The subject was Arpaio's heavily publicized chain-gangs-burying-the-indigent-and-learning-a-valuable-lesson-while-saving-taxpayer-dollars shtick. On March 14, the first such chain-gang burials had provided the sheriff with a terrific photo opportunity.
But Arpaio hadn't banked on the Ecumenical Chaplaincy for the Homeless expressing its disdain for the presence of shackled prisoners, armed guards and a press entourage during the weekly burials at Maricopa County's potter's field.
The unexpected backlash turned the one-day event into a bona fide controversy.
The ministers at the Reverend John Heck's Phoenix home were among those who have voluntarily performed funeral services at the county cemetery since 1988. They were deciding how to respond to Arpaio at the next public burial at 160th Avenue near Camelback Road.
"It's like we are being caught in Sheriff Joe's media trap," said the Reverend Gerald Roseberry, a retired Presbyterian minister who founded the homeless chaplaincy years ago. "We have to let the public know that the way this guy wants to do things out there defines bondage and condemnation."
After more than an hour of intense discussion, the woman in the long dress finally spoke up.
"There's just one reason for this program," said Marcia Cartwright. "For someone to die and to be buried alone is too painful. I felt God's love should be represented there through the clergy. It should be a time of respect and of peace, not of violence and neon jump suits."
"Thank God that Marcia has put things into perspective," the Reverend Roseberry said. "That's what we're trying to say."
The meeting ended with a prayer from the Reverend Heck.
"Help us be patient with those who think about things differently than we do," he prayed. "And, Lord, please help us remember why we are here, what we are doing, about whom we are serving."
Actually, Cartwright--who works as a manicurist at a beauty salon--herself "got things started" at the potter's field. Why she did provides a stark contrast to the self-aggrandizing sheriff and his public relations team.
"Some ladies were talking at the shop [around 1988] about a guy who had gotten murdered and was buried alone at some county cemetery," she recalls. "They were saying that nobody had been there, and that made me want to cry. I kept thinking about it, and I decided to look into what the story was."
For years Cartwright had been a volunteer for a Catholic social-services agency, an effort, she says, of "consciousness raising about people who are alone and in trouble."
Several phone calls led her to the county public fiduciary, which is responsible for burying the indigent. Officials there described the program, which has used inmates--not chain gangs--on and off to bury the dead since 1952.
Cartwright then contacted a clergyman who agreed to preside at the weekly services. But she says he fell short of his promise, which led to the next step.
"I told myself, 'You gotta do something,'" she says. "'It's pitiful for people to get buried alone.' I got out the Yellow Pages and started calling churches and temples near Tempe. I got about 15 or 20 clergy of many denominations to volunteer, and a deacon, Richard Herrmann, to keep things organized. The folks at the fiduciary's office were very agreeable."
Cartwright took Herrmann's place a few years ago, after the longtime potter's field in Tempe filled and the new one in the northwest Valley opened. Everything was going fairly smoothly, she says, until Arpaio and his minions usurped control.
"That first week [March 14]," she explains, "we told the Sheriff's Office that the burials were gonna be canceled because it was rainy and muddy out there. The office said no, that the burials were to go on as scheduled. Was that because they had the cameras ready to be there? It's like he just took over the cemetery."
Cartwright adds that she continues to feel a deep responsibility to the deceased indigent--"to the babies, the poor, the forgotten, to everyone who ends up out there for whatever reason."
(Arpaio's original statement about the sole clientele at the potter's field--"Crack addicts, criminals, people whose lives have come to nothing"--was spurious. Almost two thirds of the 331 people buried at the county cemetery from January 1, 1995, through March 14, died of natural causes or were infants, according to the public fiduciary.)
Cartwright says she won't quit working on behalf of the deceased indigent, whatever happens next at the cemetery.
"In this situation," she says, "you have to be especially humble with people who aren't humble. And this sheriff we have been dealing with is definitely not humble.