corelous-bryant-story.jpgIn my Contextual Education (Con Ed) I site work at the Georgia Department of Community Supervision, we used Howard Thurman, Michelle Alexander, and Bryan Stevenson as conversation partners. We were tasked with mentoring the men and women who had served their time and were preparing to return home. I discovered that this work benefits from a particular kind of love. A love that Howard Thurman discusses in Jesus and the Disinherited. The kind of love that maybe the church can uniquely offer.

jesus-and-the-disinherited.jpgThurman reflects about love as expressed through Jesus’ time. He calls it a love-ethic and demonstrates how Christ had to be committed to that against some pretty steep odds. I appreciate that exploration of love. Love tends to require a choice. There tends to be a cost associated. Whether it's humbling oneself, tamping down pride, or risking unrequitedness…but I like how Thurman distinguishes it from floating affection or adoration. Those can be tether-less and airy. But real love seems to have a weightiness to it. Love takes up its own space and changes the environs around it. I think this kind of love—a weighty kind of love—will be needed to restore a sense of wholeness to the clients that we have the honor of walking alongside. Real love has a kind of constancy. A kind of staying power. The work of re-entry services needs to say, “Hey…. We’re in it to win it. We will be by your side for as long as you need us to be. There are few ways to fail out of the program. If you’re committed to making this work, we are committed to you.”

I think that kind of love…for the deepest part of them…is what this work requires. Can the church provide that?

During this Con Ed work, although it was virtual because of Covid-19… we put faces, names, laughs, smiles, and tears to the victims of the criminal justice enterprise in America. In the way America has tried to prosecute its War on Crime, we are conditioned to think of any violators of the law, particularly of violent crimes, as monsters. Upon the commission of the crime, their humanity gets stripped. We no longer see them as people, but as:  criminals, felons, ex-cons, prisoners, incarcerated… So many terms to choose from. We have a plethora of terminology that fundamentally alters the value of that human being—dare I say, child of God—almost irrevocably. It’s a relic as old as Trans-Atlantic slavery. Denying someone’s humanity to soften the blow of how your conduct or the system’s conduct treats that person. This new identity as non-human criminal then bars you from participation in normal life. You can’t find a job, you can’t find housing, healthcare is complicated, education is complicated, serving your country in the military is off the table. No longer do we limit their humanity… we limit their ability to even act like a human. They can’t even go through the motions. We excommunicate and exile them and somehow expect rehabilitation to come from that. If everything you are putting into your witch’s brew is death dealing—no life can come from that. The choiceless-ness persists no matter what side of the bars they are on.

We used to count on the church for being a clear voice advocating for recognition of our shared humanity. You used to be able to rely on faith communities to remind us that we are all children of God. While there are many faith groups that have a prison ministry, in my opinion there is no massive nationwide demonstration by the church to reform or abolish the prison industrial complex. Rev. William Barber is doing his damndest…but the movement has not caught fire just yet, and the corporate megachurches can’t be bothered.

With the church falling silent, this quote from Bryan Stevenson cuts through like a clarion call. “Each one of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done!” The truth is so piercing, it sounds like scripture. Perhaps when the church has fallen silent, we turn to our prophets. Speak prophet Stevenson, Speak!