Table flipped at Howard S. Wright construction firm in protest of proposed new youth jail in Seattle

This is what it can look like when Healing Communities moves beyond the walls of the church.

The Dignity Virus

Monday, March 30th 2015

Members of EPIC (Ending the Prison Industrial Complex) and YUIR (Youth Undoing Institutional Racism) joined with local clergy and activists to protest the “Children and Family Justice Center”, that will be replacing the current youth detention center in the coming years. The activists met at Key Arena and walked to the Howard S. Wright construction headquarters where activists set up a table in the lobby of the Wright Construction office. Then, scripture was read, first by Lauren Cannon, then Mike Denton. Rick Derksen then explained why a table was being flipped and compared the action to Jesus in the temple, flipping tables of the bankers. As soon as the collective group flipped the table, it was packed up, leaving coins and letters on the floor and a letter was delivered to the Howard S. Wright Construction company by Brandon Duran. Activists then left the building to…

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Presumed Guilty: The Immorality of Our Current Pretrial Justice System

Three months. That is how long it took for my brother to get out of jail. It was the summer of 2012 when my baby brother was arrested and charged with theft of a company vehicle. From the very beginning, he insisted on his innocence and looked forward to the opportunity to present his case at trial before a jury of his peers. Instead, as is the pattern in far too many cases involving poor people of color, he was incarcerated and began serving time in jail without ever having his day in court.

So what was the cause of his three month incarceration? In a word: money, of which he had none. For thousands of families across the country the cost of posting bail means losing one’s home or job because rent money or childcare expenditures that month went to getting a loved one out of jail. Eventually, my family scraped together the money to pay the bail bondsman. However, my brother’s fortunate outcome is not the case for many who find themselves behind bars like he did.

I wish that I could say that my brother’s situation was a fluke, or some rare mishap in an otherwise healthy system of criminal justice but, unfortunately, that is not the case. Sadly, what happened to my mother’s baby boy is exactly what happens in jurisdictions throughout America every single day. Every year across the United States, tens of thousands of U.S. citizens are detained in jails for weeks, months and in some cases, even years without ever having a trial, due to the simple fact that they do not have the money to post bond. These are mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters. They are also employees and caregivers, people who others rely on for emotional, financial, and other support. For the children of incarcerated individuals, emotional scarring can occur as their sense of love and security is challenged or destroyed by a parent’s absence.

Racial profiling, the threat of lengthy sentences, and the decisions of pretrial judges overwhelmingly disadvantage poor people of color. When the accused cannot post bond, they often accept “plea deals” that allow them to get out of jail in the short term, while it saddles them with a criminal record that stays with them for a lifetime. The “easy out” of a plea deal effects everything from their job prospects to their right to vote. In the face of this reality I again ask: “Does our current pretrial system reflect the ethics and values upon which our legal system of justice is supposedly based?”

And again, for people of faith and goodwill, the answer is no. Those who present no threat to public safety, and have been convicted of no crime, should be given an opportunity to stay in their communities and with their families after arrest. The idea that our brothers and sisters have to spend days, weeks, and months in jail without a trial, simply because they are poor is a shock to those who believe justice and fairness are basic guiding principles of humanity.

At the United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society we believe in restorative justice principles that seek to correct harm by healing those impacted by crime, including victims, communities, families and the person accused of a crime. Incarceration doesn’t have to be part of the equation. We put our beliefs into practice through the Healing Communities framework which is helping churches learn to be in relationship and ministry with those who are directly impacted by mass incarceration, including the pretrial justice system. Part of this work can include walking with those in our families, churches, and communities who are experiencing the challenge of the money bail system. While this can mean addressing the immediate need to raise bail money, it also leads to advocacy to eliminate money bail entirely in accordance with the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church.

Does our current pretrial system reflect the ethics and values upon which our legal system of justice is supposedly based? For people of faith and goodwill, the answer is no. For me, personally, the story of my brother’s arrest provided a clear example of how current pretrial practices fail to support our legal and spiritual values.

As believers in justice and equality we are eager to partner with those who share our values.

MAKE A DIFFERENCE . . . . FOR LIFE ! ! ! ! !

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Healing Communities: Faith in the Age of Mass Incarceration

This from our friend and colleague Chris Pierson over at Just Peace Cafe. Check him out!

Just Peace Cafe

The core challenge to ending mass incarceration is dispelling the myth that some of us are not worthy of genuine care, concern, 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…

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What My Bike Has Taught Me About White Privilege

More on White Privilege . . .

A Little More Sauce

The phrase “white privilege” is one that rubs a lot of white people the wrong way. It can trigger something in them that shuts down conversation or at least makes them very defensive. (Especially those who grew up relatively less privileged than other folks around them). And I’ve seen more than once where this happens and the next move in the conversation is for the person who brought up white privilege to say, “The reason you’re getting defensive is because you’re feeling the discomfort of having your privilege exposed.”

I’m sure that’s true sometimes. And I’m sure there are a lot of people, white and otherwise, who can attest to a kind of a-ha moment or paradigm shift where they “got” what privilege means and they did realize they had been getting defensive because they were uncomfortable at having their privilege exposed. But I would guess that more often than…

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The Definition of Insanity

They tell me I’m insane. They say I have a mental disease called addiction. My mother hates to hear me say it but it makes sense to me. You see for a few years in my life I kept doing the same thing and expecting different results. My drug of choice? Cocaine, I tried all kinds of different ways to use cocaine without suffering the dire consequences that came along as a result. It seems no matter how I used cocaine, as long as I kept doing the same thing (using cocaine) I kept getting the same results; jail, homelessness, pennilessness, etc. They told it was the very definition of insanity. Makes sense to me.

I was recently in conversation with a friend whom I have known for quite some time. She knew that I had been married at one time but wasn’t sure. “Now how many times have you been married?” she asked. When I told her that I had been married and divorced three times, she suggested that the issue just might not be entirely with the women that I’d married. Again I say, “Makes sense to me.”

Despite my insane cocaine use, and unsuccessful attempts at marriage I nevertheless found myself in a meeting at the White House along with other civil and human rights advocates. The primary topic of conversation was about the events in Ferguson Missouri where an unarmed Black teenager was murdered by a white police officer. As I sat and looked around the table and listened to advocates talk about the programs that they had either established or are in the process of implementing in Ferguson, or communities like it throughout the country something occurred to me. The thought came into my mind that with all of these programs and strategies in place or being implemented in Black and Brown communities nothing seems to significantly change.

I began to think of my own experience and what “makes sense to me”. Maybe if we keep changing one program after another to improve the condition of the Black and Brown communities, and they continue to be in dire need of help and development, maybe, just maybe it is not entirely the Black and Brown communities we should be looking to “fix”. If we have been trying different ways of doing the same thing and expecting different results they tell me that is the very definition of insanity.

Could it be that we are addicted to privilege, specifically white privilege? Tim Wise makes the point very nicely that if there is a group that is dis-advantaged, then there is a group that is advantaged. If the is a group that is under-privileged, then there is a group that is . . . (wait for it . . .. yes) privileged! Finding different ways to “fight poverty”, eliminate health disparities, or eradicate inequities in the criminal system without doing anything about privilege, is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Focusing all our efforts on “improving the lot of the underprivileged” without working to eliminate “privilege” is the very definition of insanity.

Makes sense to me.

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Study: Little Progress for African-American Men on Racial Equality Since 1970


In recent years, the U.S. has celebrated the 50th anniversaries of the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Act and a number of other landmark accomplishments considered pivotal in making the U.S. a better place for African Americans.

But despite a deep reverence for those accomplishments, a new study suggests that African-American men today face such high levels of unemployment and incarceration that they are in little better position when compared with white men than a half-century ago.

The working paper, by University of Chicago researchers Derek Neal and Armin Rick, is based on preliminary findings and has not yet been peer-reviewed.

“The growth of incarceration rates among black men in recent decades combined with the sharp drop in black employment rates during the Great Recession have left most black men in a position relative to white men that is really no better than the position they occupied only a…

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Ministry at the Margins – A Day at Ames UMC

Ames Memorial United Methodist Church is located in the Sandtown section of Baltimore Maryland. It reminds me of the neighborhood I grew up in in North Philadelphia, the streets I walked in Gary Indiana, and the community I pastored in Clearwater Florida. At first glance the community around Ames UMC is painful and depressing. There are entire blocks where the abandoned homes outnumber the occupied ones. Drug and alcohol paraphernalia litters the streets. This is one of the neighborhoods featured in the TV series called, “The Wire”. On the day we visited, the bitter cold helped to make the community look particularly bleak and disserted. It brings to mind the words of Nathanael when he was told that Jesus was from Nazareth, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46) at first glance many people would ask the same question of the community around Ames. “Can anything good come out of Sandtown?”

Despite the appearances however, there is powerful ministry going on in Sandtown! It is ministry based on relationships. In a sense it can be said that all ministry is based on relationship and this is true. What is especially important in the ministry of the community surrounding Ames Memorial UMC is the kind of relationship on which ministry is based.

In “Jesus and the Disinherited”, Howard Thurman points out that even in the Jim Crow South [and I might add the segregated North] there were many people who did good work. Whites in the South and the North performed wonderful acts of charity and magnanimity. What Thurman noted was that these acts were devoid of any sense of equality, or value for the worth of other human beings on the most basic of levels. He referred to it as “contact without fellowship”. Thurman understood that despite the outward acts of charity and mercy there was a fundamental failure to see the “other” as completely equal on the most basic level of common humanity. There was interaction and relationship but the relationship was not a relationship of fellows. One group operated from a position of power, and a false sense of superiority. The other from a position of relatively less power, and often an equally false sense of inferiority.

Unfortunately it is in the same relationship/power dynamic that much ministry goes on today. This is particularly true very often when ministry happens in places like Sandtown, in Baltimore; or North Nashville; or North Philadelphia, or Greenwood in Clearwater. Well-meaning Christians develop “programs” and “ministry” that essentially operate on a client provider relationship that establishes the very same power dynamics that Thurman wrote about over 50 years ago.

In the community that surrounds Ames UMC, there is a different relationship that pervades. In this community there is relationship that starts at the level of the common humanity of all persons and builds from there. Generally speaking the ministries are no different than ministries in other churches. Ministry with children, both in the church and in the community. Ministry with the homeless, the drug addicted, the hungry, and more. What is important, what brings hope is the spirit from which the ministries spring. It is a spirit that says these are not just “poor children”, they are “our children”. These are not just “the homeless”, they are “our neighbors”; Joe, and Sally, and Doris, and William. These are not just “crack heads”, they are our sisters, and brothers, our sons, and our daughters, our cousins, and our mothers, and our fathers. This ministry springs from the Spirit that honors that which is truly inalienable, the God-given humanity and full personality of every individual. The ministry of Ames UMC is grounded in the fundamental belief in the right to a full, abundant, rich life [not to be confused with a life of riches].

Ministry thus grounded is truly both salvific, and eschatological. It follows the pattern of Jesus’ coming out statement in Luke 4:18-19. Ministry thus grounded is salvific in that it does the work binding, or healing, that which is broken. Jesus did say, “The poor will always be with you”. Despite all of our efforts this does seem in fact to be the case. No matter how many soup kitchens, homeless shelters, financial assistance ministries we operate the brokenness of poverty never seems to be healed. The brokenness of the human spirit however, is healed by ministry that is grounded in this fundamental belief in the humanity of every person. It is eschatological, in that it demonstrates the time of God’s reign which is both present and future. The Apostle Paul is credited with saying, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1Co 13:1-4) This love that Paul speaks of is a key characteristic of the Reign of God. Dr. James Lawson, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. refer to this reign as the Beloved Community. This same love that Paul refers to is a core value of the Beloved Community. Ministry grounded in the core belief that every life has worth and value, and should be affirmed, supported, and unconditionally loved makes the “reign of God’, this “beloved community” not just some, as yet unrealized, hoped for future but a present reality; a demonstration of the reign of God.

What we do specifically in ministry is not as important as the Spirit from which we do it. If our ministries are rooted in the God-given humanity and full personality of every individual, people will respond, healing (salvation) will happen, and our prayers will be answered – “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth”.


MAKE A DIFFERENCE . . . . . . . . . . FOR LIFE ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !

Focus On Ministry WITH

    I recently participated in a 10-day intercultural immersion in the city of Baltimore. The idea of the immersion is to expose seminary students to different cultures, actually a different culture, so that they will have an impactful experience that they can then take back to their own ministry settings.

    The Baltimore Immersion is intended to help seminarians (most of whom are future pastors) to understand something about urban Ministry. The goal is to help future church leaders to think constructively about how they deal with issues that have come to traditionally be connected with the urban setting. Poverty, crime, drugs, homeless, and gentrification are among the issues we will look at in the city of Baltimore over the next 10 days. We will explore not only the issues, we will also learn about ways in which the church specifically, and people of faith generally, are addressing these issues.

    Our first stop was Manna House. A ministry in Baltimore that originally started in one of the local United Methodist Churches and has since grown into an entity unto itself, independent of the church. Manna House provides a hot breakfast, showers, clothing, mail services, and medical services for the city’s unhoused residents. The visit included a conversation with the director and assistant director of the program. It was noted during the conversation that many of the people whom Manna House serves are “broken” in some way. Sometimes mentally, sometimes physically, but nearly always spiritually. The challenge for the people of faith who work at Manna House is repairing what is broken.

    When thinking about these “broken” spirits I am reminded of Jesus before the famous “Sermon on the Mount”. “He had compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” The challenge for well-meaning people of faith is how to heal the broken spirits. A good meal, a warm shower, and some clean clothes do help, and they are needed. Unfortunately these are mere bandages on a wound that requires stitches. Lovers of righteousness and people, understand that it is not enough to put a bandage on the wound. There is something much deeper and more lasting that must be addressed. There is a deep yearning in the soul of each of us that, unmet, leaves us empty and unfulfilled.

        Here we turn to the life of Jesus of Nazareth for help here. Jesus encountered folks who were broken and cast to the margins of society constantly in his life and ministry. It is true that he met their felt needs for food and healing. He met their spiritual needs as well. What undergirded all of this was the way in which Jesus related to people. For him people were not merely objects of charity. They were not “clients” for whom he was a service provider. They were not just potential parishioners or members. They were not just categories of homeless, or sick, or hungry. For Jesus of Nazareth these were real individual people. They were fellow human beings with complete personhood. By seeing, understanding, and relating to people in this way Jesus built the social capital to be more than just a service provider. With this perspective Jesus became more than just another preacher trying to gain more converts. This is important when asking the question, “How do we heal the brokenness?”

        The people who came in contact with Jesus, whether it was the leper shunned from physical human contact, the tax collector isolated by the society around him, or the rich young aristocrat, were each treated according to their personhood as God created beings. They were not treated according to the socially constructed categories in which they had been placed by society. Everyone has a sense of their own inherent humanity. It was on the level of that basic equality that Jesus related (and is still relating) to people. That is what people responded to in Jesus’ life and ministry. That is what people respond to today.

        The good news is that this is something we all can do. We may not have the money to buy homes for all the homeless. We might not be able to feed all of the hungry people we meet. We might be just a missed paycheck from homelessness ourselves. No matter what our social status, economic condition, ideological position, or theological belief we can all treat every woman, man, and child with the respect and dignity of their full humanity. This is what heals the brokenness. Life’s difficult challenges will not go away completely until “the lion lies down with the lamb” and “the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven”. People whose humanity is recognized, honored, and respected have the strength deal with those challenges.

        How do we heal the brokenness? We start by seeing people as complete fellows with us on this journey of life. Not simply categories, and objects of our acts of mercy but full participants in the world. We understand that everyone has gifts to share. Everyone has value. Everyone has worth. That understanding is where the healing from the brokenness of spirit begins. Jesus was in reciprocal relationship with everyone he came in contact with on the most basic of levels. From that foundation he was motivated, to seek, serve, and to save.

        This is our model as we engage in ministry with the people in our world. Understanding people no matter their station or walk in life, as fully human, completely equal with us as we do our ministry with them. Our challenge is not to see people as mere categories, or clients. We cannot succumb to the temptation to let mere numbers be the primary measure by which we judge the efficacy of our ministry.

        The core question is not “How much?” or “How many?” the question is, “How well?” How well have built reciprocal relationships with people? How well have we been able to show others the respect and dignity of full personhood? How well have we communicated to others that we value their words, thought, and indeed their very presence in the world? How well have practiced being in ministry with fellow human beings, rather than ministry to objects of charity or for clients of our services?


        The answers are up to us!


MAKE A DIFFERENCE . . . . . . . . . . FOR LIFE!!!!!!!!!!!

What Makes a Black Man Cry

Several years ago, in a class at American Baptist College we conducted a small research project in which we surveyed Black men. One of the questions we asked in the survey was, “What makes you cry?” It was interesting that the answer to that question in nearly every instance was related to the injustices that are borne by African Americans every day in this country. The breakup of a relationship, the death of a loved one, to be sure these are life events that can cause emotional, psychological, and even physical pain. Nevertheless, according to the Black men that I interviewed, by an overwhelming margin, the thing that brings tears to the eyes of Black men is to witness the injustices and inequities that people of color endure as a routine part of their existence here in the United States.

I was reminded of this recently at a gathering of people of faith here in Washington, D.C. on the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. During our time together we screened the movie “Redemption of the Prosecutor”. The movie focuses on the life of Preston Shipp, a prosecutor for the State of Tennessee, and his transformation from an unattached appellate court prosecutor, to an advocate for change not only in our criminal “justice” system but in our attitudes toward the incarcerated. Mr. Shipp’s epiphany was ignited by the case of Cyntoia Brown, a sixteen year old girl who was tried as an adult for murder, and given a life sentence without even the possibility of parole until she is 67 years old. We did not get to see the entirety of Cyntoia’s story, but the small piece we did see was enough to make a Black man cry. And cry we did.

Cyntoia’s experience is not unique. Every year children who commit crimes are tried as adults and given adult sentences which virtually assure their inability to become productive members of society. In her book, “The New Jim Crow; Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”, Michelle Alexander documents in heart wrenching detail the reality of a racially biased criminal justice system. To try a child as an adult, then sentence that child to spend all of their productive years in prison, with not possibility of parole until they have reached retirement age, is inhumane, hypocritical, unethical, and immoral. In a system in which the immorality is compounded by the racially biased prosecution and incarceration of people of color, it is Black and Brown children who are disproportionately subjected to this cruel and unusual punishment. The most recent statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics bear this out. In almost every category (including drug related offenses) Whites in general, and especially White youth are arrested in greater numbers than African Americans and Hispanic Americans. Nevertheless, according to the BJS, the number of young Black and Brown boys, under the age of 18 held in federal and state facilities as of the latest reporting (for 2011) is more than triple the number of young white boys of the same age. Thinking of the loss of these young lives, consigned to be perpetually locked out of the opportunities to live happy, productive lives as full American citizens, makes Black men cry.

As I sit here in Washington DC, one week removed from the observance of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which was a march for jobs, and justice I am reminded of a verse from “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing“. The verse says, “We have come over a way that with tears has been watered” we are still on that muddy path, watered by the tears of people who hunger and thirst after righteousness. In spite of the words to the anthem we have not yet completely “come to the place for which our people sighed.” We have a way to go yet. I would be remiss if I did not say here that there is hope. Fifty years ago Howard Thurman, one of Dr. King’s mentors, noted that the problem of injustice and oppression characterized by the Jim Crow of his day was rooted in an attitude of the mind, and a mood of the human spirit. That until these where changed no genuine progress would be made. An unchanged mind, and unaffected spirit would only lead to at best an appearance of change. The attitude of mind, and mood of the human spirit that allows for a group of people to be viewed and treated as “less than” would only manifest itself in a more subtle and insidious way. Michelle Alexander once noted that “the core challenge to ending mass incarceration, is dispelling the myth that some of us are not worthy of genuine care, concern, and compassion.”

I am encouraged that there is growing recognition of the validity of that axiom. It is people of faith who are tasked with challenging the attitude of the mind and the mood of the human spirit. People of faith are responding! We are rising up to the challenge articulated so well by the Apostle Paul, “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ”. Over a year ago the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference took up the challenge with its theme “Occupy the Heart”. The United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society is gathering and mobilizing Methodists across the country, as well as developing interfaith coalitions in collaboration with the Proctor Conference and others. There are others as well who are addressing this issue. There is a movement that is growing and it is important that is growing among people of faith and goodwill. We are the ones who have been touched and experienced the unconditional love of God. We who believe in true peace (the presence of justice for all, not merely the absence of violence) are committed to the work that we share with Dr. Martin Luther King, Dr. James Lawson, John Lewis, C.T. Vivian and others whose names we do not even know. We cannot rest until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. We cannot rest until the life and worth of Black and Brown mothers’ children is as important as the life and worth of White mothers’ children. We who believe in righteousness cannot rest until the dawning of the great day when all of God’s children are treated as worthy of genuine care, concern, and compassion. Until then we must work while it is day and do all we can to . . . . . . . .


Make a Difference . . . . . . . . For Life ! ! ! ! ! ! !

The Washington Post Talks with NHA Director Curtis Watkins About “Safe Passage” Walks

Getting past the hype – Black men are not “naughty by nature”

A Century of Big Ideas

On September 15, 2011, The Washington Post interviewed the Director of Phelps Stokes‘ National Homecomers Academy Program, Curtis A. Watkins about  the great work of NHA’s Community Change Agents as they participate in morning patrols aimed at giving kids ‘Safe Passage’ to school in the DC area.

The article mentions that four times a week, Curtis Watkins and a group of National Homecomers also known as NHA Community Change agents walk the streets of Marshall Heights and Lincoln Heights in Ward 7, greeting students and making sure that the students arrive to their designated school safely.

Read the recent Washington Post article “In Ward 7, Men’s Morning Patrols Aimed at Giving Kids ‘Safe Passage’ to School” to find out more about the interview with Director of the National Homecomers Academy, Curtis A. Watkins. For the latest information about the National Homecomers Academy, visit or contact…

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