In a thoughtful and chivalrous gesture, my hosts presented every woman in the audience with handmade paper roses. I plan to keep mine for a long time.
My hosts were thirty-some-odd men with roots in those regions, including
and Native Americans.
For three hours, they put on quite a show.
They beat drums.
They wore traditional costumes.
They presented gifts to their guests.
They served us heaping plates of delicious cultural foods.
They spoke with eloquence and passion and deep pride about their homelands.
They told us, time and again, that family is always the most important thing.
And many of the men made a point to connect with me personally. They introduced themselves, shook my hand, hugged me, thanked me for coming. They politely served me my food, cleared away my plate, and looked after my comfort.
All of this was beautiful and moving and eye-opening for me.
* * * * *
But what touched me most deeply was what I saw between the men themselves.
Together, they had planned this event for months, practicing dance moves to perfection, rehearsing songs, hanging decorations, laying out the sequence of events, arranging for photographs, and publishing a program.
And for all the tensions that normally arise in a group that plans this kind of endeavor, I saw no traces.
I saw a group of men with an easy and comfortable camaraderie.
There was much joking and banter, often with a well-informed undercurrent of politics and current events.
There were affectionate nicknames
There were endless hugs and fist bumps and hand shakes and back slaps between them.
And for all the program's formal design, there was also a sweet sense of spontaneity and improvisation and joy that showed just how much these men know and trust and respect each other.
Usos. That's what they call each other. The Samoan word for brother.
And as I watched these men clean up after the event, say their farewells to their guests, and line up to be strip searched, my heart burned with the intensity of the bond they share and I thanked God for the gift of their brotherhood.
They are truly brothers to one another and now I feel that, in some small way, they are my brothers too.
* * * * *
These men are all serving time in a high security unit at Washington State Penitentiary.
Our society calls them a lot of different names
Dangers to society
But I simply call them my brothers.