Touched by an Angel
This woman does not have the word hate in her vocabulary. Jane Davis has seen it all, yet her eyes are still developing. The Atlanta-based social worker (although she would rather be called a healer) travels to death rows and prisons nation-wide. She has spoken internationally with people from all walks of life about alternatives to the death penalty. She is angelic.
Davis spent six months in 1997 traveling solo 13,000 miles throughout the United States, speaking about HOPE-HOWSE, the grassroots organization that she started in 1994. She describes HOPE-HOWSE as a not-for-profit organization with a mandate - which makes up the acronym HOPE-HOWSE - to Help Other People Evolve through Honest, Open and Willing Self-Evaluation. The message of her tour: Come out as a human being.
Four years before this trip, Davis had witnessed an electric chair execution in Georgia. She is unable to speak about it without tears. "I didn't want to witness it but felt because I was asked by the Georgia Department of Corrections to be a media witness - I was a contributing writer to Prison Life magazine - that there was a bigger reason, something that I was not aware of.
"What I witnessed was all the social ills in the world. I didn't see a political issue. I witnessed a manifestation of the sickness of our current society. This was evil." The event changed her life. "That isolated event of watching a human being fried ... I guess what I felt so deeply in my soul, as a result of that, was the very essence of 'Love thy neighbor as thyself' or 'There, but for the grace of G-d, go I.' HOPE-HOWSE, a spiritual action, was birthed from my witness: to educate, connect, and create harmony, and to serve as a strong antidote to the negative, hateful energy that many use to justify an act of horror."
The middle child of three, Davis is writing a book on her experiences. "It's not about me; it's about the message. When we can overcome the fear and be humbled by our human reality, it is in that connection that something deep and magical happens. There has to be a reason why G-d has put me in all these almost bizarre, unbelievable, seemingly unrelated scenarios of life and humanity."
As a child, Jane visited an old age home in Kingston, New York, where she lived. She'd sit with the residents and listen. While other six-year-olds spent time playing with their friends, Davis instinctively knew one thing - that the act of showing up for another human being was important. "There was a man [at the old age home] whom they would put outside and tie in a chair. Otherwise, he would wander. He would wail when he was tied up. I'd go over and sit by his feet and he would be quiet. I don't know what led me there to begin with."
Davis grew up with an Orthodox Jewish mother and a Reform father. She has two sisters: Karen, a producer based in Miami, and Nancy, a wife and mother of two and an advertising sales executive in New York City. The 45-year-old Davis has remained single.
Even though Davis hated school, she continued with it. She majored in cultural anthropology as an undergrad and received her masters degree in family therapy from Washington University in St. Louis.
She held social work jobs in St. Louis and New York and worked on a program at the Rahway State Prison. "The first time I set foot in a prison, I met with members of the Scared Straight program - which introduces young people to prisoners in the hopes that by viewing first hand life in prison, it would discourage them from chosing a life of crime. I was part of a national panel [to help evaluate the program and see how we might be able to bring it to other prisons]. The prisoners had come up with the idea of the program. All of a sudden, these weren't murderers. I was talking to a human being who was sharing his life, what he had done, how he coped with it, and what he was doing from inside the walls to help better himself, other convicts, and the kids.
"I don't remember being really fearful, but I'm sure fear was part of it. I didn't know what to expect; it's possible I was a little numb."
She embraces her fears and helps other people go to it, not away from it. "It's in that, that we find G-d and faith. Faith and fear cannot co-exist in the same nanosecond."
She found prisoners to be the same everywhere. Davis believes that drugs, alcohol, and abuse are tremendous factors in determining people's behavior, whether inside prison or out. "Rage is rage. We have to look at the individual, not at the broad category."
"I believe that we live in a society based on facades, comfort, false security, and hiding secrets. So many people are living with shame. When someone's abused, there's so much shame involved that they can't speak about it. That energy gets [trapped within] a human being. I think that much of what causes someone to murder or do whatever is alcohol, abuse, as well as society's fault for not allowing people to speak their truths." Davis understands this first-hand, as she herself is a recovering alcoholic. That is why today she takes it one day at a time.
She wakes at 3 A.M. At that time, she meditates, writes, drums, plays the flute, and reads. "It's my time and the most energizing of the whole day." She retires between 8 and 10 P.M. and sometimes naps for fifteen minutes during the day.
"One thing I try not to say is: I'm too busy for you.... After I witnessed the execution, I wanted to tell rabbis. They were always too busy; they didn't want to hear. Part of me wanted to sling Judaism away.... I never found my spirit in Judaism. I found it in nature, animals, and people. You went to Hebrew school or to synagogue for the High Holidays, but there was so much gossip about who was there and wearing what, who did this and that - that was Judaism [for me at that time]. I did find G-d in the Shema and when I light the Shabbat candles." Davis has brought Shabbat to the prisons.
Ultimately, Davis connected to three rabbis whom she found on the Internet. Unfortunately, in early December, she lost her strongest connection [ally]. Her dear friend, 44-year-old Rabbi Yosef "YY" Kazen, co-founder of the Chabad-Lubavitcher Web site, passed away. Davis dropped everything to attend his funeral in New York. "I felt him in the sky when I meditated this morning."
She has a clear picture of facing death row residents. "Death is something that we all struggle to come to terms with. These people are living in a world where they have a date with death. Their life is about death and they all deal [with it] in different ways. Death row can be one of the ugliest places in the world, but the level that many of the prisoners [I've worked with] have achieved spiritually is almost a state of nirvana, an acceptance of death that people out here [outside] strive to achieve. Overall, it's a horrible place. But each death row has its own personality."
There is no subject too common [mundane] for Davis and her prisoners. "It could be something as trivial as: Did you see a baseball game? What I bring is a sense of normalcy to a place that is not normal. What I bring is an open ear and an open heart. I don't speak with them any differently than I'd speak with you....when people start to share their human honesty, the whole concept of 'them' and 'us,' breaks down."
Davis devotes her life to her calling. "Fun is defined differently now. Do I ever take time off? No. Even if I was skiing it wouldn't leave."
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