The Blessing is Outside your Comfort Zone

“The blessing is outside your comfort zone.”  I recently heard this quote on a podcast about the spiritual practice of running.  But this truth extends beyond the topic of physical exercise.

A month ago, I was escorted to a classroom in the men’s maximum-security prison twenty minutes from my home. I was there to teach a class to fourteen inmates on the meaning and importance of empathy for healthy, human relationships.  The class was part of a research program funded by New York University to offer support and resources to the incarcerated and hopefully reduce the rate of recidivism.  Ten of us at my college have volunteered to develop and teach a liberal arts, literature-based curriculum as part of this program.

As I prepared for the class, I felt anxious about the teaching and about how I would be received.  From the volunteer training, I expected to meet murderers and sex offenders as well as men serving unreasonable, unjust sentences for minor drug charges.  I expected the men to come from lives and backgrounds vastly different than my own.  I expected the majority of the inmates to be black and brown—because these are the people we incarcerate in America today.  (I was right, there was only one white man in the class of fourteen.)  I expected that I would have to win them over and earn their respect, in spite of what seemed like huge relationship obstacles.

But when I arrived, early, they were already in the classroom at their desks.  I decided not to sit behind the large teacher’s desk at the front of the room, but rather sit at a student’s desk in a circle among them.  One of the inmates didn’t like the rickety desk I had chosen to sit in, so he stood up and insisted I take his because, as he told me, it was better.  We went around the room and introduced ourselves and I asked them to share why they were interested in the class.  Their answers varied a little, but every man shared that he wanted to better himself, wanted to learn, and wanted to give back to his family, his community and his society.

The men devoured the literature I had given them to read.  I asked them to read one chapter of a book and instead they read the whole book.  And when the class was over, every single inmate, before leaving, took a moment to shake my hand, look me in the eye, and say, “Thank you for coming. Thank you for teaching us.” Clearly, I had an amazing experience teaching this class full of engaged, thoughtful, respectful men who, I discovered, defied many of my expectations and assumptions.

I’ve been back to the prison many times now to teach.  It’s never comfortable going there.  I have to leave my cell phone in the car, cutting me off from communication with the outside world. (This is terrifying.) To get to the classroom I have to walk through multiple large metal doors that open as I approach, then close and lock behind me. (Prison is no place for the claustrophobic.) But the men I meet there, the stories I hear, the meaningful conversations we have and the pain I feel when the class is over, knowing they will go back to a small shared cell with paint peeling off the walls, is worth traveling twenty minutes down the road where the blessing lies outside my comfort zone.

[Feature Image: Mitchell Haindfield]

Visiting the Prisoner

4420998173_2cc850dfdb_oTwo Sundays ago, I preached for my alma mater’s homecoming worship service. In this sermon I talked about how Christ calls us to people and places outside our spaces of affluence and comfort, to those who are invisible and insignificant in society, to those we would not think to go to ourselves if there were not some spiritual force pulling us (or even pushing us) in that direction.

Then, last week, I came across a video from The Work of the People where Dr. Christena Cleveland discusses the “Gospel of Individualism,” or when people see their own resurrection as distinct from, separate from everyone else’s resurrection. What’s the point of being Christian, Cleveland challenges, if your resurrection is separate from everyone else’s? If you believe the Gospel can transform the world, then how does your relationship with God take you outside of yourself and your personal world? How does your relationship with God transform the world of others?

Finally, a Christian Century article by prison chaplain Chris Hoke, just did me in with these words of challenge:

America leads the world in incarcerating its own people. Almost two and a half million human beings are locked away in mass social tombs, an overstuffed underground beneath our society. They are not physically dead like Lazarus, of course, but philosopher Lisa Guenther calls it “social death”—cut off from loved ones, family, and their children. Huge geographic distances, dozens of thick walls, and expensive phone calls seal these men and women off from the land of the living. They are effectively dead to society.

What if every church wrote to, adopted, and received just one prisoner? Two things would happen. We would empty the prison system, and every church would be changed.

A church has just about everything someone just out of prison needs: rides, friends, prayer, child care, employment connections, lawyer references, teachers, rental opportunities, lawnmowers, people to stand alongside you at custody court and neighborly misunderstandings, and a used car that runs. We could call the movement “One Parish, One Prisoner.”’

Hoke’s article arrived in my email feed while dropping my kids off at school.  After opening it, I moved my car to a quiet spot in the school’s parking lot so I wouldn’t be in anyone’s way while I read. Hoke’s passion captivated and inspired me. So when I got to my office, I did something I had been meaning to do for five years since moving to Monmouth. I looked up the phone number for the men’s prison fifteen miles from where I live, called and asked to speak to the chaplain. His name is Manuel and he has served the inmates of my local prison for eighteen years. We scheduled a time for me to visit the prison next Thursday so we could meet in person and discuss ways we could partner in ministry.

I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t anxious about venturing down this road towards the incarcerated. The night after I scheduled this Thursday’s visit I had a nightmare that a riot broke out while I was in the prison. But mostly,  I’m excited.  Excited because I expect to meet Jesus behind those bars.  I’m pretty sure he’s the one who keeps calling me to go.

[Feature Image: Dave Nakayama]

In Need of Jubilee: Reflecting on Mass Incarceration

5913375744_009d6a1788_oBy 7:30am, my six students and I were on our first of two buses that would take us across town to the southeast neighborhood of Washington, D.C.  We were proud of ourselves for catching the right buses and making the hour and fifteen minute commute successfully.  No small feat for anyone trying to get to a program or a job on time—especially a minimum wage job that one might lose if he or she showed up late. Once we got off our last bus we saw the church, Saint Xavier Catholic, where the job-training program would be held that we had come to observe.  We followed a few people into the church’s fellowship hall feeling self-conscious that we had not come out of need.  But we were greeted warmly by the program’s leaders and introduced to a fellowship hall full of adults as a college group here to learn and observe.

The program was called “Jubilee Jobs.”  This faith-based program was founded to help recently released prisoners connect with employers who would hire them.  The term “jubilee” comes from Leviticus 25, where a year of Jubilee, or a year of Sabbath, is mandated for the Hebrew people.  During this year the crops would lie fallow in order to rejuvenate the land.  The people would be rejuvenated too through communal practices that would ensure economic and social equity.  Property that had been loaned would be returned. Debts would be forgiven.  Prisoners and slaves would be set free.  The year of Jubilee would begin with a trumpet call on the Day of Atonement—a day of making amends.

As I learned more about our nation’s issue of mass incarceration, it became clear that there are little to no opportunities for atonement, debt forgiveness, or freedom for those who have been incarcerated.  Even after people have served their time, we stack the deck of life against them. Ex-felons are barred from public housing, food assistance, access to drug treatment, job opportunities, and, in many states, the right to vote.  All this makes it very difficult to succeed as a newly released citizen if you are poor and lack resources for support. Statistics show that within three to five years of being released 60-70% of ex-felons end up back in prison.

5064358491_3ca18b820e_oThe more I learned about mass incarceration in preparation for our trip to Washington, D.C. the more disturbed I became.  It was uncomfortable to learn that there are currently 2.3 million people incarcerated in my country with 6 million more on probation or parole.  These numbers have skyrocketed since 1997 when only 200,000 people were incarcerated in the United States.  It’s stunning to recognize that in this land of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” we incarcerate more people (by far) than any other industrialized nation.

Even more disturbing is the fact that the majority of those incarcerated in the United States are people of color.  Currently, black males have a 32% chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives.  Latino men have a 17% chance and white men have a 6% chance.

Why has our prison system expanded so rapidly?  For a full and thoughtful analysis, I recommend Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in a Age of Colorblindness. But the War on Drugs, which began under the Reagan administration (and has been supported by every administration thereafter), has been a major reason for our expanded system of incarceration.  The War on Drugs set policies that incentivized police departments to get tough on drug crime.  Federal money and military-style equipment has poured into local police departments to encourage drug arrests.  And even though drugs are abused in all communities, no matter the racial or economic makeup, poor communities of color were (and are) targeted for these military-style raids.  In studying this issue we must be honest with ourselves.  If SWAT teams broke into wealthy, white suburban homes, terrorizing elderly women and innocent children, we’d be protesting the injustice.  So poor communities of color are targeted instead.

The War on Drugs also instituted extreme, racially biased sentencing for minor charges.  We heard story after story of people being sentenced for 15 to 20 to sometimes even 30 years for minor drug charges.  We learned about judges who knew their sentences were unjust, but whose hands were tied by the law.  One law, in particular, was mind-blowing in its injustice.  Up until 2010, a conviction of 500 grams of powder cocaine triggered a mandatory sentence of five years in prison while a conviction of 5 grams of crack cocaine triggered the same five-year mandatory sentence.  What’s the difference between powder and crack cocaine?  What’s the reason for this 100:1 sentencing disparity?  The only difference is that wealthier, white people typically abuse powder cocaine. Poor, people of color typically abuse crack cocaine.

Our trip was not without hope, though.  We learned how, in 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity between offenses for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1.  We also learned about the Sentencing Reform Act – currently waiting for Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to bring it to the Senate floor for a vote– that makes the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, allowing those convicted before 2010 to be resentenced under the 18:1 ratio.  Our group met with Senator Dick Durbin’s (D-IL) office to thank him for his leadership in these criminal justice reforms.  We also met with Congresswoman Cheri Bustos’ (D-IL) office to ask for her support of the bill when it comes to the House of Representatives.  We are even planning a trip to Senator Mark Kirk’s (R-IL) office in Chicago to ask for his support.  One of the empowering lessons we learned was that we can make a difference when we advocate on these issues to our political representatives.

The fellowship hall at Saint Francis Xavier Catholic Church was full of people, all African Americans, many with criminal records.  An older man sat next to me with grey-speckled hair, dressed in a smart tweed sport coat and tie.  Another younger man sat in front of me dressed in slouchy blue jeans, a chain hanging from his pocket, a beanie on his head. A young woman juggled a baby in her arms while she tried to listen.

The program began with speeches made by two African American leaders, George and Jacquelyn, about how Jubilee Jobs worked.  Then the founder got up to speak—a tiny white woman named Terry Flood.  At first the people gathered were only half paying attention to this tiny woman speaking softly and kindly.  I couldn’t blame them.  Why should they trust her?  But then Ms. Flood paused to survey the room.  After taking a few breaths, the tone of her voice grew earnest and she said this:

I want you to know that we at Jubilee Jobs believe that everyone comes here with a core of goodness.  Your past is your past.  You may have made some mistakes or taken some missteps, or had some bad things happen to you along the way. But that’s all in the past now.  Today is a new day.

Her words brought tears to my eyes.  Not only because of the respect she held for all the people gathered in that room and all they had been through.  But also because of the change this respect created. Suddenly everyone was paying attention.  People sat up straighter.  The room grew quiet and still.  A sense of trust arose—as if the people gathered, people desperate for a job and a way to improve their lives—suddenly believed that it was a new day.

My prayer for all of us, and for a nation in need of Jubilee, is that this can be a new day for people to be free.


[Feature Image: Tim]


Protecting our Hopefulness

Just_Mercy_Stevenson_Bryan_002 (1)_0I just returned from a trip to Washington DC where six students and I studied the issue of mass incarceration.  I will write more about this trip soon, but for now I just want to highlight the inspiring work of Bryan Stevenson.  Stevenson is a lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor, the wrongly condemned, and those trapped in the furthest reaches of our criminal justice system.  Stevenson’s book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption details his journey into this work beginning with one of his first cases, defending Walter McMillian, a young man sentenced to die for a notorious murder he did not commit.  I highly recommend this book as well as a number of videos where you can hear Stevenson speak.  In this 45 minute video you can hear Stevenson talk about “Confronting Injustice.”  At about the 20 minute mark he talks about the importance of “protecting our hopefulness.”  Here’s a little of what he says:

If we are going to create more justice in the world, we have to protect our hopefulness. Injustice is a direct consequence of hopelessness. Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists. When I go into a courtroom and I see a hopeless judge and a hopeless prosecutor and a hopeless defense attorney, I know that there is going to be a bad outcome. When I go into a school system and see hopeless teachers trying to deal with hopeless sets of rules, I am very worried about the future of our children. When I go into communities and hear people talking about issues but I hear them giving in to the despair and hopelessness that oftentimes emerge because things get complicated, I get very worried. The complexity of the world can oftentimes make us hopeless about what we can do. We have to be curious and understand the complexities of issues, but we also have to protect our hopefulness because we cannot move forward without hope. We cannot create more opportunities for justice without hope.

I encourage you to get to know Stevenson’s work.  Learning more about our country’s urgent need for criminal justice reform will disturb and challenge–the stories of injustice are heart wrenching.  But, as Stevenson shares with us, we have good reason to hope, because through hope we find our way forward to justice.