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 ! ! ! ! !

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 ! ! ! ! ! ! !

God Has Spoken; Let the Church Say “Amen”

A Sermon by Rev. Yolande W. Ford, delivered Sunday July 14, 2013

Based on lsa.43:l-3a;Lkl2:48b-53;Heb.!2:l-4

God is raising up a host of prophets in this day and time to set His/Her people free. What is a prophet? One who speaks the truthful word of God at any time that God’s word needs to be said. Prophets are people like Elijah who defied a king and queen, like Jeremiah who shocked a nation with his boldness and like the rock and founder of our faith, Jesus Christ. Yes, Jesus of Nazareth was a prophet! He was and is the Son of God, the Son of man and our Saviour. But to quote Gordon Cosby in his book of sermons By grace Transformed. “Jesus ‘suffering fell upon him primarily because he was a prophet His enemies tried to entangle him in his prophetic talk. They brought him to trial because of his prophetic speech and action.” And they make him suffer for what he said and did. Jesus died on a cross for telling and acting on God’s unwelcome truth that permanent change from evil to good comes only at the cost of loving self-sacrifice and forgiveness. Eleven people in Jesus’ day truly believed him and followed him. But those eleven prophetic people changed the world. That’s the Christian gospel in nut shell.

The world depends upon God’s prophets to save it from destruction. It always has and it always will. Such prophets are indispensable catalysts for positive change. We live because they believed. But who are the prophets of today in 2013, who will save their parts of the world from evils like mass incarceration? Well, look around you friends, because we are they. We are the prophets whom God has called to help deliver this nation from the prison for profit system.

Most of us recoil at that thought. We say, “Who Us?” Yes us. We are called to be God’s prophets in 2013, some young, some not so young, some old in fact and arthritic, some jobless and some are stressed out at work, some homeless but hopeful, some just out of jail, and some on their way out their way out of this life—all together we are God’s prophets in 2013. We are the ones that ones that we have been waiting for to end the mass incarceration that now has imprisoned millions of people in the United States the vastly disproportionate majority of whom are African American and Hispanic.

We think that we here today only by our choice. But we are here actually at God’s invitation. Whether we are committed to its dissolution or simply curious about mass incarceration, we are here because, in one way or another, God has caused us to come. He brought us here. That’s how it is with prophets: God calls and we come. Moreover, there are no excuses for non-response that God accepts once His/Her call is heard. Ask Abraham who said, ‘I’m too old;” ask Jeremiah who said,” I’m too young;” ask Moses who complained “But I’m handicapped; “ask Mary who protested: “But I’m not even married.” No matter. To each of them God simply said, “You, beloved, are it.” And that’s what God has said to us who are here. Few, feeble and feckless, we are, “it.”

Now, the good news is that whomever God calls, She also equips for whatever is the task at hand. God does not send His servants out unprepared. The 70 disciples that Jesus sent out 2 by2 were heavily protected by his prayers. We too are similarly equipped to serve as Divinely dispatched deliverers from mass incarceration.

How so? First of all we are well equipped because we are leaning heavily on God’s biblical word. We are reading the Bible, trying truly hard to hear and believe Jesus when he says things like, “Fear not.” in the midst of fearsome events. Each of the synoptic gospels (the gospels of Mathew, Mark and Luke) record Jesus as saying emphatically, “Fear Not:” Don’t be afraid.

In Matt 10:31ff he says, “Don’t be afraid of lacking for anything when you follow me. God feeds and clothes even the sparrows and lilies. He will surly take care of you: Fear not.” He tells a man, (in Lk.8:48-50) “Don’t be afraid because your child is sick unto death; just trust and believe in me. Believe in who I am and in what I can do. Fear Not.” In Lk.l2:32 Jesus tells his disciples, and us, “Don’t be afraid little flock for it is your Father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom: Fear Not.”

We prophets will cling closely to these words as we follow our call to help God abolish the mass incarceration system. Neither those who profit from the system, nor all of those who are dedicated to dismantling it, will welcome the Gospel that national deliverance from mass incarceration and permanent recidivism will come ONLY through loving self-sacrifice and the forgiveness of those who hurt us.
Some will say that we want to endanger public safety by turning criminals loose on the streets. Others will say that we are coddling profiteers when we work with them to turn their systems around. Only one thing is certain: nobody on either side of the issue is likely pin any metals on us for refusing to revile and condemn instead of loving, forgiving and encouraging. But that is the way of the cross of Christ – the way that frees prisoners, corporate jailers and communities and leads them to wholeness and redemption. And that is the way of God’s prophets.

Will many people be eager to hear that? Not likely. Very few people were in Jesus’ day and not many will be in ours. But if we take seriously our call to be God’s instruments to free both the incarcerated and their profiteering jailers from exploitation by Satan, who is the real mass incarcerator, this is precisely the word that we will be speaking and acting on in non-violent ways, for that is what God’s prophets do.

“The word of God is penetrating and confronting,” says Gordon Cosby and each of us is to be a non-violent weapon, speaking and acting for God in exactly this, penetrating threatening, warning, and thus saving way.” This is radical talk because the Bible is a radical document and because Jesus Christ was and is a radical non-violent revolutionary. Hear him again (Lk.l2:49-53) saying,” Do you think I have come to give peace on earth on earth? No I tell you but rather division….”

The Lord was talking about the divisive fire of his prophetic word that he would soon act on in person for all to see through his suffering, crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus modeled the role of God’s prophet for us. The question is, who is called prophesy and act for God as he did today against the forces of mass incarceration? The answer is that we are. We are called to this because we are Christians. We are followers of Jesus Christ, God’s Ultimate Prophet, who said in no uncertain terms that, “Everyone to whom much is given of him/her much shall be required (Lk.l2:14b). We are called and fully equipped by his word, by his love, and by God’s abundant grace!!

There is a second way that we are equipped for this freedom mission to which we are called. We prophets are presently equipped by God with the gift of repentance, if we will accept and embrace it. It is not by accident that at this precise time of great need the Holy Spirit has led us in addition to the Bible to study Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow. Through it and other materials God is showing us the face of our enemy, permanent recidivism, and how it operates through mass incarceration. We are learning, through the Spirits’ leading as well about the pillars of support that keep permanent recidivism in place. And just as important we are identifying our own complicity with the mass incarceration and recidivism system. The more we see how we unwittingly feed into it, the more we are compelled to fall on our knees and out, “God have mercy on us for we too are sinners! Forgive us and help us to change this thing!” Repentance is the valuable gift that God gives us to equip us against self-righteousness when we confront the supporters of mass incarceration.

Third, along with the word that is Jesus Christ and the gift of repentance God is equipping us with the gift of humility, if we are humbly willing to receive it. That is, through the Bible and The New Jim Crow, through prayer about the bully of mass incarceration and permanent recidivism, and by facing up to our needs for repentance and forgiveness, we are brought face to face with our own weakness. We know that there is no possible way that we can effectively engage, much less overcome an enemy like mass incarceration on our own no matter with whom we ally to fight it. But the Good News is that when we are finally convinced that we can’t do anything, God can do everything!!!! Whenever people are reduced to full awareness of their helpless impotence, God has room to step in and act in power! Well friends, we are at that point of awareness right now and that is where God wants us to be.

You see, the great Gospel irony is that when we are at our weakest, we Christians are strongest in the Lord. We may not be much but our very self – acknowledged weakness and utter dependence on God is all that God needs to use us as prophets in mighty ways! This means that, numerically weak, (After all, look around you), actually we are downright invincible!! Unworthy, yet forgiven and called to action, we are unstoppable because we are clothed with the mantles of all of Gods’ prophets who came before us. Humbled by our own complicity, rejoicing in our weakness, we are God’s called prophets in 2013!!

All that we have is our faith. But that is the fourth and most powerful, piece of equipment that we have from God. Jesus has promised that even mustard seed faith can open prison doors and set prisoners and jailers free. We believe him. We believe that God wants this mission to be accomplished. And we rejoice that God has called upon us to help Her/Him to accomplish it.!!

So—here we are. Surrounded and supported by a great cloud of God’s other prophetic witnesses, emboldened by the presence with us of the Lord Jesus Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are the prophets whom God has called and commissioned for service in this, our day! God has spoken. We have answered, “Send us.”- Let the church say, “Amen” and “AMEN!!”

Thank you Rev. Ford

Make A Difference . . . . . . . . . . . For Life!!!!!

Sawubona – Jesus, The Gerasene, and The War on Drugs – Luke 8:26-35

I greet you this afternoon with the traditional Zulu greeting Sawubona. Sawubona means more than just “hello” it means “I see you”. Sawubona “I see you”. Sawubona, “I see you.” Sawubona, “I see you.” I appreciate the richness of the word and the greeting. It is more than just a passing word between two people who are totally unconnected. Sawubona, “I see you” it is taking the time to acknowledge the presence and existence of another human being. It acknowledges the connectedness of our common humanity. Sawubona, I see you. It says that I recognize you as a fellow traveler along life’s way.

In our story today, from the gospel of Luke, Jesus exemplifies this greeting in his interaction with the man who comes to him from out of the tombs. Sawubona, I see you. Jesus’ response to the man is one of compassion that asks the question what has happened to you. This is what Jesus deals with in the story. While the authorities in the city where only concerned with what was wrong with him, Jesus took the time to heal what had happened to him. What had happened to him was that in his case demons had possessed him. Jesus deals with what happened to him. The authorities, only saw what was wrong with him. They saw that he did not succumb to their efforts to subdue and control him. They saw that he did not fear to challenge their attempts at control. Have you ever stopped to notice that there is no mention of any actual offense that this man committed? No reason, by our standards, that he should be shackled, and chained. Look at the text, nowhere does it say that this man harmed anyone except himself. Yet the synoptic gospels all agree that this man was regularly put in chains, and shackled. I imagine that they reacted out of fear. The text does paint a somewhat fearsome picture of the man it does not anywhere state that anyone, other than himself, was actually harmed by him.

This brings to my mind our current attitude and policy toward those in our midst who are struggling with the disease of addiction to drugs. Drug addiction is a disease. It is a medically documented mental illness. Even many addicts like myself who are in recovery will tell you that. Our current drug policy, however, doesn’t treat drugs like a disease. We treat it as a crime. Our current national and local policy works on the model of “what is wrong with you” not “what has happened to you.” This was the challenge given to us last week as group of religious leaders from around the country gathered to consider a more just and compassionate drug policy. Dr. Amos Brown, pastor of 3rd Baptist Church in San Francisco challenged us by saying that we have to attend both the prophetic and the priestly role in our congregations and in society, and in our priestly role we must ask not “what is wrong with you” but “what has happened to you.” Jesus said it this way, “Treat others the way you want them to treat you. This is what the law and the prophets are all about.” Understand that when Jesus referred to the law and the prophets that was his way of saying that’s what the Bible is all about. Treat others the same way you want to be treated. Sawubona, “I see you.”

Rather than treat people suffering from the disease of addiction the way anyone suffering with any disease would want to be treated; with care, concern and compassion, our drug policies treat sick people like criminals. Michelle Alexander, in a speech at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference in 2012 said, “The core challenge to ending mass incarceration is dispelling the myth that some of us are not worthy of genuine care, concern, and compassion.” “Drug offenses alone account for two-thirds of the rise in the federal inmate population and more than half of the rise in state prisoners between 1985 and 2000” and “by the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans – or 1 in every 31 adults – were behind bars, on probation, or parole”. The overwhelming majority of these are for non-violent drug offenses. Again the words of Jesus, “I was sick and you comforted me” not I was sick and you put me in prison. We are challenged to make the church the space were that care, and compassion can begin. Dr. Yvonne Delk, poured out her heart with us to say that the church should be the place where this care and compassion begin. We must make space for everyone to be able to be completely themselves. Our churches should be welcoming places where people are affirmed and loved, and nurtured. Unfortunately, speaking at American Baptist College in Nashville Tennessee back in 2012, Michelle Alexander again points out. “I find that often people will tell me, who have been released from prison, the church is the last place they’d go. They say ‘I don’t feel welcome there. I don’t feel welcome.’ Many people released from prison say that’s the place where they feel most ashamed, most stigmatized.”

I remember being in a meeting of the ministerial fellowship of the town in which I pastored for some time down in Florida. I brought up the need to be intentional about reaching out to the drug users and even the drug dealers who, even in a relatively small town, nevertheless had a very clear, obvious presence. The response I received from one of the other pastors was, “You can’t just bring those people into the church. They’ve got to be kept separate until they are ready to come into the church.” Sawubona, “I see you.” Can you see him? The Gerasene man, tormented by his demons relegated to the tombs, isolated, marginalized, and stigmatized?

This is not an easy thing to stand in this place and suggest that there might be a better way of dealing with the problem of drug use in this country. No doubt some think this “social gospel” has no real place in the church. But I realize that we are all theologians and as theologians we can think theologically on the issues at hand. As I spent days, and nights in prayer, and reflection I struggled with what to say. I will confess that this stayed with me so much that I had a dream. Unfortunately it was not a dream, like Dr. King’s dream fifty years ago “deeply rooted in the American Dream.” No my dream was a dream deeply rooted in the nightmare that is the daily reality of communities of color right here in DC, and in cities across this nation. The reality of midnight and early morning raids; routine traffic stops; and stop and frisk policies all targeted at communities of color on a daily basis.

In my dream the police came into the church during service and everyone stood. The police began shackling and handcuffing people in the church and leading them out. And the church stood silent. And the church stood silent. Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in his Letter From the Birmingham Jail that “We will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.” I am reminded of the closing words of Judges chapter 19, referring to the injustice that was taking place in the nation of Israel, “Has such a thing ever happened since the day that the Israelites came up from the land of Egypt until this day? Consider it, take counsel, and speak out.” (Judges 19:30)

I am grateful today for Jesus sawubona attitude. Because of Jesus’ “Sawubona” greeting we give the Zulu reply which is “Sikona“, which means “then I am here”. Because you see me then I am here. You acknowledge my presence, my worth, my value, and I am here. I am here to affirm you, I am here to help you I am here. I cannot exist without you. I need you and you need me. Luke paints this picture for us. Can’t you see the man once Jesus has dealt with what has happened to him, there he is sitting at the feet of Jesus saying, Sikona, “I am here.” I am here fully present complete and in my right mind. Sikona I am here. I alive, I am free, I am connected to you, and you are connected to me. Sawubona, I see you. Sikona then I am here.

It is in this space of seeing and being seen, this space of affirmation and encouragement, in this space genuine care, concern, and compassion that people of faith and goodwill operate. It is in this space and in this spirit that we offer alternatives to our current drug policy. We offer ourselves and our churches, our physical spaces as places of welcome and healing. Sawubona, I see you. Sikona, then I am here.

Now is the time for people of faith and goodwill to take heed, to consider it, take counsel, and speak out. Now is the time for a “sawubona” attitude in this city, and in this nation. Now is the time for people of faith and goodwill to say “We see you.” We’re not going to treat you like a criminal because we see you.
Sawubona we see you in your humanity, your pain, confusion, and suffering. We are going to respond to what happened to you. Not what is wrong with you. Sawubona we see you. We are all created by the same God who said it is good. Sawubona I see you, fearfully and wonderfully made just like us. Struggling yes, confused probably, but never the less I see you!

Now is the time for us to take counsel, consider it, and speak out against a Drug War that is a war on people. Now is the time for people of faith to call on our local elected officials to implement and practice policies that emphasize genuine care, concern, and compassion; that emphasize treatment over punishment; and people over profits.

Now is the time for our faith communities to be places of safety, and nurture where our greeting and our attitude is “sawubona” we see you. Because these are our fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters. They are members of our communities. We want to see them, and we want them to say “sikona” then I am here. I am fully present, complete and in my right mind. I am fully participating in the life of my family and my community. I am here. Because you see me, then I am here.

Sawubona, – I see you. Sikona, Then I am here.

Amen and Ashe

Make A Difference . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . For Life!!!!

It Doesn’t Make Us Better

The truth about kids in adult jails . . .

Just Kids Storybank Blog

When I was 16 years old I was charged as an adult and held for 8 months in the Baltimore County Detention Center.  It was my first time being locked up in an adult jail. I was scared and tried to stay out of people’s way, but in the Baltimore County jail there isn’t a wing just for juveniles. I was housed with adults and shared a cell with an adult man the entire time. The cell was a very small, a closed area with no privacy.  To move by each other we had to move one at a time, saying ‘excuse me.’  To use the toilet we had to cover ourselves with a curtain.  I spent 18 hours a day in my cell.  The only time I was let out was for recreation and work.  During my 8 months in jail, I was never given the option to go to school.

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Holy Week & SCOTUS

These are thoughts from my friend DJ. It is rare that I post Facebook statuses in this space, but two in one day?!?! Must be Holy Week!!

By Darria Janéy Hudson

All week, I’ve been wondering if I’m crazy for drawing parallels between Holy Week and all of the attention and excitement over Prop 8 & DOMA in the Supreme Court… But then I remembered that the Lenten season and Good Friday are my most anticipated times of the year for an important reason: They force me to consider who is on the cross in my world today, and who is baying for the blood of the innocent. Meditating on Christ and the crucifixion compel me to see my reality as the site of violent oppression, oppression often carried out in the name of the law, or in the name of God, an oppression that silences and kills. And both Lent and Good Friday force me to take time to mourn, to grieve, to repent for my own complicity and to wrestle with myself and with God in the darkness.

And I can value these painful reflections, because Holy Week is always a reminder of the strangest reality of our world; that there is no dark without light, no despair without hope, no silence without clamor. All things change that is the only truth of the world that can be counted on. And the hope for me, the hope that dries my tears at 3am, the hope that bolsters my weary spirit, the hope that brings me back to the struggle again and again and again no matter how many times it breaks my heart and my body– that hope lies in the knowing that despite what appears to be the end, in spite of the depth of the grave and the sting of death, all thing that live will die, and all things that die will live again.

Regardless of all the ugly evil that some have been fooled into believing is Christianity, there are deeper truth of love, of hope, and of struggle in the image of Christ. Banksy’s image is a much needed writing on the wall about our times, and one that on this Easter weekend, I’m immensely grateful for.

Thanks D.J.!!

Make A Difference . . . . . . . For Life! ! !

Infomercial CHRISTIANS:

There are only a handful facebook statuses that I take time to actually read. Generally I skim. I do read the weekly sermon introduction my friend and pastor Sonnye Dixon. Except for Sonnye’s messages I have not really seen anything that I would repost in this space. I ran across this post this morning and, with the author’s permission, thought it worth sharing in this space. Those of you have enjoyed some of our previous posts will enjoy this one as well.


By Dawn V. Rogers, Lead Writer at Write the Vision Ink

Have you ever looked at an infomercial and found yourself tempted to buy the product because of before and after shots, or how the product was advertised? I personally have wasted money on products that I believed would “work for me” only to be disappointed in the results. I always wondered if I missed a step, or if I was doing it right. I would go back to the manual often in confusion and read the directions in English and Spanish to gain understanding. I would attempt to do what it said, but I still could not achieve the amazing outcomes that were advertised.

Made me think about …well you know, this witness thing.

Sometimes we display these amazing results of our lifestyle, our walk with God, our attitudes, parenting, our marriage, and other relationships, like we came like “this” out of the box.

I look at Jennifer Hudson today, and give her a side eye for every Weight Watchers commercial she’s in because I know her results took more than counting calories. I want to know what else was done so I can do it too and get better results.

The point of this lengthy post is to encourage believers NOT to become infomercial Christians. Witness through your process. If you see someone going through what you’ve been delivered from, don’t just say God will fix it, just pray, and be still, [God will] work it out. Those are brush offs; that’s the Infomercial after photo. Most struggling believers already KNOW God will fix it, the issue is how and what do I need to do in my everyday living? We need help on application, our walk. Tell them that before your marriage looked like this, you cried many nights, prayed over your spouse in their sleep, read Psalms 91 over and over, got a trainer (counseling). Tell them that after he hit you and you left him, you still missed him, and couldn’t move forward so you had to create a calendar of activities to do with yourself so you could learn to love yourself again. Tell them you took yourself on dates, joined a singles ministry and sometimes you still cried until one day out of nowhere, you were thinking of him less and less, and before you knew it, you were so into God it blew your mind.

Tell them that you had a job too, but was always a paycheck away from the food stamp office, until you started a budget and told family no. Tell them you gave yourself manicures and perms to save money, tell them your car has been repossessed too. But the more you tithed, the more you HAD to budget. We need help in our process, not our outcomes. There is power in your testimony. Our after shots can run people away because when others try to live like we are “now”. They get frustrated and do what has always worked. We have their attention. Iron sharpens iron. That’s bible.

Thanks Dawn,

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

We need our children and our children need us

This essay was written in 2012 for the opening session of the Garnett-Nabritt Lecure Series at American Baptist College in Nashville, Tennessee. It is reprinted here with the permission of Mr. Miles who, along with several of his fellow insiders, asked that we tell their story.

American Baptist College March 19, 2012, Joseph Miles, a student in a class currently being taught by Professor Janet Wolf for American Baptist College at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, has written the following essay for today:

My name is Joseph Miles; I am incarcerated at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. First, I want to thank you all for hearing my words today. I want to talk to you concerning the kids in the Black Communities across the State of Tennessee. These kids are in real trouble and as a community, we should want to step up and take a more proactive role in the lives of these kids. They really need us to get involved and bring new alternatives into their lives, as well as into their communities. In 2006 all the kids in Springfield had was the streets and the carwash for hanging out. Today in 2012 they still only have the streets and a carwash. I was at the courthouse in Springfield, TN, in May of 2006, and they brought the inmates up from the jail. The day in question they brought in seven of what I thought, were Black men and put them into a holding cell with me. As we talked I quickly realized those black men were just kids. Not one of them was older than my oldest daughter, but all seven were closest in age to my youngest daughter who is nineteen (19) years of age.

I listen to them tell me how they came to be in jail and in the streets. My heart got heavy, because I could relate to them. When I think of them today, my eyes water up, because their words touched me much deeper than they will ever know. As I was being prepared for the trip back to prison, I overheard a lawyer telling one of them about the deal that would get him out of jail, but the deal was only good for that day. This kid was strongly declaring his innocence. The lawyer said to him, “Do you want to go home today, or do you want to go back over to the jail until trial? It is your choice!” On my way out the door, I looked back to see that kid signing those papers. He had to make a decision about his innocence, his future and his freedom without the benefit of having time to think, or talk with others about the so-called deal. He had to choose then and the only thing he was really sure about in that instance, he knew he wanted out of jail and this deal gets him out today. From talking with him in that holding cell, I believe he was much too inexperienced to know that deal was not beneficial to him, but destructive to his future. But, there is nothing that can be done about that now. But, I can tell you this. When I look at the ones that come in here from eighteen to twenty-five with new life sentences that they MUST serve fifty-one (51) calendar years of before they are even eligible for parole, I believe that most of them could have been helped.

Let me ask you all a question. How many of you think about the future of the young Black man? I need you all to think about this. What type of future are we looking forward to if our kids go into a prison at the age of fifteen and don’t come out until they’re sixty-six (66) years of age? What type of future are we looking forward to when our kids are dying faster than the elders of our communities? What type of future are we looking forward to when our kids value their self-worth by the price of the shoes they wear and the designer jeans they cannot afford? Ladies and Gentlemen, our kids are in REAL TROUBLE and it is going to take the community to save them. In 2007 I read an article in the newspaper that was wrote by a professor at Princeton University, and it read, “A white man out of prison has a faster chance of getting a job than a black man who’s never been in prison.” I found that study very interesting, but not surprising. Our kids are stereotyped by the clothes they wear, the way they walk, talk, even their hairstyles. Most of them in the streets probably cannot read good enough to fill out a job application. This is called CRIMINALIZING our kids. Making them feel inferior, at the same time destroying their self-esteem. Society is good at manipulating the psyche of our kids. I pray that you all are hearing these words, because these are your children, your grand children, your nieces, your nephews, cousins and the children of your friends. People, they will not and cannot survive without their community.

Maybe some of you are asking. What can we do? First, you have got to tell yourselves that these kids are worth saving, worth loving and worth our time. Second, the community must come together, push City Hall for the recreation programs, jobs and job training that the youngsters need and deserve. Parents must take a more active involvement in their kid’s education because too many of the educators of today are only concerned with trying to suspend these kids from school, putting them in the streets when they need and should be in school. Again, manipulating their psyche to feel inferior. Third, these kids need people they can talk to. People who can help them identify the madness in their lives. I see so many kids in these prisons and prison cannot help them. They need help before it gets to this! The only way to help them and keep them from destroying themselves is to come together as a community. Bring those kids in from the streets, hug them, and say to them, “we love you,” and reinforce those words with your actions and a commitment of saving them.

For the people that may be asking. What business is this of ours? I will say this to you. You are children of God; these kids I am speaking of are also children of God. I would ask you all to read Exodus 18:19-20 and 23. From that scripture, I appeal to all people of faith on behalf of these kids. I want to share a quote from Maya Angelou. “No man is free until all men are free. No woman is healed until all women are healed.” These are more than profound statements worthy of thought. They are the clues to the moral responsibilities we all have for one another. We should think about where we would be if there were no books or people to guide us when we need it. Then with an open heart and extended hand, we can pull someone else along. Some of you may be asking yourselves, who does he think he is? I will tell you this. In May of 2006 when I met those, seven kids in that holding cell, I made a promise to myself, to help them; not knowing where to start. Thinking about them almost every day. In June of 2007, a girl was shot in the neck for hanging out at the carwash the only hangout, those kids have and the following week another child was shot in the head and died on the way to the hospital. I knew I had to say something to someone and you all are the ones to help them. Because in 2012 our Black kids are still filling the jails, prisons, and graveyards faster than any other race in America.” – Joseph Miles

19Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You should represent the people before God, and you should bring their cases before God; 20teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do.23If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace.” Exodus 18:19-20,23 NRSV

These words echo those of Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age of Colorblindness”, when she says 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.”

We are ALL children of God! Thank you for reminding us Mr. Miles!!

Make A Difference . . . . . . . . For Life!!!