In the past few months, I’ve started volunteering with a local organization called Black & Pink (B&P). “Black & Pink is an open family of LGBTQ prisoners and “free world” allies who support each other. Our work toward the abolition of the prison industrial complex (PIC) is rooted in the experience of currently and formerly incarcerated people. We are outraged by the specific violence of the prison industrial complex against LGBTQ people, and respond through advocacy, education, direct service, and organizing.” I just joined the newly formed pen pal working group and it reminded me that I hadn’t talked to my first (and only) pen pal in a while. After connecting via Facebook Messenger, we had a recorded phone conversation/interview. This piece is an edited version of our conversation. Writing Miguel while he was on the inside was my first connection to the PIC and it started my interest in dismantling it. I hope that by supporting and connecting other folks to people in the system, a larger movement and stronger towards abolition is possible.
Lawrence: Will you introduce yourself and say a little bit about what you’re up to these days?
Miguel: My name is Miguel Cruz. At this time in my life, I’m presently a full time pastor, just became a dad on March 28 to a beautiful baby girl, and I’m trying to run two businesses of my own. My main passion and work is working with homeless communities down in Pompano Beach, Florida.
L: And you live in Pompano Beach?
M: Well, I really live inside a little city inside Pompano that’s called Lighthouse Point, but the zip code is the same so to make it easy I just say Pompano Beach.
L: Haha, got it. So. Do you remember how it was that you and I met for the first time?
M: I believe I recall when we first met… I was volunteering at the Blue House as they called it. It was a beautiful family that fed vegetarian meals to the homeless on Wednesdays. It was my first encounter and experience with healthy eating. I used to go there and volunteer to cook the vegetarian soups and meals. One day, while in the process of volunteering there, a group of students came in and you, Mr. Lawrence, was one of the students that happened to come in that morning!
L: Was that for breakfast brigade? Ha. I don’t even remember that!
M: It was! It was for breakfast brigade. We would all show up at 3:30a or 4am to get ready to hit the labor pools. And if you really endeavored into it, you’d really run into a lot of homeless people. You guys would provide that breakfast that was so essential for us.
L: Yup. Dang. Definitely taking me back down memory lane for a little bit.
M: Yea, it takes me back too! I actually can’t even believe I still remember so many days. I also reminisce and see where I’m at today and where I was back then and it’s such a long journey. But what a blessing, what a blessing. I wouldn’t trade anything in the world for the testimony that I have today.
L: I hear that. Alright, so do you remember why it was that we started writing each other?
M: Well, if my memory doesn’t play games with me, I recall writing you while I was in one of my incarcerated stints. And unfortunately, when you’re in jail, you burn so many bridges that, you know, you don’t have friends, your family doesn’t know anything about you, they don’t know where you’re at, or at least that was my story and it’s unfortunate. But we had established a friendship from the Blue House life and it had me want to do some changes which, you know, after I had that time out when I was incarcerated, I used to write you. You used to give me positive feedback. And to have someone you can share your thoughts, your pains, to know and hear your name called during mail call… it might seem like something insignificant to the majority of the population, but when you’re in that predicament to hear your name called and to get a letter, it makes a world of difference. It makes you feel like you’re still loved, at least by someone when you’re not even loving your own self.
If my memory doesn’t fail me, that was how we began to pen pal.
L: That sounds about right. Do you remember if I ever came to visit you? I know I visited Leroy [another friend and housemate of ours at the Blue House], but I can’t remember…
M: I don’t think we ever had a chance to do a visit. I know Johnny and Kelli [founders of the Blue House in Gainesville, FL] came to visit me, but I think you and me just connected over mail.
L: Was there anybody else that you were writing?
M: At that time? No. I was more indulging and doing and completing courses on Biblical studies. Well, I did have one other person I was writing. I had a friend who worked at Sister Hazel’s of Mercy Ministry over there in Gainesville and now she today is my wife and the mother of my daughter. I used to call her and I think we wrote one time. But you were my only actual regular pen pal.
L: Woahhhhh. I remember you telling me about her like way, way long ago.
M: Yea yea, I’m telling you! She definitely saw what God had in store for me when I couldn’t even see it. So I just thank God, as well as you, she just stayed faithful and continued to be my friend, how can I say… unconditionally. No matter how many mistakes I made in life, you and her were always genuine and sincere in your friendship. That’s the true definition of a friend; when no matter what, you’re there for them in the good and the bad.
L: Yup. Totally agree. Ok. Will you share with me a little bit about Cruz’n’Art?
M: Haha, Cruz’n’Art! I almost don’t even do that anymore! I tell you, it was a way of expressing myself. I always liked to draw. As a kid… well you probably don’t recall this and I’m gonna show my age here… but I remember when I used to get the DC comic books, there was this little thing in the back and you could enroll in drawing class. They had a little mouse that you could draw and you had to send it in to see if you had any talents. And I always would send it in but I would never get any advice back.
So I always liked to draw and it was just a passion in myself. I guess, you know, for you and for her, it was a way of reciprocating or showing my gratitude. To put the effort and the time into the drawings I drew, it’s not easy. It’s hard work. Art is hard, especially when you’re in those circumstances, but it was my thank you.
I’m glad you brought this up, though, because now I’m gonna do a little sketch of my daughter and put it in her room!
L: Definitely send me a photo of her and the sketch. Have you posted on Facebook? I don’t think I’ve seen her yet!
M: Yea, but just in the past week or so. You should go look; she’s my cover photo now!
L: I totally will.
Anyway, so part of the reason why I wanted to call you up and do this little interview is because I just joined an organization called Black & Pink and they do LGBTQ prison abolition work. One of the projects they have is a pen pal program and I’m really interested in starting a campus group to get students connected with people who are on the inside who want pen pals.
I have two questions for you related all that. One, how did having a pen pal impact you? I know you’ve said some about that already, but I’m wondering if there’s anything else you want to say. And two, do you have any advice for people who are starting pen pal relationships?
M: Ok well I’ll answer from both aspects, being on the inside and on the outside.
In order to be incarcerated, you’ve burned a bunch of bridges. Your family probably doesn’t want anything to do with you, if you had any friends, you used and abused them, and you’re all alone. Or at least that was my experience. And when you’re sitting in the room at mail call and you see residents or inmates getting mail and you don’t hear your name, that’s pretty devastating. It’s a reality check: “Wow, I’ve really been a horrible person. I don’t even get mail; people don’t write me.”
So to get mail it’s important. You know, I say it’s important for the simple reason that to a certain degree, it means you have someone that would take the time… because time for us as prisoners stops. But the world goes on; people keep moving forward in their lives but for us in prison it stops. You become a number and you do everything you’re told to do. So you have no contact with the outside other than a TV show that you may watch. So to have a pen pal and be able to write back and forth is a good thing. You’re able to express yourself, you get encouragement from them, and it keeps you grounded. It kept me grounded. I got to express my voice, my anguish, my fears, and I got feedback. And just to hear your name called, it’s like being a little kid getting a present on the day of Christmas when you weren’t expecting one. You’re so excited!
Now from the outside in, you also have to be cautious. Your intentions are to be encouraging and helpful and kind to the person that you’re penpalling with. But you also have to be cautious for the simple fact that… well, from my experience from being in there and seeing it in action, I would say quite a few pen pals on the inside want to steal money from you or it’s not a sincere relationship. Some people just have an ulterior motive. I would say to be cautious, but not used and abused.
But! It is so needed and what you’re trying to start and do, it’s fulfilling for you, but it’s so necessary for the inmates that want pen pals. I would encourage anyone who can to have one and you can count on me to support and do whatever you need to see you bring this project to fruition.
L: I’ll definitely let you know what would be helpful, if anything!
Ok. I only have a couple more questions… One is about what you’re up today. Can you say a little bit more about what you’re doing with the church and your businesses?
M: Absolutely. So with my businesses, I have a courier service here in Pompano and I also have a car repair service. I just started these businesses in January so there’s not much coming in, but the reason I started them is because I have a ministry and I’m a fulltime pastor. But on the side of that I have my own ministry. Because of where I come from and where I’ve been, I know how necessary it is to support people who are homeless. Whether you’re homeless by choice or by circumstances, you still have needs. You still need to eat and have clothes and more. But whatever the reason, that doesn’t negate the fact that you have a need. So my ministry meets people right where they’re at. We don’t judge, we don’t look down on nobody (well, unless it’s to pick them up!). We clothe, we feed, and I also pastor voluntarily at a local center that is an extension of the Miami Rescue Mission.
I also do some big events every year. Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, and my heart event is Love in Action. This will be my fourth year doing that one. By no fault of their own, there are children at a shelter (with their parents) that has space for ten different families. And, believe it or not, with those ten families, they have about 50 children in the shelter. Every year we get clothes and shoes and a toy for each kid. Their parents don’t have the means to give them a Christmas and they’re just in a really tough situation. So I collect clothes and shoes for kids from newborns to age 17, males and females. We collect shoes, pants, shirts, blouses, everything that kids can use. That’s the event that I put most of my effort into because kids are my heart. It’s not their fault they’re in the situation they’re in. There’s a website with pictures on it on Facebook.
And then for parents and the general population, I always carry care packages in my car. Every Saturday my church members and I, we go out and drive around, looking for the homeless. We bring hot food in styrofoam trays and give people meals, we pray for them, I give out the care packages that have toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, socks, water, snacks, you know, the essentials. And everything is done out of my wife’s and my income. I do ask for help and there’s not much that comes in, but everything that does come in is greatly appreciated. For everyone, but especially the kids, we’re always in need of personal hygiene items and clothes for people of all sizes. And we try to give people new clothes because we don’t like giving people used stuff. So that’s what I do throughout the whole year to reach out to whatever number of people I can reach. We also can take in non-perishables.
So yea, I do that every day. I take out three hours of the day and I drive around to different parks, passing out care packages and telling my story, too… That I once was homeless and addicted and that there’s a better way of life that they also can have if they really want it. You know, Christ was able to intervene and change my life.
But it’s not just about talking about people’s needs. You have to put the love in action and so that’s why we give out stuff, a meal, a care package, and the verbal affirmation that we love them. That’s what ministry is about: going to the widows and the homeless and helping the community abroad.
L: So if people who are reading this want to help out from afar, how would people do that?
M: Our PayPal account is at Paypal.me/unnuevoempezarmin. Our Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/nuevempz/ and there’s a donate button there. My personal phone number is 954-773-3931 and it’s on 24/7. You can always feel free to call and ask for Miguel Cruz. We do have a 501(c)3 so anything you choose to donate is tax-free, can be deductible, and I can give receipts.
If you want to write or send a money order or check made out to Un Nuevo Empezar Ministries Inc, you can mail stuff out to 321 NE 26th Street, Pompano Beach, FL, 33064. And 100% of the donations go into helping the homeless and homeless children.
L: Alright, Miguel. Is there anything else that you want to share or say that I didn’t ask you about or that we haven’t talked about yet?
M: Well, actually, I think we’ve covered all the bases, but I just want to encourage everyone as well as you, that gets involved with this pen pal program that it’s a great thing and they should really do it. You really don’t know how much impact sending those letters and encouraging words can have. So thank you! First to you for doing with for me and now for making this happen for so many others that are in need of it.
Photos and artwork provided courtesy of Miguel Cruz.