John is actively participating in helping ex-prisoners, veterans and homeless people. He has given them the opportunity to help with grounds work around the Unitarian Church, Friendship Fellowship at Pineda. John is a co-chair for Building and Grounds Committee there and he does a lot of work in that capacity, through Breathing Space.
In the talk, John shares how he became familiar with Friendship Fellowship at Pineda through a class he took there. He met Marshall Frank after reading an article of his and asked him to talk to him in more depth on the subject. They met at a restaurant and became friends. Marshall Frank, a retired homicide detective, says that he admires John Mandalas integrity.
John commences to speak about how a year ago from the day of his talk, he went to his first class at Friendship Fellowship. It was an Alternative to Violence workshop. They all had names which were adjectives to identify the person. Marshall was Marvelous Marshall and John decided that he was “just John”. A woman once corrected him and told him that “just John is a lot more than just John”.
John commonly closes an email this way, to this day.
According to John, the Alternative to Violence Project started as a result of a disastrous time in the prison system. Attica needed to be closed. This was a time when people needed to understand how society had changed for the better. It was time for society to recognize their treatment of prisoners. He mentioned how Martin Luthor King Jr had written some important letters from jail, how Nelson Mandela had become an anti-apartheid, political leader who eventually became the president of South Africa. These men were prisoners. They had worth. “Prison does something to you. It makes you think about who you are. What you are. Where you have been, where you are going. There are so many things to consider.” He asked the congregation if they cared about 500,000 prisoners coming home every year. “Do we care about an 85 % recidivism rate? Do we care that it costs 60 billion dollars to run the system? Do we care about how they are going to come home? Do we feel safer because we have so many people in prison?”
He quotes Fyodor Dostoyevsky “you can judge a society by how well it treats it’s prisoners”. This quote brings to mind two other similar quotes: Mahatma Ghandi once said “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats it’s weakest members” and Winston Churchill said that “you measure the degree of civilization of a society by how it treats its weakest members. There is a common theme among these wise men. Perhaps we should take a closer look.
Next John shares a very personal story with the congregation.“I took the life of another human being, which I carry with me for the rest of my life. I paid the debt to society. I served 20 years in prison, so now everything is okay, right? Nothing is okay, because in my heart, I carry that with me, until I am in my grave.”
“One day, I was sitting in a cell with two bunks and I was on the bottom bunk and there was a guy in the top bunk, and he was dying of AIDS. And I was trying to figure out ways that I could die. And he was trying to figure out ways that he could survive.”
He received a letter that day. “I was afraid to open the letter because it was from the sister of the woman I had killed. I had many thoughts; what does it say inside, it can only be negative.” Three hours later when the officer yells “lights out!”, John realizes that he has been sitting there the whole time, trying to figure out how this person could possibly have forgiven him. “To this day, I don’t know”
Then she came to visit and “I had hope. From that moment on, I realized that I wanted to do something with my life. I wanted to understand who I was.” He talks about a book he wrote. While in prison, he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and became a certified optician. Then a man offered him to pay for his master’s degree; the man was Bill Webber He gave him a price that was unbelievable. He said, “you are mine for the rest of your life and you will do good as I have done good to you”. 1996 when the US gov eliminated college programs from all prisons and penitentiaries in the United states. John went to Bill Webber and said, “If there are no more people with bachelor’s degrees, what good would a master’s degree be?” He said, “go fix it John.”
He then became involved with people who were trying to do positive things. Someone gave them an old copy machine that didn’t work well, and John started buying octopus oil so he could oil the chains of the machine. He couldn’t get regular oil for it. You could make a copy in the law library for ten cents. John kept the machine working and they charged per copy. Over ten years, they had $5000 to spend on a new machine, and with that new machine, they were able to make enough copies to start a college program that is privately funded and today its now in 5 different prisons.
At one point he raises a sea bean: “They all come in different shapes, different sizes. This sea bean floated for hundreds of miles, some of them float for a hundred years. The hope of the sea bean is to be broken open. If it is, and it is given the right nourishment, it can grow into a tree. It knows what to do. People get broken open. I was broken open and I was given the right nourishment and I was given what I needed to grow. I can see now that we are all connected together, we all have that “it”, whatever it is. So how do we, as a community, begin to reach out and shake a hand and say how can I help?”
At the time of this talk, John was running a little food truck every week, by the side of the road. He would use that to feed people and give them jobs to do. We believe in giving a hand up, not a hand out. If you can work, we can give people purpose. I have one guy that does nothing but chop wood and mop the floor. He has been living in the woods for two years in a tent “I have a reason to get up now every day.” This is exactly what Breathing Space is all about.