Creating unexpected connections at W83 Ministry Center

The portraits are stunning: eighteen formerly incarcerated women, all given sentences of up to life in prison, photographed in the rooms they call their own now that they are free again.

Photographer Sara Bennett, a former public defender, first picked up her camera as a way to give one of her pro bono clients a face and a voice in a system that had reduced her to a name, number and rap sheet. But it led to a new vocation. Her first major photography exhibit, Life after Life In Prison, documented the lives of several formerly incarcerated women in the months after they were released after long sentences. The Gallery at W83 showed Life After Life in 2016, and welcomed her current show, The Bedroom Project, with an opening in November and a panel conversation with the artist this December.

Bennett’s work as an artist is never just about her eye for a good shot. It’s always about giving a voice to her subjects. And in both W83 shows, she has invited her subjects into the conversation to share their own stories.

One guest at Bennett’s December 4 panel discussion surprised even Bennett. As W83’s Uri Frazier moderated the discussion between Bennett and two of the women she had photographed, a man in the crowd stood up. “My name’s Jim,” he announced. “I just came home two months ago. I did forty three years in prison.”

Instantly, Bennett knew who he was. Although she no longer works as a public defender, she still receives a handful of messages from people in prison, asking for legal help. Usually, even if she can’t help them, she at least offers them the dignity of a reply.

Jim had written her several years ago. But when she first got his message, she was already overwhelmed by another case she’d been working on. She dropped the letter in the trash.

But then something began to tug at her heart. Days later, she fished the letter back out. And this time, she read it. Jim wrote that he’d been in prison since he was eighteen. With a sentence of 18 years to life, and a record of good behavior, he should have been released around age thirty-six. “But by the time he wrote to me, he was almost sixty,” Bennett says.

Touched, she told him she’d see what she could do, then connected him with lawyers who took his case on and worked with him until he was finally released, this year.

“I feel like my piece was so small,” Bennett says. But Jim saw it as key. She was the first one who had taken the time to listen to his story. And done something about it. “Because of this woman right here,” he told the crowd gathered in the gallery, “I’m free.”

But the two of them had never met in person. So he had come to her event at the Gallery at W83. “I wanted to see you in person and thank you,” he told Bennett before hurrying home to make his parole curfew. “I’m glad I could thank you publicly, in front of everybody.”

W83 Ministry Center’s mission is to provide opportunities for real connection, between viewers in a gallery and the women who gaze back at them from their portraits, between members of the church and members of the neighborhood: a space for the incredible diversity of voices on the Upper West Side and beyond to come together in conversations that provoke real change, both in our hearts and in the world.

W83 has hosted a wide range of events this year, with guests from Mako Fujimura to John Cleese, art openings and talks, concerts, galas, youth groups, mom’s groups, men’s groups, food programs, and language programs. And we’ve hosted gatherings and celebrations for Redeemer West Side’s members and many of our neighbors, including schools and universities, synagogues, and the NYPD.

Along with a handful of other innovative churches around the country, we’ve been conducting an experiment in how urban churches can use our unique spaces to bless and activate our communities and our congregations. We hope our experiments will lead us, and perhaps others, into possibilities we’re only beginning to imagine.

But every time we open our doors to welcome our community, the moments we’re most grateful for are moments like the one we saw when Jim got to his feet to greet Sara for the first time since he’d been set free: surprising, meaningful connections between people.



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