The June 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

From Prison to Priesthood

Interview with Father James Tramel

Protest Demands Housing for Poor Families

Oakland Judge Blocks Evictions

Fresno Police Demolish Tent Encampment

Extremists Call for Attacks on Immigrants

Unjust Senate Bill on Immigration

World Bank and IMF Face Crisis

Corporate Media Fail to Address Global Hunger

Raise Minimum Wage for All

The Journey of Charlotte Tall Mountain

Dying for Nixon, Dying for Bush

In Santa Cruz Dreams Come True

Tourists Ignore Kenya's Poverty

June Poetry of the Streets


May 2006

April 2006

March 2006

February 2006

January 2006

November 2005

October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005

Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

From Prison to Priesthood

With a little help from his friends, Rev. James Tramel makes the journey from darkness to light.

by Terry Messman

Father James Tramel embraces his sister, Julie Rincon, just after being released from prison after serving a 20-year sentence.

When Fyodor Dostoevsky served four years in a Siberian prison for taking part in a radical political movement, he wrote a book entitled The House of the Dead. That ominous phrase summons up all our fears of prison. Prison is dedicated to purposely dehumanizing inmates and banishing them from the land of the living. Too often, human beings are turned into the walking dead.

Yet Father James Tramel was imprisoned for 20 years, five times the length of Dostoevsky's sentence, and he somehow found an inner current of hope and faith that transformed his prison cell into a place of new life. This renewal occurred in the most oppressive surroundings imaginable, as if a small flower had defied the unyielding concrete to blossom in a prison cell.

In ministering to prisoners who were dying the loneliest deaths imaginable behind the prison walls of the House of the Dead, Father Tramel found friendship, a new reason to live, and a hope that could not be buried, not even behind the fortress walls of some of the nation's toughest prisons -- San Quentin, Folsom, Solano State Prison, and Vacaville.

Dostoevsky vividly described his prison time: "I consider those four years as a time during which I was buried alive and shut up in a coffin... It was an indescribable, unending agony, because each hour, each minute weighed upon my soul like a stone."

By contrast, Father Tramel said in an interview with Street Spirit shortly after his release, "By God's grace, there's not a shred of bitterness in me about all that time. I'm very happy with who I am today, and there is not a single person in my life who I would give up to have any of that prison time back."

Instead of missing out on life, Tramel made friends he cared about and loved, and he comforted his fellow prisoners when they were dying in the prison hospice. He was ordained as an Episcopal priest by Bishop William Swing in Solano prison -- they made Eucharist with bread from a croissant and Welch's grape juice from prison vending machines. He was engaged to Rev. Stephanie Green, a fellow seminarian who visited him in prison.

A lot of lives never darkened by the shadows of prison bars are not that rich, that fulfilled, that human.

Father Tramel is a man of many firsts -- the first man ever to be ordained as an Episcopal priest while in prison; and the first prison inmate ever admitted into an Episcopal seminary, the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley.

He was also the youngest prisoner in San Quentin when he was locked up in the notorious California prison in 1986 when he was only 17. He spent his entire adult life in San Quentin, Folsom, Vacaville and Solano prisons until his release on March 12, 2006, after serving more than 20 years for second-degree murder.

The murder of a homeless man

Tramel was convicted in 1986 of killing Michael Stephenson, 29, a homeless man who was sleeping in a park in Santa Barbara. Tramel, only 17 at the time, was a student at Northwest Preparatory School in Santa Barbara, had an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy, and was preparing to be an Air Force pilot and officer.

One August night in 1985, Tramel saw a classmate being attacked and bullied by gang members, and he intervened to protect his fellow student. The next night, he encouraged students to stand up for themselves by walking the downtown streets of Santa Barbara in search of the gang members who had assaulted their friend.

The band of students never found any gang members, and late at night, Tramel and a fellow student, David Kurtzman were the only ones left still roaming the streets looking for them. Instead, they happened upon a homeless man in his sleeping bag in a park gazebo.

Tramel saw that the man, Michael Stephenson, was harmless, and he went to the other side of the gazebo. While his back was turned, Kurtzman unexpectedly attacked Michael and stabbed him to death, even as the man asked for mercy.

"No, my friend"

Michael's final words were: "No, my friend." The murder of the homeless man was so heartbreaking that Santa Barbara homeless advocates began wearing buttons with the victim's dying words, an unforgettable plea for mercy: "No, my friend."

Tramel had no idea that Kurtzman would senselessly attack the harmless homeless man. At his trial for murder, Kurtzman testified that Tramel could have had no idea that he would stab Michael Stephenson, and said that Tramel's back was turned away during the assault. Yet neither did Tramel take action to help the dying man, or contact the police.

Both men were arrested a few hours later, and tried and convicted of second-degree murder. Tramel was convicted because of his admitted involvement in leading the group of students to take to the streets looking for revenge. Due to the horrible nature of the crime, Tramel was tried as an adult and sentenced to 15 years to life. Evidently believing Tramel would be acquitted, his defense attorney convinced him to turn down a plea bargain that would have resulted in him serving three years in prison for manslaughter. Under that deal, Tramel would have been released from prison 17 years ago.

Subverting our paradigm

Teddy Knight, a member of Berkeley's Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, called to urge Street Spirit to report on the release of James Tramel from prison and his new life as a priest in the Episcopal diocese. I reminded her that Street Spirit has been reporting with great outrage on the epidemic of hate crimes and murders committed against homeless people. Reporting on the good works and basic humanity of a man imprisoned for such a crime would completely "subvert our paradigm," to say the least.

She replied that she knew all about that, and proceeded to tell me that she had gone up to several homeless vendors of Street Spirit and told them about Tramel's prison sentence and asked them to sign letters asking for his release on parole. Every vendor, she said, reacted with compassion and felt that Tramel had already served enough time and agreed to sign the letters.

The homeless vendors of Street Spirit publicly declared their mercy and forgiveness for a young man who had been convicted of the second-degree murder of a homeless man. They were right to sign those letters, and I am proud of the vendors for their compassion.

Forgiveness is an essential part of healing the wounds of this society. Our affluent society has utterly refused to forgive homeless people for falling prey to poverty and disability, and for lacking housing and heath care and an income. Instead, it has criminalized them. But when the chips were down, homeless people in Berkeley were ready instantly to offer their forgiveness to James Tramel and to say that he deserved release from prison.

Hate crimes against the homeless

In California and across the nation, homeless people have been stalked and assaulted, beaten, set on fire, slashed with knives and shot to death. Many of these attacks are committed by impressionable young people who are influenced by the public defamation of homeless people by the media and politicians.

Yet even as Street Spirit and the National Coalition for the Homeless calls on the federal government to investigate the rising extent of these hate crimes, homeless advocates are aware that calling for more severe prison sentences is not a solution in itself, for it merely results in throwing away young people into the hellish violence of the prison system.

The story of Father James Tramel shows the other side of this story, and calls into question whether throwing away human beings into dehumanizing prisons is part and parcel of the same merciless society that throws poor people out onto the streets to become homeless.

A little help from his friends

With a little help from his friends, Tramel found his way into the ordained priesthood in the most unlikely setting of all. Attending seminary at Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP) in Berkeley while locked behind bars at Vacaville and Solano prisons almost seems impossible without teleportation.

Yet Tramel accomplished this feat with the aid of many dedicated accomplices who helped him slide through the barriers of bars and prison walls -- in spirit, at least -- to attend seminary and prepare for the ministry while still imprisoned.

Tramel's seminary studies, his ordination as a priest, and his release on parole owe a great deal to the scores of friends he made in seminary at CDSP, in the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church that sponsored him, and in the Episcopal Diocese, where Bishop William Swing was a courageous and outspoken supporter of Tramel's release and ordination.

Red Stevens, who earned his Ph.D and M. Div degrees at CDSP, was a teaching assistant at the seminary when he began reading Tramel's tests and essays. Stevens said he thought his essays "were wonderful" and clearly resulted from intensive work and an intelligent mind. Then, Stevens visited him at Vacaville prison and was amazed that Tramel had produced such quality work under such difficult conditions in the overcrowded prison.

"When I went to visit him," Stevens said, "I was even more surprised because he told me where he had to work. All he had was the space of a lower bunk and the space underneath it to store all his books and materials. He wrote his papers sitting on a crate in this room with 200 other guys. So, it was not like he had any kind of private study space or anything like that. He was just in a huge dorm in a converted storage facility in Vacaville."

He visited Tramel over 40 times in prison, and, as a former lawyer, helped Tramel with some of his parole appeals. Stevens said, "The parole system seems to be pretty impervious to anything but political pressure. No appeals to the justice of the system seem to work from within it."

To apply that political pressure, nearly the entire seminary community wrote letters on his behalf, and Bishop William Swing used the full weight of his influence on behalf of Tramel's release. Stevens said, "I'm still not sure it would have happened without the amount of support from the legislature, from the larger church, from the bishop of California who went to the prison and ordained him in prison."

The Rev. Richard Helmer, now the vicar at Christ Episcopal Church in San Francisco, was a seminary student at CDSP when he became aware that his fellow students were taping seminary classes to send to Tramel in prison. Helmer's next-door neighbor at CDSP, Stephanie Green, would become James' fiancee, and she told Helmer about his story.

Helmer learned that dozens of seminary students and Good Shepherd church members had visited James while he was in prison, and many became his close friends and grew deeply dedicated to the cause of helping him prepare for the priesthood.

After Helmer was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 2002, Tramel asked him to coordinate the support he was receiving from the seminary and church community. Helmer became one of Tramel's best friends and served as chair of the Citizens Committee to Parole James Tramel.

"Richard Helmer was really at the heart of the effort to win my release," Tramel said in an interview with Street Spirit. Helmer ended up guiding the effort of more than 200 supporters in supporting Tramel's efforts to win release on parole.

Rev. Helmer said, "James has always been a powerful example to me of redemption; and he also models, to me, an enormous amount of personal integrity, and a solidarity with people who are less fortunate. What I have learned from James is the power of telling the truth and how that brings healing to people's lives and empowers people who have been marginalized. It also is what sets people free. He has been a profound witness of that passage of John's gospel that says that the truth will set you free."

Linda Finch Hicks has been a member of Good Shepherd for 20 years, and both she and her young daughter witnessed the same honesty described by Helmer. She began taping weekly services at Good Shepherd for Tramel to listen to in jail. In one of those tapes, her daughter asked Tramel why he was in prison.

She said, "He wrote a letter to her when she was seven or eight that was really good. He wrote it in terms she could understand. He has always acknowledged what he did and his remorse for it, and he was that way with the children." Later, the letter was read to the entire congregation. She said, "I just thought it was really wonderful that he could talk about it that way. He didn't try and talk above the kids. He talked in a way that they could understand."

Now that Father Tramel has been released from prison, he is one of the priests who ministers to the Good Shepherd church. She said, "It's great having him there. He's really been called to be the priest that he is. He preached on Easter Sunday. It was the first time he preached in person. It was very moving. He talked about resurrection is from the tomb.

"The day he arrived at church was pretty amazing. This was something we were all very, very excited about. Last year when he was up for parole, and he was refused release by the governor, we all found out around Easter and it was just crushing. So when it went through this year, we were just very excited. It's so great just to see him out being an ordinary person. It's something we've all been imagining for a long time -- imagining him preaching and presiding over worship."

Sacramental prison grape juice

Father Tramel was ordained as an Episcopal priest by Bishop William Swing on June 18, 2005, in the prison visiting room. More than 30 priests, seminarians, church members and inmates from his prison congregation attended.

Rev. Helmer described the highly unusual scene of the first ordination ever held in a prison. "It was a profoundly moving experience. We were permitted to gather in the visiting area of the prison. We gathered on the patio and sang hymns and it became a place of holiness -- a church for us. It was deeply moving to see him celebrate Eucharist with us."

Stevens said that they had to be innovative about finding bread and wine for communion because prison rules prohibited bringing anything in with them. "It was just very spiritual to see James in front of his family," he said. "James was permitted to administer Holy Communion to his mom and dad and his sister and all of us there. It was just a croissant and grape juice from the vending machines because we weren't allowed to bring anything else in. But there was such a warmth of spirit there, it was just very memorable."

Linda Finch Hicks also traveled to the prison for the ordination. She said, "It was just indescribable to be at something like that in a prison. All the clergy wore red stoles. So you saw all the people arriving at the prison with these red stoles around their necks. There was just a tremendous amount of joy. It's very powerful to watch the bishop and everybody lay hands on James, and have something that usually happens in the cathedral happen in a place like that. It was incredible."

The light in the darkness

Red Stevens ended up visiting Tramel at least 40 times in prison. At first, he said, the prison atmosphere felt oppressive. "But within a few visits getting to know James, it became a refuge to go and visit him. It was just a very peaceful experience to visit him and just very heartening."

Stevens said that he was most impressed with Tramel's concern for his fellow prisoners. He said, "He had a way of building up, of encouraging, of finding the bright spot in relationships and the turning point where something turns from darkness to light. He had that way of finding a spark of light in a dark place."

Finding a spark of light in a very dark place is the best description possible for Father Tramel's odyssey from the darkness of 20 years in prison to the bright light of a new day of deliverance. He was released from prison on March 12, 2006.

It is impossible to spend time with Father James Tramel and not come away convinced that this is a decent man with a genuine spiritual calling and a deep commitment to serving humanity through his life and ministry. He will always remember Michael Stephenson, and some part of his life's work will always be dedicated to Michael's memory. A master's thesis on the prison system that he did for his seminary degree was dedicated to Michael.

Rev. Helmer said, "I know he feels the debt he owes to Michael and Michael's family is something that he will never be able to fully repay and I think that is part of what motivates him. His compassion comes from a recognition of that, and a powerful sense that he owes so much to Michael's memory."

In an interview with Street Spirit, Father Tramel said it best: "It's not possible to see an act of violence against any person -- and especially against someone who is vulnerable because they're living on the street -- and not have it echo my own responsibility. I think all of us have a part in it when we don't step up to provide more homeless shelters, when we don't step up to provide more resources, when our inaction is a part of more people being on the street and more people being victimized."

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