to reach your potential?’”
Posted January 30th
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