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.

New Life Arises from the House of the Dead

The Street Spirit Interview with Father James Tramel

Interview by Terry Messman

Shortly after his release from prison, Father James Tramel spends a reflective moment at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley.

For more than 20 years, James Tramel lived in a prison system where the gatekeepers and guards had the keys, and inmates were locked behind prison walls, sometimes for their entire lives. On the first day of his release from Solano Prison, Tramel was given the keys to his own church, Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley. It was a deeply symbolic moment of liberation when a young man locked away for life by society had now been entrusted with the keys to the sanctuary.

His deliverance from prison occurred shortly before Easter Sunday in 2006, and when Father Tramel gave his first sermon at Good Shepherd on Easter, there was a clear echo of the Easter moment of resurrection when the tomb was opened. His Easter sermon was a meditation on five words that had come to him: "Resurrection happens in the tomb." Those words are not merely a metaphor. From prisoners and their families, he has heard that his release from prison "was a great sign of hope to many men still in prison."

I interviewed Father Tramel in the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, in the sanctuary where he first preached as a free man this Easter, after spending more than 20 years in prison for his role in the murder of a homeless man, Michael Stephenson.

Good Shepherd is the oldest church in Berkeley, a beautiful structure with a large stained-glass image over the altar depicting Christ as the Good Shepherd watching over lost sheep. The image seems singularly meaningful, given the way it portrays the spiritual life as focused on caring for the lost sheep, the outcast and marginalized, the strangers, the refugees, the poor, the homeless, hungry ones -- and the prisoners.

Father James Tramel used to appear in spirit here at Good Shepherd on Sunday mornings, even while he was still bodily in prison. He gave long-distance sermons to this Berkeley congregation over the prison telephone. He had ministered to this congregation many times before he ever had been physically inside this building.

Father Tramel had been here in spirit only, even while his body was locked up behind prison walls. It seems a profound image of how you can't keep the Spirit locked up -- even behind prison bars.

Street Spirit: You have taken a remarkable journey to reach this point. Today you're a free man, an ordained priest at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, and you're engaged to be married. But could you tell us where you spent the last two decades of your life?
Father James Tramel: Well, the last nearly 21 years I spent in the California Department of Corrections, serving a 15-to-life prison term for the crime of second-degree murder.

Spirit: Is it true that during your time in prison, you became the first person we're aware of to be ordained to the Episcopal priesthood while incarcerated?
Rev. Tramel: Yes, that's true. I was also the first inmate admitted to the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, which has been around for more than 110 years now.

Spirit: What crime resulted in your being imprisoned as such a young man? Can you tell us what happened?
Rev. Tramel: I was 17 years old and a student at a school that prepares young men and women for the U.S. service academies. I had received a nomination to the U.S. Air Force Academy, and had planned to be an officer and pilot in the Air Force.

One night, a group of students from the school were returning from a movie and we saw another student from our school who was surrounded by some gang members in Santa Barbara. They were harassing him and one of them had pulled a knife on him. So I intervened and got between them. There was a bit of scuffling, but we all got away safely. But as young men often are, we were very angry and hot-headed and wanted to go back the next night to stand our ground and to confront them, and not be pushed off the main thoroughfare, State Street in Santa Barbara.

Spirit: Did you feel it was an affront to your dignity, or did you feel endangered or under attack?
Rev. Tramel: What bothered me the most was that three of them had ganged up on this one student. It was the bullying aspect of it that made me so angry.

The next night, I and Eric, a dorm mate who was hit and kicked the previous night, and my codefendant, David Kurtzman, decided that we were going to go back out to the same place. Not long before leaving, David decided that he should bring his knife, because a knife had been pulled the night before. And I agreed to that, and I carried it off the school grounds for him. Throughout the evening, we saw a number of people that we thought might have been these same gang members, but that turned out not to be.

Late in the night, we were separated from Eric, and were returning through the park in Santa Barbara, not far from the courthouse, and heard music coming from a bandstand gazebo. I suggested to David that we check it out; perhaps it was one of the people from the night before. David had long since had his knife back with him. Once I had walked into this gazebo, and walked up the stairs, I saw Michael, who was hanging out there for the night. He had his bedroll and he was sitting up, and had a radio playing.

Spirit: He was a homeless man sleeping in the park?
Rev. Tramel: He was identified as being homeless. But his family doesn't quite agree with that. They've identified him more as transient. But it was clear to me immediately that he wasn't one of the gang members. He wasn't anyone who was any kind of threat to us. And I had crossed to the other side of the gazebo and had my back to Michael.

Then I heard a noise behind me, and coughing, and I heard Michael say, "No, my friend!" I turned around and I saw David over him, and Michael was on his hands and knees; and I thought at first, he was sick and that David was helping him. Then I saw him collapse and I saw the knife in David's hand, and I saw him inflict what turned out to be the final wound.

Spirit: Where did the final wound fall?
Rev. Tramel: He cut his neck, his throat. I yelled at David to stop and he looked up at me and looked very different from the young man that I had known for a couple weeks. He looked very crazed, and it was terrifying. David said we should leave. "Let's get out of here," that's what he said. To my shame, I ran away, and followed him and didn't stay to help Michael.

Spirit: Those were poignant final words. What was it he said? "No, my friend."
Rev. Tramel: "No, my friend." Michael's last words.

Spirit: His last words were a plea for mercy. So Michael was dead, and you went back to the school without calling the police?
Rev. Tramel: We went back to the school. We didn't call the police. We talked about it in the room. It was uncertain to me whether or not he was dead, whether or not he could be helped. Eric, two of my other roommates and I went back, and at that time we were certain that he had died.

Spirit: Four of you went back to the park?
Rev. Tramel: Four of us went back. Then we decided -- again, this was from not very clearsighted 17-year-olds -- we decided that we were going to keep it a secret and not tell anyone. And that lasted all of about six hours. The police came and arrested me a little later that day, about 16 hours after the crime happened.

Spirit: You have been very open in acknowledging your responsibility for the murder even though you didn't have the knife, and your friend is the one who stabbed him and ended his life. Why do you feel you bear responsibility?
Rev. Tramel: I feel that I bear responsibility because I was the one that encouraged my roommates to go out and confront the gang. I was the one saying that we should respond to force with force. And if it had not been for that, we would not have been out there that evening at all. That's not to say that David Kurtzman wouldn't have ended up hurting some person; but he wouldn't have hurt Michael. Looking back on it in hindsight, I could have persuaded my roommates to go to the police or go to the school officials, or just to not go back to that place. And there would have been a different outcome.

Spirit: Street Spirit has been documenting a terrible epidemic of violence, assaults and murders of homeless people across the nation. Your story is the other side of this phenomenon: What happens to a young man sent to prison for a crime against a homeless person. So when you look at this wave of hate crimes against homeless people, what do you make of it?
Rev. Tramel: I am outraged by it, like you are outraged by it, and perhaps in a much more personal and poignant way, because I know that 20 years ago, I had a part in a similar crime. So 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, my own part in it.

I think that 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. We all play some role in that violence. Violence can be active, like it was for David Kurtzman; and violence can be inactive, through indifference or not making the right choices.

Spirit: Gandhi said poverty is the worst form of violence, so if our society lets people be engulfed by poverty, we are all letting them fall prey to that violence. Now, you went to prison in 1986, during the Reagan era, right when homelessness began escalating due in part to federal housing cutbacks. So during the 20 years you spent in prison, homelessness has been greatly expanding. Have you noticed that as you go to work in San Francisco? And what do you make of that?
Rev. Tramel: I've noticed two things, and that is that during the decline in resources in the community for people that are homeless, and during the decline in resources in the community for people that are mentally ill, the prisons have taken up the slack. The prisons have been the place that so many mentally ill and so many homeless people have been shuffled off and removed from society's sight. I think that is a tragedy, that so many men who really aren't criminals, are unfortunately treated as criminals because they were sleeping in the wrong place, or they were vagrant or begging, or they were vulnerable to some of the addictive drugs, or they were stealing something to eat, and have ended up in jails or in prison.

Spirit: They weren't criminals. They were CRIMINALIZED.
Rev. Tramel: Right. I saw and got to know a great many people who were homeless and their only stable home was the Department of Corrections. I began to know something of their lives then. And since I've been out, it's impossible to walk anywhere in Berkeley or in San Francisco, and if your eyes are open and your heart is open, to not see how many homeless people there are. One of the things that has struck me and shocked me is how people walk down the street and stare straight ahead, or look as though they see right through people that are homeless.

On my walk in San Francisco from the 24th Street Bart Station and where I work a couple blocks away, I've gotten to know a number of homeless people, gotten to know their names.

Spirit: How did you come to know them?
Rev. Tramel: Because they stop me on the street, or I stop them on the street and we talk. Some of my colleagues have commented that when they're wearing their (clerical) collar and walking on the streets, it makes them a target for being hit up for money or some other kind of assistance. On that particular walk there, what's really remarkable is, not once have I been hit up for money. I've been hit up for prayer, and I've been hit up for a handshake. I think what happens is that right away I look them in the eye and right away I ask their names, and ask how they're doing.

Spirit: You know, I don't think there's one person in a hundred that asks their name, even when they give money. You have to know that's a rare thing.
Rev. Tramel: I have given money on the streets a number of times in different places. In Berkeley, I have been hit up for money, but I always ask for their names.

Spirit: Teddy Knight of your Good Shepherd Church in Berkeley called me to suggest that I write an article about you. I smiled and told her, "You realize you're coming to Street Spirit, the paper that's been documenting hate crimes against homeless people." Her answer was, "I went up to several of Street Spirit's homeless vendors and told them about James' case and asked them to write letters to the parole board saying that he had served enough time." She said that they all completely agreed and signed letters. Do you find that rather remarkable that homeless vendors would be so understanding and be on your side, even though they knew the man who lost his life was homeless?
Rev. Tramel: I think that answer from those men is a testament to their humanity and compassion. I think that a lot of people, when they walk by or drive by, they don't really think of the person they're seeing on the street as having the whole range of feelings. I think that answer is such a testament to their sensitivity, and their having lived some tough times, and their having some compassion for someone that's gone through something tough. I think the fact that they can be forgiving is at the heart of what we in the church see as the Christian life -- that they believe in the possibility of redemption.

Spirit: When I was told of their answer, I felt those vendors were the real parole board, and ruled in favor of you. Let's go back to the impact of your trial and sentence in 1986. You're a very young man, you're only 17, and you have been found guilty of second-degree murder. What did you feel at that moment? Did you feel the verdict was unfair?
Rev. Tramel: I felt guilty. It was unclear to me at the time, as a young man, exactly what I was guilty of. My attorney had persuaded me to turn down the plea bargain that would have resulted in my parole 17 years ago.

Spirit: What?! [stunned]
Rev. Tramel: I was offered voluntary manslaughter with six years, at half time.

Spirit: Half time meaning you would have been out in three years?
Rev. Tramel: Out in three years.

Spirit: Why in the world did your attorney tell you to turn that down? Did he think you would be acquitted?
Rev. Tramel: He thought that I'd be acquitted because I didn't wield the weapon, and I didn't know that David was going to attack Michael.

Spirit: That makes sense to me and might be grounds for acquittal. So you believed your attorney that you might be acquitted, and went through with a trial instead of taking the plea bargain. Instead, the jury found you guilty.
Rev. Tramel: And I say all that to say I ended up with a great deal more time. But when you feel guilty, when you know that someone has lost their life through your actions and your inactions, there is a certain piece of the jury saying guilty that lets it sink down deep inside you, where you have to really accept it and really face it. That's where I was at with this. I wasn't thinking about what I had lost. I was facing in the starkest turns what Michael had lost.

Spirit: When I first heard about your story and the heavy verdict, I thought about how many young men are involved in things like this in their foolish and wilder years. I thought of what Hermann Hesse once wrote: The judge looks down at the condemned man and, in one instance, sees all the impulses and feels all the emotions that drove the condemned man and understands those impulses are within him, too. Yet in the next moment, he turns a blind eye to that and sentences him to death, or to life in prison.
Rev. Tramel: Responding to that thought, in the last 20 years, there have been countless teachers, prison guards, attorneys, priests, district attorneys, and doctors who have told me, "When I was 16 or 17, me and my friends did exactly the same thing -- in terms of going out to get in a confrontation and stand up to some other kids we had a disagreement with." And they recognized how their own lives could have gone horribly wrong, and how they could have been a part of someone else losing their life.

Spirit: Exactly. Yet too often our legal system's only methodology is convicting someone and laying down the full, merciless severity of the law on a young man, and taking away much of your life -- even though so many 17-year-old boys have gone through something similar.
Rev. Tramel: I think when you're 17 years old, you don't expect your friend or other kids at school to do something that you yourself wouldn't do. So while I expected to go out and maybe get in a fistfight or a shouting match with these other kids, I could not envision David stabbing somebody, let alone someone who had nothing at all to do with the gang we had confronted the night before.

Spirit: And he remains in prison?
Rev. Tramel: He remains in prison.

Spirit: During the 20 years you were in prison, there was a great increase in capital punishment in California. What are your thoughts on the death penalty?
Rev. Tramel: I am wholly and unequivocally opposed to the death penalty. Not because I don't think there are crimes that are horrific tragedies. There are crimes for which even I would say, "We're never going to let you out." But we can't teach that violence is not the answer by killing people. The death penalty satisfies our thirst for vengeance, not justice -- and that, I think, is a sin.

Spirit: I've heard that you were the youngest man in San Quentin. What was it like to be that young in San Quentin?
Rev. Tramel: Well, on day one, it was terrifying. I think that feeling, though, isn't just confined to my being the youngest person there. Anyone new in prison, I think, at any age, whether you admit it or not, when you walk in, you're scared. Perhaps more so for me at that age. But I was lucky.

Spirit: In what way?
Rev. Tramel: There were a couple of guys I met that were older and had been in prison for many years, and were never going to get out -- and they looked out for me. They helped me early on to make the right kind of choices about how I was going to spend my time in prison, and avoid getting sucked into all the great many things in prison that can just erode a human being. That was a real gift that they gave to me.

Spirit: Which is, again, an example of unexpected humanity from an unexpected source -- just as with your earlier example of the homeless person's humanity.
Rev. Tramel: Right, right. And later in my life in prison, when I had many years under my belt, I was able to return it. Well, you can't really return it, but you can pass it on; and I had an opportunity to pass that on to new, young kids -- younger and younger kids are now coming to prison -- and to try to help them.

Spirit: What was it like to be in prison for 20 years? What kind of toll did that take on your body and mind?
Rev. Tramel: Twenty years in prison makes men or destroys them. And by the grace of God, I became a better man in that time. Also 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. Let's say I had that deal where I would have been out 17 years ago or something. There's no one in my life now that I could say I could live without. I'm happy with my life. I'm happy with who I am and where I am.

And I felt that way before I was released to come to Berkeley. I felt that way last year after the governor said no. I wasn't happy that I was in prison, but I was happy with who I was as a man. And that happened for me during that 20 years in prison.

Spirit: It was really striking when I first heard of the lasting friendships you made in prison and the way you ministered to fellow inmates when they were dying. That wasn't a wasted life, not at all. But what effect did you see a long prison term having on other inmates?
Rev. Tramel: On many inmates, it erodes their identity to the point that they are dependent upon the institution, and they are dependent upon how other men in the prison see them, for their identity. They're not separate from the gang culture; they're not separate from the drug culture. They lose themselves. And they don't know how to find their way back. And many, many, never do.

Spirit: So, far from rehabilitating the prisoner, prison often has the opposite effect. and is a torturous, destructive experience. Is there a way that prison could promote transformation and help remake someone's life, instead of destroying it?
Rev. Tramel: I think that it is possible. In California, they have this great contrast between people with indeterminate sentences and those with determinate sentences. Those with indeterminate sentences have to do all kinds of things to change their lives, to prove that they are suitable for parole -- and hardly any ever get out. In the last 10 years or more, only about 200 out of 30,000 lifers have gotten out. It's not even fair to call most of them lifers, because they're not sentenced to life terms, but are serving indeterminate terms of 15 years to the possibility of life.

Then you have this great, vast expanse of people with determinate sentences who have two years, four years, or 10 years to do. They know no matter what they do in prison, no matter the lack of change, they do get out, and often go on to commit other crimes and continue that cycle. So California is letting out folks who do nothing to change, and refusing to let out those who are making changes in their lives. It doesn't work. It has given us in the last 20 years, a prison system that has gone from 24,000 inmates to 160,000 inmates.

Spirit: That's an unbelievable increase.
Rev. Tramel: We now have today more corrections officers -- some 29,000 correctional officers -- than we had prisoners in 1980. I think that if people commit serious or violent crimes, they should go to prison, they should be punished. But if you close off the possibility of reconciliation, if you close off the possibility of returning to the community and again being accepted as a citizen, then it isn't possible to transform your life. I believe that it's impossible to experience forgiveness and to have your life transformed if you cannot perceive the possibility of reconciliation at the end. If that hope, if that glimmer isn't there, then men continue to descend into the only place where they are accepted - and that is in criminal circles.

Spirit: During your time in prison, did you see abusive conditions that could be corrected if society had the will?
Rev. Tramel: I think that one of the greatest abuses of the human condition in California prisons today is the woefully inadequate health care. There are men and women dying for lack of health care, or lack of the resources necessary to provide appropriate health care. Sometimes that is through incompetent doctors, heartless doctors; but often it is because the medical staff don't have the resources they need. They don't have enough people working there. They need more nurses, they need more doctors. And now the federal courts are compelling the Department of Corrections to make some changes. I worry and I pray about how many will continue to die until that happens.

Spirit: And you were with them as they were dying. You started an Episcopal congregation in prison, beginning with a prayer group. Were you moved to do this because of your work in counseling people who were dying in prison?
Rev. Tramel: In 1993, I was the coordinator for the Pastoral Care Services Program at the California Medical Facility, which is a hospice program in the prison.

Spirit: An actual hospice for dying prisoners? Why were you interested in becoming involved with this very tough kind of ministry?
Rev. Tramel: I was recruited to come work there. I had been working for the last couple of years prior to that in the Blind Project at the California Medical Facility, which produces books on tape for the blind around the country. Father Jack Isbell, who was the director of the program, encouraged me to come work for him as coordinator of the hospice program.

There were 11 inmates that worked full time for the program and we had about 50 volunteers. My job was to coordinate their activities. There were about 500 inmates there that are HIV positive. There are three hospital floors that have chronic care, acute care and assisted living, and a 10-bed hospice. The hospice was built during my tenure at the Pastoral Care Services. The primary mission was twofold: one was to be spending time with men who were terminally ill, most of them due to medical complications from the HIV/AIDS virus, and others had other illnesses: cancer, liver failure, hepatitis. We would spend time with them and get to know them and become friends with them.

Then, when men became very ill, and the doctors determined that they could die within 72 hours, we would put them on a 24-hour-a-day vigil, and someone would be with them at all times. The heart of our mission at Pastoral Care Services was that no one should die alone in the prison. For many years in the prisons, people had been dying alone - dying in their cells - and it was a great tragedy. That came to an end with Pastoral Care Services. No one is dying alone in the California Medical Facility anymore.

Spirit: What an amazing achievement in a prison.
Rev. Tramel: So in the time that I was there, and sitting with so many men that were facing their life's end, the questions of mortality were very much in my face. I was sitting with men in their last hours. It's not possible to do that without reflecting on it, when you walk away from someone in their last moments of living. So it was making me confront really deep questions. I was still wrestling with a great deal of guilt about my involvement in Michael's death. I was really, at that time, still running from God. I had grown up in a Southern Baptist Church that had lots of hellfire and brimstone sermons, and I just had a very hard time thinking that God could possibly forgive me. But I was there at least trying to be the Prodigal Son, and to help out where I could, and try in some way to make some amends for what I had done.

And one night in August of 1993, I was woken up around one in the morning by a correctional officer who told me that they needed me in the hospital. I was the person that was on call to respond when people had taken a turn for the worse; so I knew what that call was for. I got down to the hospital and a nurse met me at the door and told me that Steve, who I had known for some time and knew well, was in trouble. I was surprised because he was supposed to live until he got out. But there was a problem with his IV and fluid was aspirating in his lungs and was drowning him. And the nurse told me, "James, he's going to die in a few hours and he doesn't know that he's going to die."

I went down to his room and I was surprised to find him sitting up in a chair. I had expected him to be in bed, perhaps comatose. But he was sitting up in a chair because it was easier for him to breathe. So I pulled a chair up, and he was just as friendly and as happy as I had always known him to be. He didn't seem at all surprised that I was coming in that time of morning, and we just talked.

Then he started talking about his family and how much he was looking forward to seeing them, and my heart just started breaking because I knew that he was never going to see them again.

Spirit: And he didn't even know.
Rev. Tramel: He didn't know. I suspect that he sensed it, because this conversation before long turned to asking me what I thought happened after we die. Our training was that we were not supposed to push any particular viewpoint, but to be open to our clients' own feelings.
So we just talked about what different people believe; and that some people believe in heaven and hell and God, and some people believe in reincarnation, and some people believe when you die, that's just the end. We talked about a number of different beliefs. But at some point, Steve got really still; and he looked at me with quiet eyes, and he said to me, "James, what do you believe?"

And it was like God was asking me, through him. And I knew that I was the last person that he was going to see, and that I had to give him the truest answer that I had. So I told him what I had, up until that point, been so afraid to claim for myself, and that is that I believe that God loves us immensely and that God can and will forgive all of us. And that we can spend the hereafter, and all that there is, with God. And that Jesus was a great example of God's love, and that if we would just ask for forgiveness, we can receive it.

Spirit: So in ministering to him, you were also ministering to yourself. Or maybe he was ministering to you.
Rev. Tramel: I think he was ministering to me. It was definitely mutual. He began to have trouble breathing, and asked me to help him into bed. He rested for a bit, and then he looked at me, and he said, "James, I want that. I want to ask for God's forgiveness." So we prayed together, and then with water from the prison sink that I just held in my hands, I baptized him. Not long after that, he died in my arms. I think that God's forgiveness is pre-emptive: it's there, waiting for us to finally turn and accept it.

Spirit: So you finally were able to accept that you could be forgiven.
Rev. Tramel: I think that was the beginning -- that was when I glimpsed it. It was a little while later before I really fully embraced it.

Spirit: Did that experience lead to your developing a prison ministry?
Rev. Tramel: After that encounter with Steve, I left that room with a deep gift of faith. There was no doubt that God was very present and tangible in all of our lives. I just felt the sense of calling that I was trying to sort out, and I was having lots of conversations with Father Jack about it. At that time, I just thought the idea of my becoming a priest was crazy; I didn't think there was any way it would be possible. I only had a high-school diploma at the time; I was in prison with a life sentence for murder.

Spirit: You really were a long shot.
Rev. Tramel: Pretty much a long shot, yeah. And I just came to a point of relenting, of saying "All right God, if this is what you want, you're going to have to find a way to make it happen, because I can't see how it will possibly ever happen." So I just started saying yes to the next step in front of me, and doors, big and small, opened along the way.

Spirit: Your priesthood started behind bars, both in the ministry to dying prisoners in the hospice, and then when you started a prayer group among your fellow prisoners. Did you form the prayer group yourself or did it just come together?
Rev. Tramel: I started the prayer group at the California Medical Facility, and also started the group at Solano.

Spirit: Why did you form a prayer group in such a seemingly inhospitable place? You could have gone on developing spiritually within, and you could have kept ministering to dying prisoners without trying to form a congregation behind prison walls.
Rev. Tramel: Because worship and especially liturgical worship is something you don't do alone, if we can avoid it. It's something we do in community. Whether praying together or coming together for Eucharist, all of our sacraments are in community. Even the sacrament of reconciliation between an individual penitent and a priest is in community, and that priest is there representing the whole of the community. So I think it was impossible for me to be on a path of following this call to ordained ministry, and to not be acting on that call where I was.

Spirit: I just had the image of a flower growing out of concrete. It's a hard place for faith to take root, in a prison setting. There's a lot of cynicism there, but there's probably also a lot of depth there too, given what people are going through.
Rev. Tramel: I think that prison is very much a crucible that refines people, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad. I think that good people who have done bad things are kind of distilled down until some of that bad stuff is kind of sloughed off. There are other people who are just in prison and probably belong there and need to stay there, because they are seeking, at every turn, the opportunity to do evil. I think that, for them, prison deepens that darkness.

Spirit: How were you able to be accepted as a seminary student at Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP) even though you were behind bars?
Rev. Tramel: A serendipitous phone call. In 1998, I called the registrar there to find information about what I needed to do next, just after getting my bachelor's degree while in prison. I thought I would only be able to go to seminary after I was paroled from prison. We ended up having an amazing hour-long phone conversation, and she said, "You know, I think that you should go ahead and apply because you're coming up for parole, and if you get paroled, you may be able to just come ahead and go then."

So I went through the application process and took my graduate exams, and got letters of recommendation, and all the things you have to do. And the admissions committee came to the prison to interview me; the whole seminary ended up coming to the prison, in various stages throughout my seminary career.

A week later, I had my third parole hearing, and my parole was denied again. I informed the school that my parole was denied and that I wouldn't be able to come to CDSP and attend. They had not made the decision, but I was pretty much calling to let them know they didn't need to waste any more time on my application. I received a letter back saying that the full admissions committee had met and they had unanimously decided to admit me anyway.

Spirit: What did that feel like to you?
Rev. Tramel: Like God's grace. Like another impossible door being opened. Like the possibility of reconciliation being held out before me.

Spirit: I've heard the stories of CDSP students coming out and visiting you and helping you take classes at long distance. It is amazing how supportive the seminarians were to you. I look at the involvement of the CDSP students and I see the works of mercy and grace there.
Rev. Tramel: You know, last Saturday, when our diocese gathered to elect a new bishop [to replace Bishop William Swing, who will soon retire], I ran into Arthur Holder, who is now the Dean of Academic Affairs for the Graduate Theological Union, but who was at the time the Dean of Academic Affairs for the Episcopal seminary (CDSP). And I thanked him. Initially, when they were first exploring my coming to the school, he had come out to the prison and met with education staff at the institution, and they agreed to take this on. But they didn't know when they got into it, how much work it was going to be, and what a commitment it was going to be, timewise and financially.

It was a courageous decision on their part, and I was, and am, immensely grateful for it. And when I thanked Arthur Holder, he said to me, "I appreciate you saying that, but you need to know that you changed us too. It was good for this seminary where people come and are so often focused inward. This took this community and turned its focus outward." He said, "You're gone, I'm gone, but the effects of it remain in that institution. It has changed because of it." That was powerful to me.

Spirit: One of the things I found fascinating was that you preached long-distance sermons over the prison telephone to the congregation at Good Shepherd Church. Almost as if to underscore that this was a sermon delivered behind bars, the call would periodically be interrupted by a recording saying, "You are on the phone with an inmate of Solano State Prison." What did it feel like to give these sermons from state prison?
Rev. Tramel: It's very odd doing it on the phone because you can't see people and you can't hear them, so you don't have the same kind of feedback. You are just really putting your faith in those words. I think, in doing that, you get a sense of the power of the Word, and how God is present in words, and how God changes lives with words. I think I've learned to trust the words that are sent out of my heart when I'm in quiet times, reflective times.

Preparing the sermon is no different than it is for any other member of the clergy of any other congregation. Finding quiet time, alone time, is hard in a prison; it's a rare commodity there. But you pray about it and you put your heart into it and you think and you ruminate. In a sense, I feel that when you're writing a good sermon, there's a great part of you that has gotten out of the way to let the Spirit of God enter that process. I was often giving the very same sermon that I was delivering here, at Good Shepherd, that evening to my congregation in prison.

Spirit: You're engaged to Stephanie Green, a seminarian who visited you in prison. How did that come about?
Rev. Tramel: We have been engaged for a very long time. We were engaged on Christmas Day of 2000. So it has been a very long engagement. But I felt and she felt that we did not want to get married while I was still in prison. It would be impossible in those circumstances to live out our deep sense of what marriage was, and to give the kind of support and care you could afford one another in daily life, the sharing and being together, doing the dishes and going shopping, and looking after someone when they're sick - you just can't do.

So we decided that we would wait. It was impossible at any point to even set a date because we had no idea when I was going to get out. Even when you learn that the parole board finds you suitable for release, that doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get out. So we haven't yet set a date, and now we're enjoying the newfound freedom to actually go on some dates that don't involve vending machines in the prison visiting room.

Spirit: It's an amazing thing. How many sacraments is one guy going to rack up while in prison? [laughing] The sacrament of marriage. You celebrated the sacraments of Eucharist, baptism and reconciliation; you were present at the last rites. What about confirmation? Is it a sacrament in the Episcopal church?
Rev. Tramel: Yes, it is. In the Episcopal church, only the bishop performs confirmation [the church's initiation ceremony]. But people in my congregation were confirmed. I had worked it out where once a year the Right Reverend Jerry Lamb, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California, would come to our congregation at the prison.

Spirit: So your prison congregation was actually producing new members for the Episcopal Church?
Rev. Tramel: Yes, we were. We were converting people to the Episcopal faith.

Spirit: And getting them confirmed.
Rev. Tramel: And they were, yes. The bishop would come out once a year to confirm them. Our prison congregation, the St. Dismas Episcopal Chapel, was recognized by the diocese of Northern California. St. Dismas is the name attributed by the church to the criminal who was hanging on the cross next to Jesus.

Spirit: The good thief?
Rev. Tramel: The good thief. The one who said have mercy on me; and Jesus told him, today you will be with me in paradise. What is ironic about Saint Dismas is that he is the only saint for whom there is absolute proof that he is a saint because Jesus said so.

Spirit: That's right! Who else? Not even Paul or St. Francis, because that was after the fact.
Rev. Tramel: Yes. Everyone else, you determine it on the evidence of their life. But Jesus said so with Saint Dismas. And it's the clearest example of how we can do nothing to earn God's forgiveness -- it is pure grace, and forgiveness is available for all of us.

Spirit: That resonates so well with your story, and it's such a good name for your prison church. Now, your ministry kept developing until you were ordained behind prison walls. Bishop William Swing encouraged your ministry from the beginning. It must have been an unforgettable experience when he presided over your ordination in the prison.
Rev. Tramel: My ordination to the priesthood was one of those moments in life, maybe like when you get married or something like that, where you know that you're exactly where God would have you be, and that you are exactly who you're supposed to be. I remember when Bishop Swing placed his hands on my head, saying the words of consecration, and I could feel so very tangibly the connection, through him, with that deep call to service and ministry that goes back to the apostles. It was so very tangible in terms of connection.

Bishop Swing took off his stole and placed it around my neck and my shoulders, and gave it to me. That was a really important sign to me. I mean, all priests are vested with a stole when they're ordained; but him giving me his stole, and making it my stole, seemed a very tangible sign of the great faith that he had placed in me. He took an enormous risk. He put his name on the line as the senior bishop in the United States. He placed the name of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican community on the line. That stole was heavy! [laughing]

Spirit: That was a very brave thing he did.
Rev. Tramel: One of the things that touched me and touched him was he was able to get to meet my parents. My parents were there and witnessed me being an ordained priest after having endured all this. They saw their son, for whom they had so many hopes and dreams, instead have a life that looked as though it was utterly shattered and gone. So to see me ordained as a priest, I think, was very healing for them. I was able to give them communion. Each of them, at the end of the service, came and knelt before me and asked me for a blessing, and I was able to give a blessing to my mother and my father. It was just an incredibly healing moment.

Spirit: I'm sure it was for them. How were you able to celebrate Eucharist behind prison walls?
Rev. Tramel: In the prison visiting room, with a number of inmates from the congregation inside the prison, and a number of people from the community. About 30 of us gathered on the patio of the visiting room at Solano Prison. We made Eucharist with bread from a croissant and Welch's grape juice from the vending machines, which were our only options.

Spirit: Is that legitimate, grape juice from a can [laughing]?
Rev. Tramel: It is very legitimate.

Spirit: And the bishop himself was there to consecrate it.
Rev. Tramel: Well, I consecrated it. I celebrated communion. I was the priest, so I consecrated it. The bishop very kindly relinquished what would normally have been his role to be the celebrant, to give this to me and allow me to celebrate mass for the first time there at my ordination with my family. The first time I celebrated mass was at my ordination that day. Then, the next night I celebrated mass with my prison congregation in the chapel of the prison.

Spirit: A little less than one year later, you were released from prison, shortly before Easter of 2006. Did you preach in an area church on Easter Sunday?
Rev. Tramel: I preached here at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church on Easter morning.

Spirit: What was that like to you? Did you see any parallel between your release from prison and the Easter theme of being released from the tomb?
Rev. Tramel: Yes. I was very tired because I had been up a good part of the night before working on my sermon, and I had a bit of writer's block that I tried to cure by baking some pies for the coffee hour afterwards. I had these five words that had been with me for months, even before I knew that I would get out of prison. And the five words were these: "Resurrection happens in the tomb."

In the church, we call something a sacrament that is an outward and physical manifestation of an inward and spiritual reality. And getting out of prison, walking out of those gates, was that outward and physical sign. But the inward and spiritual had happened before that. I think that getting out made it more apparent, more visible, more tangible.

Spirit: Made what more visible, your deliverance?
Rev. Tramel: Right. And how I know this, is that my release was a great sign of hope to many men still in prison. The night before I left, I went building to building meeting with men in the prison to say goodbye, to encourage them; and so many of them just came and put their arms around me and were grateful that hope was alive. Because many of them thought, after the governor had said no to me the year before, that if James Tramel can't get out, how will I ever have a hope of getting out. Well, they have hope.

That's what seeing resurrection does, that's what knowing about it, hearing about it, does. I've gotten letters since I've been out from mothers of men who are in prison, who write, "I read about your story in the paper and it's so inspirational to me, and it gives me hope that someday my son may come home." Resurrection does that. Resurrection gives hope. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ gives us hope.

What's funny is Kathleen Van Sickle, who is the deacon here, said she wouldn't believe it until she saw me and until she had her arms around me. We're calling her "doubting Kathleen" now. [laughing]

Spirit: It was always the women who were the first witnesses to the resurrection.
Rev. Tramel: Yes, it is has always been the women who see it first and proclaim it.

Spirit: You wrote from prison that "The grace of God is a grand love that embraces sinners, outcasts and strangers." I think of the way our society rejects and persecutes prisoners and homeless people. Were you saying that God embraces the very people that society rejects?
Rev. Tramel: God most embraces the people that society rejects. God first embraces the people that society rejects. In every step of the Gospels, from Matthew to John, that's the example that Jesus sets. If you're going to call yourself a Christian, you have to live that out. Jesus ministered with the outcasts. He was with the lepers, he was with the prostitutes, he was with the people who had no homes, he was with all of society's marginalized. And not just with them in a patronizing sense. He sat with them, he broke bread with them, he shared their daily lives.

Spirit: In his parables, they were the first ones invited to the feast.
Rev. Tramel: They were the very first.

Spirit: Among these marginalized people, of course, are the prisoners you lived among for 20 years. What was it like to say goodbye to them when you were released?
Rev. Tramel: They were the men that I had lived with for all of my adult life, and they were my friends. And I love them. And I told them I was going to miss them. And I do miss them.

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