“The core challenge to ending mass incarceration is dispelling the myth that some of us are not worthy of genuine care, concern, and compassion.” – Michele Alexander, author The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
How do I, as a Christian, feel about my own family member or someone I know who is incarcerated? Why do we feel this way about those who commit crimes in our communities? What are we afraid of and why? How do we as a community move beyond denial? What do the scriptures (John 20:23) tell us about our behavior?
These are just some of the difficult questions that representatives from eleven churches in the Northern Illinois Conference wrestled with recently as they gathered to explore ways that their congregations can do the healing work of reconciliation and transformation among those who have caused harm, those who have been harmed, and the larger community. The training was led by Doug Walker National Director for Criminal Justice Reform of the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church.
Among the over thirty persons present at the “Healing Communities Training,” all, save one, acknowledged that they have been personally touched by the prison system or crime. This is significant because it reveals that is highly likely that, on any given Sunday, sitting in the pews of your church there is someone (perhaps a member or family member) who is among the approximately 7 million people under the control of the criminal justice system, works within the system, or have themselves been a victim of a crime. It does not matter whether your church is urban, suburban, town/rural, we are all impacted. Beyond the staggering statistics that were shared, deeply personal stories were shared as well and served as a reminder to those gathered that “these are our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and community members. They are also our children.”
It also reveals that our criminal justice system is broken. Over 47 million Americans have a criminal record and with less than five percent of the world’s population the U.S. holds twenty-five percent of the world’s population that are behind bars. Over 2.2 million persons are currently incarcerated in prisons, jails, and youth detention centers in the United States (a 500% increase over the past thirty years) making ours the highest rate of incarceration in the world. In addition, another 4.5 million people in the U.S. are under the control of the criminal justice system (probation or parole) each year. In Illinois alone nearly seventy thousand youth and adults are incarcerated and twice that number are on probation or parole and tens of thousands of our fellow citizens return from periods of incarceration. In the state of Illinois the criminal justice system has become a billion dollar industry. It is a system that is in need of transformation as are the societal conditions that lead to criminalization, crime, and levels of incarceration that are unprecedented in human history.
Perhaps one of the most difficult questions for participants was, “What then shall we do?”
Healing Communities suggests one important step is to embrace the ministry of Jesus who said, “God’s Spirit is on me; he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, Sent me to announce pardon to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind. To set the burdened and battered free, to announce, ‘This is God’s year to act!’” and to believe that same Spirit is on us, too! Affirming God’s call upon our lives, as individuals and as the body of Christ, should then lead us to action (or more appropriately, actions).
Healing Communities training is not a program but rather a framework for congregations, beginning where they are, to wrestle with these questions, embrace the ministry of Jesus and to develop action plans based on their congregation’s strengths and their ministry context and upon implementation of their plans as a result become “Stations of Hope.”
- Seeks the engagement of congregations in the work of reducing the stigma and shame of being personally involved in a criminal justice case or having a family member arrested and imprisoned.
- Seeks a welcoming environment in the church that will encourage people to acknowledge that they are affected by the criminal justice system.
- Seeks to heal communities.
To learn more about Healing Communities Training in the Northern Illinois Conference contact Rev. Richard Mosley, Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org