Presenting visual and performance art in unexpected public spaces.

AiOP 2016: RACE Thinker in Residence: John Bethell

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Though this year’s festival may be over, there are still those who have its works and impacts on their minds.  Our Thinkers in Residence each went out during the festival days and engaged with the artists, the works, the public, and the street.  They had their own reactions and interpretations of what they saw and experienced.  As we look forward to 2017, let us take the time to look back on what these Thinkers thought and read their perspectives on this year’s festival.

Thinker in Residence: John Bethell

John Bethell was born and raised on Staten Island. He spent five years as an Arabic translator in the Navy. He earned his Master’s of Divinity from the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in Manhattan and was the first openly gay priest ordained in South Carolina. He currently serves as the chaplain at a high security Federal prison in West Virginia. He is the son of an Albanian immigrant and a Connecticut Yankee. He gets his eyes from his grandmother.


When someone has been found guilty of committing a crime serious enough to warrant prison time, there are a lot of things lost upon entering our penal system. The government arrests control of so much from inmates that we normally wouldn’t think about. Their right to privacy dissolves, unless it’s a meeting with a lawyer who will, in all likelihood, share no news. A schedule tells them when to eat and breakfast comes before God wakes up. They don’t decide who their cellmate is and the uniform of the day is khakis and sweats, khakis and sweats.

Thanks to that pesky First Amendment, however, there’s one thing they can own: their religious affiliation. For some, the religion they knew on the street is the one they carry into the system. There is a hierarchy of heinousness in here. Those guilty of the more socially-repugnant sexual crimes may find their assumed community will not break bread with them and so form their own, carving out an hour of Sabbath rest for themselves, understanding sanctuary in a whole new way, and learning how to be Buddhist, or practice Santeria, or whatever religion wasn’t well-attended enough to kick them out.

An Albanian, in Federal prison since his homeland was Communist, may boldly check—or have checked for him—the box marked “No Preference” but soon discover Odinism, though he could come to find out that the adherents to this Norse Neopaganism enjoy praying to towheaded, fair-skinned gods for a reason: many of them are suspected of being members of the Aryan Brotherhood. We all want our Jesus to look like us.

Since Native reservations are under Federal jurisdiction, crimes requiring a stint in prison mean Federal prison time. Because of this, there are a decent number of Native Americans in our system. Native American is both a faith and a people. A religion and a race. Like Judaism, the practice forms the culture and shapes the community. It’s here, in the Subset C of Native American that I ran into my first trans-racial inmate. His family is from Vietnam and I forget what he did to get here. I generally avoid looking that up as I feel the chaplain should be dispassionate, but the concern for personal safety sometimes wins out.  He has been a recognized member of the Native group, participating in their weekly sweat lodges and pipe ceremonies, learning the old songs and beating the drum. He’s taken such ownership of his relatively new identity that when threatened with a small schedule disruption, he was the most vocal one, upbraiding me for disrespecting his religion and the free exercise thereof. While I was doing no such thing, any whiff of change is met with fierce opposition as a steady schedule helps them mark the passing of time and weeks become mantras that are chanted until it’s time to go home.

There’s a seeming dissonance when you walk out into the yard where the fire is burning and the buffalo skull points the way to the sweat lodge: among the circle of Native Americans you’ll see an Asian. Then you’ll remember that those who were here ab origine (Latin for “from the beginning”) came, for the most part, from Asia. They’re standing next to their cousin. It’s a family reunion, twenty-thousand years in the making.

The Rev. John C. Bethell
Chaplain – FCC Hazelton

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