~ from USP Leavenworth, by Greg Boertje-Obed, with a reflection from his wife, Michele Naar-Obed

Greg and Michele (on left) with Eric Johnson and Art Laffin at Knoxville Federal Courthouse in May 2013

Greg and Michele (on left) with Eric Johnson and Art Laffin at Knoxville Federal Courthouse in May 2013. Photo by Felice Cohen-Joppa

From Via Pacis, newsletter of the Des Moines Catholic Worker

Greg Boertje-Obed and Michele Naar-Obed are not new to the Plowshares scene. They met and married while living at Jonah House and being a part of the Good News Plowshares. Their child Rachel was born at Jonah House. Greg has done a total of five Plowshares actions and Michele has done two. Michele has spent close to three years working with Christian Peace Maker Teams in Iraq. For the past 11 years they have been members of the Duluth Catholic Worker community. Greg is currently serving a five-year sentence at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary for his participation in the Transform Now Plowshares. Michele is part of the new Hildegard Catholic Worker House in Duluth. She was one of the Des Moines St. Pat’s 7 and served 48 hours in our Polk County Jail. We asked them both to write for this issue of Via Pacis in hopes to highlight their faithful lives and need of support.

by Greg Boertje-Obed

USP Leavenworth is a difficult and challenging place to live. It’s the biggest (about 1600 inmates), most violent, and most segregated prison I’ve been in. Since being here a few months, I’ve heard of a death of a prisoner by beating, a stabbing, and an attack with a lock on a sleeping inmate, all inmate violence on inmates. I’m told violence may happen nearly daily, but guards are not always aware of it.

However, the Biblical story and lessons of the three youths in a fiery furnace come to mind. I have had the good fortune of being assigned to live in one of the cell blocks with many older men where it is usually quieter and calmer than the bigger cell blocks. One person estimates there are at least eleven men serving life sentences in this unit. There are about 100 inmates here in mostly 2-men cells. The biggest cell block is said to house about 400 men and is known for being the wildest here and the biggest in the Bureau of Prisons.

If one understands an angel to be a helpful stranger, it would be accurate to say that a host of angels have been active here. When I initially arrived, many inmates came forward, offering needed items such as shower shoes, toothpaste, toothbrush, soap, soap dish, shampoo, etc. It was the most generous welcoming I have ever had in a jail or prison. Many of the givers were from Minnesota or were Christians. No one asked me what placed me here. They were just welcoming me as a newcomer and someone who was in need.

As time went on, guys have been teaching me about the problems here. Initially, men from Minnesota explained that the dining hall tables were assigned by inmates to different states or regions. I was led to sit at the 3 tables with four seats each allotted for guys from Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin. A short time later, some of the Christians in my unit urged me to sit at the four tables set aside for Christians or anyone who is rejected from their state tables. The outcasts are said to be suspected informers or people with particularly bad crimes.

After a while, I realized that the Minnesota tables where I sat were restricted to white Northlanders. A Christian in my unit repeatedly encouraged me to leave the white Northland section and sit at the Christian section which is the only integrated area. The dining hall is huge, with more than 125 tables. Some inmates comment that this segregation is like a throwback to the 1940’s and 50’s.

I switched from the Northland section to the integrated section and had no problems for a month. However, twice in that time all the 16 seats were filled when I received my food. Then I learned that guards will some- times tell inmates waiting for a seat that we cannot stand by the tables. We must take a seat elsewhere or throw our food away and leave. When this happened to me, twice I went to sit at the white Northland tables. It wasn’t a problem the first time. But the second time I was asked where I was from and how long I had been here. When I explained and then told how the Christian tables were currently filled, I was told that I could no longer sit at the Northland section that I was clogging up their tables. Later I consulted with others and learned that is how the system works here. “It is what it is,” is sometimes heard as a comment on life here.

Besides the dining hall, segregation by inmates is also said to apply to seats in the recreation yard and in the auditorium for movies. In some of the other cell blocks, it is said that the use of an iron to press clothes is divided by race. There is a “black iron,” a “white iron,” a “Native American iron,” a “Hispanic iron” . . .

Twice I’ve heard the two chaplains speak during sermons about the problem of segregation here. But since the system has been ingrained for so long, I haven’t met any inmate who thinks it might change.

Twice I’ve heard an account of how inmates in a special cell block for the “Life Connections Program” were willing to let a white and a black inmate share a cell. How- ever, when the two were assigned to a cell, they received death threats and one was said to have been beaten up within 24 hours.

Despite all the problems, the thought comes to me of what Dan Berrigan said at a scripture class in New Orleans. He said in many ways our lives inside prison are similar to our lives outside prison. We try to study the Bible and pray with others, develop community or fellowship, promote nonviolence, and be of service to others. In my cell block, a group of about 7 to 10 Christians usually meets nightly for Bible readings and prayer. This is often where I learn about specific sufferings in the prison.

Recently I’ve started playing Scrabble again as a way to meet others and develop community. It gives a more lighthearted atmosphere if competition does not become extreme. There is quite a bit of interest in our unit with some very good players and many people stopping to watch and share comments.

One way I’ve tried to be of service to others is by responding to requests to help edit others’ legal motions of appeal and to write letters. My cellmate, Mr. Lam is a good ex- ample of how the justice system doesn’t work. Mr. Lam is from Vietnam and initially pled not guilty to arson which resulted in a death. The jury deliberated 6 days, and the judge then declared a mistrial. His public defender repeatedly delayed and seemed to be work- ing for the government. Mr. Lam repeatedly asked for substitute counsel and was denied, until he threatened suicide. A new lawyer advised a conditional guilty plea which meant that an appeal could be filed on certain criteria. He ended up receiving a life sentence. Its been a legal nightmare every step of the way. Mr. Lam has been appealing for 17 years and is now representing himself. But he is still hopeful and is looking for a good pro bono lawyer. A new magistrate who reviewed his latest motion recused herself from his case.

When listening to my cellmate and others appealing their sentences, a quote comes to mind which was in a recent Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance booklet. It said, “One does not become compassionate without suffering.” Although I don’t feel that I am suffering inordinately, the thought comes that compassion may increase with contact with suffering people.

Another impression of the prison is that many of the guards are unhappy with their work. People say that guards recently pro- tested working conditions by picketing out front. Some men say they saw news reports on television. One person said the protests concerned three issues: the ratio of staff to prisoners, health, and safety. Reportedly, at times there is only one staff person for over 200 inmates. Within a few days of these protests, a newly arrived inmate was beaten terribly by inmates and died after being taken off life support. It is said that he was mistakenly suspected of being an informant.

Other factors contribute to the impression that the Bureau of Prisons is limited in the funding USP Leavenworth is receiving. The Prison Industries factory building is largely vacant. The furniture making and textile making sections are now closed. It is said that furniture for the White House used to be made here. Only a printing shop is now in operation. When I attended orientation, an inmate asked if the unused areas of the factory building could be converted to use for vocational training. The reply was that it would be too expensive and funds are not available.

On the upside, when I arrived, the prison library had very few books on peacemakers or peacemaking. I found one book for junior readers about Martin Luther King Jr. Many people have been sending me excellent books on peacemaking, which I am passing on to the library.

Also on the positive side, I continue to meet many people interested in studying the Bible and changing their lives. A small group meets weekly to watch and discuss a made-for-television series called, “Joan of Arcadia.” A teenage daughter, Joan, has encounters with different people who are representing God and who give her guidance. It reminds me of one of Carl Kabat’s sayings “God is in each of us.” I also have had the good fortune to have met a younger man (48 yrs), Oscar Lee, who speaks with the energy, directness, and speech patterns of Carl Kabat. He asks to study the Bible and has asked if I would help to write a book about his life.

Supporters on the outside have been much appreciated for their prayers, letters, and offers to send funds or books. Many people wrote saying, “God is always with you,” which has been encouraging. Stamps or other items cannot be received in the mail. The funds sent have been helpful for buying stamps, making phone calls, sending and reading emails, and buying hygiene items.

Megan Rice 88101-020 MDC Brooklyn
P.O. BOX 329002 BROOKLYN, NY 11232

Gregory Boertje-Obed, 08052-016 USP LEAVENWORTH

Michael Walli, 92108-020
P.O. BOX 8000

Information about mailing restrictions: In general, all mail must include a full, handwritten return address. Avoid labels; no paperclips or staples. All mail is subject to inspection. Books (hard or soft cover) and magazines must be sent directly from a publisher or bookstore. Any other packages must be pre-approved by the prison or they will be returned.

by Michele Naar-Obed

It was a rough start for our family. When Greg did this plowshare action, we were living in one of the Catholic Worker houses in Duluth and that community did not support Greg’s witness. Shortly before Greg went to trial and while he was in Tennessee preparing for trial, the community asked me to pack up our family’s belongings and leave. It felt like my sense of stability and safety was pulled out from under me and my family. The thought that a community we spent so many years with was taking a different direction and that we no longer fit, hurt tremendously. This difference of direction was a year in the making and probably was going to happen anyway, however, the timing couldn’t have been worse. The energy that I needed to support the action was drastically diminished.

Then God’s providence came through and the wider Catholic Worker movement both nationally and internationally stepped forward to embrace the Transform Now Plowshares and offered support for Greg and us. The Vets for Peace stepped forward and embraced us as did the Benedictine Sisters of St. Scholastica here in Duluth. The Sisters told us that this action is valued, it is needed, it is Spirit led and it is, in fact, pleasing in God’s eye. When my Christian Peace Team in Iraqi Kurdistan found out about the witness, they embraced us and many of my Kurdish friends wrote letters of support during and after the trial. All of this validation helped me pour my life’s energy back into the support of the action and back into following our vocation as individual and family.

Then God’s providence came through again. I am part of the Hildegard Catholic Worker House, a new Catholic Worker community focusing on providing hospitality for women caught up in sex trafficking and need a welcoming, loving and healing environment to heal. I am grateful for the outpouring of emotional and spiritual support Rachel and I receive from so many people. I am grateful when reminded that our lives as individuals and as family are valued and that we are part of something bigger than just ourselves and our nuclear family. I am amazed at the many ways in which the web of human lives come together to help us walk through these difficult times together as individuals, as family, and as part of a bigger circle of humanity.

I also know that we are being looked after by the Cloud of Witnesses who have gone before us, by the communion of saints. I have had vivid dreams of Sr. Anne Montgomery, Elmer Maas and Phil Berrigan. All of them have let me know that they are with us on this journey.

I am reminded that when I was sentenced to 18 months for my last Plowshares action, I was sent to Tallahassee, FL to serve my time. It was a blow to be sent so far from home. We were living at Jonah House in Baltimore, MD. Rachel was just two. People from the support community came together and paid for Greg and Rachel’s airfare so they could visit every three months. Pax Christi members in Tallahassee made their homes available for hospitality. We could not have done that time without that kind of support.

Now Greg is locked up in Leavenworth Federal Prison for five years, a nine-hour drive from Duluth. And our support community has made it clear that they will pay for a rental car and gas to visit every three months. Holy Family Catholic Worker and Cherith Brook House in Kansas City, MO have opened their doors to us as have individuals in the Kansas City area. I have been invited to stop over at the Des Moines, IA Catholic Worker and at Strangers and Guests Catholic Worker in Malloy, IA anytime I go to visit Greg. Both houses are midway points between Duluth and Kansas City and both are welcoming places in which to stay, filled with spiritual and emotional nourishment.

So to each of you who have sent an encouraging word or prayer to us or have reached out a hand to us, we say thank you. Not just for what it has meant to us, but for what it has meant for the integrity of the action.

Michele Naar-Obed <obedsinduluth@yahoo.com>
Hildegard CW House
617 N 8th Ave E, Duluth MN 55805