Fires, Prisons & the God of Life

Text: John 6:51-58

Date: Aug 15, 2021

It has been almost two months since Stephan, Tyler & Holly led a group of us up to Grand Lake to help MDS with the East Troublesome Fire clean-up, but I think about the work we did often, especially with all the fires raging in California which are affecting our air here, everyday. I’m so thankful for the work we did and I hope we do more projects like that in the months and years to come. It felt right restoring the land, hauling slash, bringing logs to the chipper, planting grass to help that community as it continues to heal. 

For those who haven’t been up to the area around Grand Lake – the only way I know how to describe it is post-apocalyptic. There were parts where everything was black. Where everywhere you looked there was just devastation … death and death and more death. So much life lost. So many habitats ruined. And the saddest reality is that this was just one of three mega-fires which devastated our state last year. With global warming, we know there will be many more in the years to come.

While I was there working, hauling log after log, watching the kids toss seeds everywhere, similar to the person in the parable of the sower, my mind kept thinking about all the firefighters that risked their lives containing this fire, that saved homes, lives, and habitats for animals, that prevented it from being worse than it was. Firefighters say that that fire sounded like a jet engine; the wind gusts north of 150 miles an hour, the walls of flame everywhere.

However, as I was researching these firefights on the front lines of our wildfires, I came across some information which I never knew before. Maybe you all already know this. Maybe it’s common knowledge for those that grew up in the West. But in almost every state out West, inmates are employed to be a bulk of the frontline firefighters in all major wildfires. Each state has multiple prison camps where they train nonviolent offenders to be frontline firefighters, always on call, whenever they might be needed most.

I know I’m naive, but I was shocked that our state, that many states, uses prisoners during wildfires, asking them to risk their lives for a few measly dollars a day. I quickly learned that Jaime Lowe was coming out with a book called Breathing Fire which tells the stories of quite a few female inmate firefighters who were repeatedly on the front lines of California’s wildfires. I ordered the book; it came last week. I think I finished it in about 36 hours. It was riveting and heartbreaking; it tells a story full of risk and loss, injustice and terror about the incarcerated women who live and sometimes die fighting wildland fires. 

Now I know that California’s inmate firefighting force is way more massive than Colorado’s. In California, almost half of the firefighters devoted to wildfires, over 4000 prisoners serve as inmate firefighters each year. And they do this work for 2.90 a day. These men and women, they are the front lines. They get tasked to do the most difficult jobs at each and every large fire. They are the ones that cut and hold the lines; they are the ones that make a path through the flames for others. And often they work for 24 hours straight before getting to sleep, for up to two full weeks at a time. And in a given year, about ¼ of these prisoners will be seriously hurt. Some years, one or two die. 

Don’t get me wrong. There are some aspects of the program which are restorative. The men and women seem to love living outside, not being constrained by walls all day long. They get fed pretty well. Staying in shape, working outside all day, fighting fires, requires one to eat a lot. In the Breathing Fire, each woman that Lowe profiled seemed to love working as a firefighter. The thrill, the enhanced freedom and privileges, feeling like they are contributing to society. However, each woman also knew that they were being exploited. They knew it was unjust, dangerous and abusive. However, it was better than the living death of being inside a prison. In fact, it is so exploitative that the state of California saves over 100 million dollars a year by using inmates for this labor. 

And with global warming, it is safe to say that these programs will expand in the years to come. Our society can’t survive without prisons and the free labor prisoners provide. It’s what makes our lives possible. Our vice president, Kamala Harris said as much in 2014 when she was serving as California’s Attorney General. At that time, like most times, prisons were overcrowded. People were calling the state to release nonviolent offenders. But to these cries, Harris said no. Doing so, she claimed. “Would severely impact fire camp participation, a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought.” We need prisoners. We need them to do difficult jobs like fighting wildfires for basically free, especially if we are not going to alter our lives and the way we treat our world.

And you know what the worst part of all this is – up until this year, the imprisoned men and women who were trained to be firefighters, those that successfully served in this capacity, those that risked their wellbeing by putting their bodies between the flames and us, they were not able to become firefighters when released from prison. The least one could do is provide a pathway to employment as wildfire firefighters upon being released. And from the stories in her book, many of these women would have loved doing this work for just pay. It was thrilling, rewarding work which filled them with purpose. But they couldn’t.

In Colorado, just two months ago, Governor Polis signed a bill making it easier for former prison inmates who worked on fire crews to get jobs in the industry after they served their time. But I’m skeptical it will make a difference. I hope I’m wrong. Each year there isn’t a shortage of applicants for the few paid positions. Will departments really hire people with felonies, if they have a choice? Making matters worse, this summer, Polis also signed a different bill which quadrupled the size of the State Wildland Inmate Fire Team. Bigger fires means we need more firefighters. But instead of expanding the inmate program by fourfold, why not create full paying jobs specifically for those released from prison? We would if we really cared about providing employment for those who risked their lives for us while in prison. if we really cared about restoring humanity to all people.

The whole wildfire prison program just reminds me that imprisonment is a form of death. It is a demonic space that seeks to make people numb to life, to the aliveness of our world and their own bodies. It is a space that seeks to erase you of yourself. It does this by rending men and women as less than human, a number instead of a name. It does this by attempting to make prisoners’ lives as meaningless as possible. It is so bad that many people will do anything for the chance to get away from the walls, from the archaic tomb of concrete and iron, even if it means fighting fires for 2.90 a day. That’s demonic. And even after people are released, our society teaches us to dehumanize these men and women, by not giving most a fair chance to experience restoration and wholeness. 

When I think of Jesus, I think of someone who was committed to the work of liberation. God sent me to proclaim release for prisoners, to set the oppressed free, Jesus proclaimed in his manifesto in Luke 4. When I think of Jesus, I think of someone who always believed in the possibility of restoration. Someone who treated everyone with dignity and honor. Someone who deeply believed in the world of forgiveness, that forgiveness must always be the virtue which sustains our relationships, our friendships, our humanness. Someone who always combatted this world’s systems of death because he was always committed to life, to abundant life, to enabling all people to experience the beauty, the majesty, the hope and love for which we all are created.

These are the themes of the entire chapter of John 6 which the lectionary has had us parked in for over a month now. John 6 opens with Jesus feeding the masses. The people are hungry. It’s safe to say most people there couldn’t afford to purchase their next meal. Likely, they had to sacrifice a lot to come to the shoreline to see Jesus that day. They choose to see Jesus instead of trying to find work as a day laborer. What does Jesus do? Jesus hears their growling stomachs and he sends bread. Jesus makes sure that each and every person there – old and young, man, woman and child has enough to eat. Jesus is committed to their lives, to their wellbeing, even though he barely knows any of these people. 

And we witness this commitment to life throughout the entire chapter. Last week Jesus proclaimed: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, … and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” Whoever comes to me will never be hungry… whoever comes to me, I will never drive away. Everyone deserves to experience abundant life, Jesus proclaims. And I will never, ever exclude anyone from receiving it. 

Then this week, Jesus goes on to proclaim, I will even offer my flesh, I will even give my body away so that others have a chance to live. Seven times in our short reading for today Jesus mentions the word life. Jesus’ life was defined by providing life for everyone. Even those who many believe don’t deserve it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that at the end of his life, Jesus does just this. For as Jesus’ draws near the cross, Jesus’ life was substituted, it was given for the freedom of one prisoner – Barabbas. Jesus sets one dangerous prisoner free because he believes deeply in opening up to all a whole new world of possibilities, the one who feeds on me, will live because of me.

As Christians, we are a people committed to resurrection which means we are a people always committed to life. For the Easter story is about a tomb, an empty one, a tomb cracked open with resurrection, freedom from death, life restored, relationships returned. And this means that resurrection is always a confrontation with tombs. Resurrection defies the violence, exclusion and exploitation of this world. Resurrection is God’s protest against the powers of death. Which means we are called to witness to a love beyond the power of tombs. It means we are always called to celebrate life, to restore life and to protest against all death-dealing forms of violence, like prisons.

This is why I love second chance and partnering with them in any way we can, like this backpack drive. It is a small and yet powerful way for us to revolt against the tombs of prison. It is a way of saying to the men and women who receive them, that you are welcome, that you are God’s children. That we see you, appreciate you, value you, and commit to praying for you. We celebrate your release. And even though our society is doing much to help you, we believe in the power of forgiveness, restoration, and life anew.

And while I know you at Second Chance probably do not narrate y’alls mission this way – I do see it as a ministry of resurrection. For y’all are proclaiming that another world is possible. A world beyond prisons. A world of love where all life is celebrated, cherished, and are given opportunity after opportunity to thrive. A world where people are more than their worst mistakes. A world of grace, where people are embraced and honored, no matter what. 

So thank you. For you all show me again and again what resurrection looks like. For y’all point us beyond the tombs that hold us captive. Y’all protest against the powers of death. You defy the violence of the world. And you all point us to a love that unclenches the grasp of death and desires abundant life for all.


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