“Building relationships with people who are behind bars.”
Friending Rosie Respect on Death Row
Book Review by Jon M. Sweeney
Judith Wright Favor is a Quaker volunteer in prison ministry and a former UCC pastor and seminary professor. She has authored other books and has led programs on spiritual journaling, contemplative writing and listening, and composing a spiritual memoir for Spirituality & Practice.
Judith’s friend, Maria del Rosario Alfaro, is a mother, grandmother, artist, and California Death Row inmate. She is a first-generation American citizen, born in Anaheim to parents who came to the United States from the southwestern coast of Mexico to find jobs at Disneyland. Maria has been in prison since the age of eighteen, convicted of murder. Her life before prison was surrounded by drug and alcohol abuse, prostitution and crime, and domestic violence — and three-plus decades in prison haven’t been much better.
In Judith’s words, “This book is about friending in the Light, the art and practice of listening beyond labels for the is-ness of imprisoned persons who live under conditions of daily disrespect. It is about hearing what goes on in prison and maybe increasing your curiosity about getting to know other inmates in addition to Rosie. It is also an invitation to consider investing your own time, talent, tenderness, and treasure in reaching out to a lonely soul behind bars.”
Her hope is that you, too, may be inspired to reach out to one of the more than two million people in this country behind bars.
Judith and Maria’s relationship began by exchanging letters. Judith’s reaching out runs counter to human nature, because she says, “Humans have a long history of avoidance: we can come up with countless ways to hide unbearable truths from ourselves.” They exchanged letters and cards for twenty years. Then, a few years ago, they decided to tell their combined story in a book. Judith’s son had just died and some of the trauma of that experience was redeemed by a collaboration bringing Maria’s story to light.
Friending Rosie is not all about Rosie, and is not simply about what is happening to a woman on Death Row. The process of coauthoring a book with Maria brought up painful memories for Judith, too, from her relationships and her past. Readers of this joint memoir may have similar experiences.
Favor lives and writes in the Quaker spiritual tradition of listening, friendship, dignity, and respect. “Quaker friending is an active verb,” she explains. Later, she compares “friending” to a “steady heartbeat.” Referring to another core teaching of Quakerism she writes, “The Inner Light is the true author of this book.”
Favor explains in detail how respect is shown through the spiritual practices of showing up, self-care, expressing gratitude, deep listening, apologizing, forgiving, loving, playing fair, and trusting.
Together with Alfaro, Favor discusses images of God, and how these sometimes help, and sometimes hinder, their practice in the world. At one point, Favor explains, “The God I know is trustworthy and merciful, not the thunderous, punitive King feared by Rosie. My friend struggles mightily to trust God, self, and others because her soul was marked by persistent abuse.”
Some of the metaphors in the book become new forms of ancient spiritual practices — such as “Heartful Artfulness,” on creativity, and “Extreme Grace,” on the role human beings can and should play in each other’s lives.