Rev. Allison Farnum, MDiv '08, is the Executive Director of the Unitarian Universalist Prison Ministry of Illinois and a community minister affiliated with the Second Unitarian Church of Chicago. We asked how her ministry unfolded, her hopes for the future of Unitarian Universalism, and Meadville Lombard's role in it.
Right now, I have the privilege to serve as the director and minister of the Unitarian Universalist Prison Ministry of Illinois. That is a role where I get to be with a lot of cool people and be in a lot of amazing spaces where people are doing transformational, beautiful work within Unitarian Universalist congregations — but also within prisons and jails, and with organizations that have folks who are working on transforming these harmful, deathly, carceral systems.
As the director, I get to work with Unitarian Universalists and put our mission into practice, which is to equip Unitarian Universalists in Illinois to transform institutions. That also means working with organizations, transforming institutions, and supporting people harmed by the prison-industrial complex. The mission is fueled entirely by our Unitarian Universalist theology, “no one is outside the circle of love.” Our UUA president, Rev. Susan Frederick Gray, and another colleague, Rev. Erika Hewitt, said those words. It’s our theology that informs that we have an opportunity to be present and to just keep reminding ourselves that love always prevails, even in the face of systems that don’t recognize the humanity of people and don’t recognize that we need not be known by our worst mistakes to get second chances — or even a first chance! — at life, because the decks have been stacked through intersecting cultural oppressions.
The reason that I ended up in this work is because I’ve always had a heart for justice. I grew up Unitarian Universalist with the understanding that there were injustices in this world. No one skipped around that. At the same time, I was always taught that I had a role to play individually and that I also had a role to play in community. As I began to wrestle with what I was going to do with my life as a young adult, I was going to Second Unitarian Church in Chicago. I was at that crossroads time where one of my friends, who’s also been a UU for a really long time, said, “You should be a UU minister.” And then someone else said it at Second Unitarian. Then it kept coming from different places. I had this Meadville Lombard brochure because brochures were way more prevalent in the early 2000s. I had it sitting on my window for a year. I just really sat with it and thought about it. The joke was that if you were going to Second Unitarian and trying to figure out what you were doing with your life, and you were a young adult, you probably would end up at Meadville Lombard to become a minister!
I think that there always has been a throughline. I can look back at my life and see how beautifully it’s been woven, even though there are plenty of things in there I would never wish on anyone. That throughline with Second Unitarian was getting involved in social justice work there, being a youth advisor, doing young adult work, doing fundraising work, being in that kitchen, cooking stuff, making coffee, all those things, and then working in the anti-war movement at the time and having mentors in the congregation, all of that led to me wanting to be a minister.
There’s so much more that I could go on and on about. I had no idea what I was getting into. Coming to Meadville Lombard, first of all, I didn’t even know that there was this whole other fellowshipping process that happened with the UUA acting on behalf of congregations. People were talking about their paperwork and I had no idea what they were talking about. I’ll never forget hearing things that I didn’t want to hear about ministry and that it’s hard. A lot of the focus, then especially, was on parish ministry so that’s what I did.
I ended up doing parish ministry; I used every little bit of what I learned at Meadville Lombard for parish ministry in particular. I served a congregation in southwest Florida, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fort Myers. I was there for 11 years and got to meet a lot of wonderful people. The area of southwest Florida has no lack of need for a liberal religious presence. The work was never-ending, but I got involved in congregation-based community organizing. We were in Lee County — as in Robert E. Lee. That gives you a little taste.
There might be an assumption that UUs aren’t directly impacted by carceral systems. That is not true. It’s just that we don’t talk about it. You’ve got your coffee hour where, even on Zoom, the likelihood is to say, “Okay, I’m fine, everything’s fine, we’re doing good.” When I get to enter into these spaces and talk about the harms of carceral systems, people come back or email me later and tell their stories of being directly impacted, either being incarcerated themselves or having a loved one who was incarcerated. I think that’s really important to hold up.
There’s so much to say about that. Especially now that people are embracing the Eighth Principle, that really points us to taking note of the systems that are failing us. When I say “us”, I mean communities that want to be alive and whole, that want to have ways to respond creatively and with imagination to the fact that we harm each other as humans, that harms happen, and it could be different levels of harm. By saying that, I’m not saying that harm is okay. But when we skip over the fact that we do wrong as humans and we fail and mess up no matter at what level, then we’re losing an opportunity to learn and grow as humans, as communities, and as a society.
Some UU folks in Illinois had been reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and they were really activated by it. They also had a sense of fatigue about being in religious education classrooms, reading books about the ills of society, and then not doing anything with it. There was a particular sense of kismet where some different folks found each other. They understood that we needed to have a presence inside, that there was some toxic stuff going on beyond the injustices that one reads in a book, which are huge and laid out perfectly by Angela Davis in Are Prisons Obsolete? and by Michelle Alexander.
Our work at UUPMI is powerful because a lot of the spiritual care in prisons, at least in the experience I’ve had, and the experience that my predecessor had in the role, is LGBTQIA+-phobic. It is generally of a certain religious stripe in terms of who gets in, who gets the most access, and who gets to bring in donations. All of that is pretty much right-wing evangelical Christian. So the spiritual care that we provide is really, really basic.
There’s still a tremendous amount of brutality and violence and physical harm that happens in jails and prisons. The inside ministry that we’ve had access to in the past is at Cook County Jail. We have a men s circle and a women’s circle. Another prison that we were able to gain access to, and which took almost three years, is Logan Women’s Prison in Lincoln, Illinois. Those circles hopefully will begin running again soon.
We actually have a relationship with the Church of the Larger Fellowship. One of their amazing staff members sends us a list every quarter of people who have joined the Church of the Larger Fellowship who are in Illinois prisons. We get their names, they go on our list, they get our newsletter, whether or not they’ve been matched yet with a pen pal. After they get matched they will have a relationship with a pen pal, a Unitarian Universalist who’s on the outside and lives in Illinois somewhere. Those relationships are like any other relationship. They begin with introductions and you just see where it goes. For some people, it’s maybe a letter a month. For others, it can be phone calls, emails, video visits, in-person visits, sending money, and working on their clemency packets so that they could potentially be released at the mercy of the Illinois governor. Those relationships go where they will go, and we help facilitate those connections.
We also gather our pen pals together from the outside to talk about what's going on. We have a new project where we're slowly getting information about prison conditions in Illinois. They've been horrible of course, with COVID, and they're not getting better. It's almost like this new set point of hell for a lot of folks. The mitigation protocols are still very strict. They have restricted programming even more. The closer the prisons are to a city, the more likely they are to get some decent programming. But the further out they are, and many are in rural areas, the worse off it is. We facilitate these pen pal connections, but also work on advocacy through what the inside pen pals are telling us.
With permission, we’ll be able to share poems that people have written and reflections in our newsletters. To receive artwork! It’s a real gift to have that.
We also engage in ongoing work around learning about the prison industrial complex. We’ve done workshops about abolition and abolitionist work, engaging in practice around that and trying to develop an understanding of what an abolitionist vision is all about. The professor and social geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, “Abolition isn’t just about absence. It’s about the presence of life-affirming institutions.” We start to look at the world that we’re living in and see what is life-affirming, what is giving to the Spirit of Life right now in our world. So much of that is already happening.
I feel like things have been slowly shifting, even the idea of what it means to be welcoming. I’ve always really appreciated the hymn that goes, “we’re going to sit at the welcome table.” Understanding that that comes from a rich cultural history, including the Civil Rights movement, and the hymn is calling up not being able to sit at the counters and all of that historical oppression. What it also calls up for me and continues to challenge is, who’s doing the welcoming? I think that we are moving away from the model where there’s a “we” who is slowly opening the door for the others to come in and then not expecting for life to be different.
There is some potential for a more radical sense of not “inclusion” but just of finally waking up to the world as we really are, which is truly interconnected and bound up together. My liberation is bound up in yours, and yours, and yours, and yours. That understanding of finally welcoming ourselves to our interconnectedness.
I think Meadville Lombard has the opportunity to be part of the weaving of that story as an educational body. This wasn’t happening as much when I was at seminary, but I’ve seen it happening more, that there’s a constant state of practice going on that is really lived into. That’s what I hear is happening. It’s exciting to me. I like that the model is more integrated now. I think it offers a new way of ordering our lives around self-care. If we are in this, it’s a long haul. It’s finding that balance of answering the call, showing up, being in solidarity and all the ways that we feel called to be, and then also having an opportunity to rest, to integrate, to recharge, so that more regeneration can happen.
The other opportunity that Meadville Lombard has, because it’s an educational institution, is to continually allow us to expand the notions of what ministry is and to continually offer that the traditional church structure isn’t the only way anymore. It seems to me that Meadville Lombard is doing a lot of what I dream about, so there are parts of me that wish I was there now!
Rev. Allison Farnum is a Unitarian Universalist minister, serving as Executive Director of the Unitarian Universalist Prison Ministry of Illinois and an affiliated community minister at the Second Unitarian Church of Chicago. She returned to the Chicago area after over a decade serving her first call as minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fort Myers, FL. She has also served as an Adjunct Consultant for our UUA’s MidAmerica Region.