By Sarandon Smith
I don’t often watch the news anymore; it is too frustrating. I read my fair share of articles while scrolling through my Facebook feed that describe just what state of disarray our world is falling toward. There are few things more terrifying than seeing the brilliantly dramatized retelling of the things that are going on around me, and many days it is hard to find comfort in knowing too much about the world that I live in. Some days I cry.
But each day I thank God that I have grown up being nurtured in the Church of the Brethren, a community in which I was raised to know that I am an instrument of change in the world, an instrument that can work to counter the symptoms of societal decay I see happening around me.
I was taught to be a voice for the voiceless and a hand for the helpless, using my voice and abilities to advocate for what I have been called to stand for as a child of God. Comfort is found in this work that advocates for justice and peace, and it reminds me and others that there is hope to be had even when the world seems like a dark place.
I believe that I am called to rise to every occasion which gives me the opportunity to do this work in the world. When Nathan Hosler called and asked if I would want to represent the Church of the Brethren at Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington, D.C., it didn’t occur to me to think twice about going to this conference that happened only two weeks before finals. On April 17 I found myself getting in the car at 4 a.m., headed to catch a plane to D.C.
I joined Katie Furrow from the Office of Public Witness in attending Ecumenical Advocacy Days, a weekend-long advocacy conference that calls people of different walks of faith to stand together and advocate for justice. This year the theme “Breaking the Chains: Mass Incarceration and System of Exploitation” was all too fitting with the recent events around our nation, and it eerily prefaced the crisis in Baltimore. Almost 1,000 participants gathered to learn about and discuss in depth the issues within our justice system in the United States, as well as globally.
The Congressional “ask” that we presented to our representatives at meetings on Capitol Hill focused on two major facets. The first was to advocate for a fairer justice system in the United States. More specifically, this involved calling for change and recognizing systemic racism within the US justice system, as well as showing our support for legislation that would allow for smarter sentencing in non-felony cases. Smarter sentencing bills aim to reduce the population of incarcerated nonviolent offenders in the United States, so that we can begin working toward a new justice system that works for rehabilitation instead of simply incarceration.
The second facet of our “ask” was calling for reform in our country’s immigration detention policies. Currently the United States has a 35,000 prison bed quota for the number of immigrants that must be detained at any given time in the US. Not only is this system horribly unjust, but it is also costly, with unfathomable amounts of money used each year to detain immigrants, many of whom are not being held for any real cause. This, in turn, supports an industrial prison complex in which private prison companies are making money off of the unjust actions of our government.
The weekend consisted of workshops, plenaries, and discussion panels that provided the opportunity for education, conversation, and advocacy on this issue. And on the day when the group from Ecumenical Advocacy Days went up to Capitol Hill, we approached it in a spirit of faith. We knew that we were going to do the work that we are called to do by our God, which is to advocate for the victims of injustice, promote peace, and work towards a more just and Christ-like world.
Ecumenical Advocacy Days left me energized and educated about a very pressing issue that plagues our society and must be addressed. Not only was I honored to be part of the work being done to advocate for systemic reform of our prison and detention systems, but I returned back to Manchester University in North Manchester, Ind., feeling empowered to speak out about an issue that now had a special place in my heart. In order to move into a bright future for all God’s children, especially minority and marginalized groups, we must become vocal about the issue of mass incarceration and systems of exploitation that are blatantly in opposition to the justice we must work for as followers of Christ and children of God.
I would like to say a special thank you to Nathan Hosler and Katie Furrow for inviting me to Ecumenical Advocacy Days, and making it possible for me to attend. I also have a heart filled with gratitude for the larger Brethren community that continually enables me to have opportunities through which I can follow God’s call for my life. I am blessed, I am grateful, and I am humbled by the community of which I am part. Let us work together for a more just and Christ-like world.
— Sarandon Smith prepared this reflection from the Ecumenical Advocacy Days, reporting on behalf of the Church of the Brethren Office of Public Witness. For more about the event, go to http://advocacydays.org .