By Kendra Harbeck
“Brethren, our game is strong…and the story ain’t over yet!” This call to action from Richard Newton heralded the start of Christian Citizenship Seminar (CCS) 2016. Each year CCS brings together high school youth to learn about a social justice issue and put their faith into practice through political advocacy on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
The event is sponsored by the Church of the Brethren Youth and Young Adult Ministry and Office of Public Witness. This year, 38 youth and 10 advisors from 10 congregations gathered under the theme “Proclaiming Freedom: The Racial Injustice of Mass Incarceration.”
The call of the gospel
Newton, professor of religious studies at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College, based his call to action on that of Jesus in Luke 4:18-19: bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, and letting the oppressed go free. Newton stressed the challenge of making a difference, asking what we can do for individuals who are oppressed or imprisoned instead of building walls between us and them.
“Let’s be real, things will be hard,” Newton commented about how difficult it is to change the system. A superpower nation doesn’t come to be without getting a good deal, and slavery was that deal to fuel a superpower, he noted. When slavery ended, in order to keep the superpower running laws were made that allowed for lesser treatment of people like immigrants and people of color. The Civil Rights movement ended those laws, but the system found a loophole–making a prisoner less than a person.
“What the Gospels show us is that it’s a challenge, but you’re up for it,” Newton encouraged the youth. “You will do work that people 2,000 years ago thought impossible, because of your hard work and God’s gifts given to you. The story yet to be written is us saying, ‘Where are the oppressed? Where are the captives? Is Jesus there for them too?’ There are chances everywhere to take those steps.”
The statistics are indeed hard and challenging. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prison population. There are 2.2 million prisoners in the US, and the country spends $80 billion per year on the mass incarceration system. African Americans and Hispanics make up roughly 25 percent of the US population but account for 58 percent of the US prison population. Put another way, there are more African-American men in prison today than were enslaved in 1853.
In light of these statistics, Ashley Ellis stressed to the participants that they can’t discuss mass incarceration without looking at it through lenses of racial justice, social justice, and spiritual justice. Ellis works as a re-entry advocate and the coordinator for restorative justice programs in Brooklyn schools, and studies at New York Theological Seminary.
Ellis explained how high recidivism rates trace to the fact that people leave prison and come home to the exact same conditions that sent them to prison. “Learning how to accept opportunity is a learned skill,” Ellis said. “What if no one’s taught you that skill because there have never been opportunities there? What are you to do when the resources aren’t there?”
What’s more, people with a criminal record find even fewer resources than before they entered prison. They may lose access to publicly subsidized housing and government food benefits, and many states strip them of their right to vote. Numerous jobs become off-limits, and for those able to find a job, up to 100 percent of their wages may be garnished to pay for the costs of their imprisonment.
Ellis led participants to examine the idea of shared liberation and the need for radical empathy in place of sympathy and charity. In Matthew 25, Jesus challenges followers to provide for all in need because each person is a reflection of Christ himself. Ellis extended the challenging call of Christ: “When I was hungry, did you not just give me food but sit down and eat with me? When I was outside and homeless, did you invite me in, and did you try to figure out why I was outside to begin with?”
Speaking to youth who may be far removed from the issues of mass incarceration and racial injustice, Ellis pointed out that we have to learn how to get closer to the pain. She asked, “How do we become present with people whom we don’t understand in order to build understanding? How do we venture into wilderness we’ve been told not to go to, or where we’re afraid to go to?” She continued, “Nobody wakes up and chooses to be a murderer, to be a criminal. We have to look at why and see the rest of the person.”
A lack of justice
CCS participants met with Roy Austin, staffer with the White House Office of Urban Affairs and a former prosecutor. “What we lack right now is procedural justice, a sense of fairness,” he told the participants, citing the more than 20 cases around the US where city police departments have established patterns of arresting African Americans at disproportionately high rates.
“We are so short-sighted in this country,” Austin said. “We follow the quickest and easiest route of locking people up.” He advocated for investments into education initiatives, employment and community programs, and mental health care that would provide better economics and better safety in the long run.
The mass incarceration system also lacks logic, Austin said, citing lack of evidence-based logic in a variety of elements: Nonviolent drug sale conviction automatically requiring 25 years of imprisonment or the prohibition from becoming a barber or beautician. Racially biased minimum sentencing for drug convictions. Placing juveniles in solitary confinement. Prison education and skill-training programs that don’t take into account learning disabilities (which affect the majority of inmates) or real-world job opportunities.
“We are doing a horrible job of preparing people to be successful upon release,” Austin stated, while citing the recidivism rates of 60-70 percent for federal and state prisons.
Finally, “if it’s not the money argument that works here, if it’s not the logical, it’s got to be the moral argument,” Austin concluded. Mass incarceration is “touching everyone. It’s touching every community.” He pointed to children as young as four being kicked out of school and thus criminalized. The high rate of suspensions in schools and the huge racial disparities of those suspensions mean many students of color are set up for failure. “They’re not criminals; they’re our fellow human beings.”
Austin left the group with words of affirmation for the power of youth: “You have the most amazing voice and the most amazing power to create change. Keep speaking up. Make it really loud and clear that you and your generation won’t accept this.”
Visits to Capitol Hill
On the eve of the visits to Capitol Hill, a CCS regular provided tips for approaching congressional offices. Jerry O’Donnell, who served in Brethren Volunteer Service as workcamp coordinator for the Church of the Brethren and then served with Global Mission in the Dominican Republic, now works as press secretary for Representative Grace Napolitano.
“You have the voice that your representatives need to hear, and if your voice isn’t raised, it’s not part of the discussion,” he told the youth. “You are the youth of the Church of the Brethren. You are representing the values of the church and taking them to the highest offices in the land. Bring whatever energy and determination you have…. Put your faith into action and let your voice be heard.”
Participants also received challenge and encouragement from Aundreia Alexander, associate general secretary for Justice and Peace for the National Council of Churches. She elaborated on a number of messages, such as that there are more school resource (police) officers in schools than nurses or social workers, primarily due to the lack of these latter professionals in schools with poor students of color, and that the drug laws were created decades ago intentionally to target African Americans. Her overall message was that racial injustice and racism affect everyone and demand solidarity.
“This isn’t a black rights issue: it’s a human rights issue,” she said. “It’s an all-of-us issue. Racism keeps us from being the best we can be as a nation…. Ultimately we are all created in the image of God. God didn’t choose that this image is less than that image. We decided that. We all have the love of God within us.”
The youth and their advisors spent the final afternoon of CCS meeting with representatives and senators or their staffs. They advocated for specific bills geared toward reducing racially biased minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders, and toward prioritizing and incentivizing recidivism reduction programs such as drug rehabilitation and job training.
The youth reflected on their congressional visits, mirroring the messages they’d been receiving all week: even in the face of a massive system, one dedicated voice means something. “I realized I can make a difference,” said a youth from Pennsylvania. A youth from Michigan realized that “Congress people are actually people–not robots.” Reflected a youth from Washington, “I’ve learned it’s not just one protest action. It can go beyond that.”
“My hope is that students who enjoy what they’re doing this week will take it to the next level in college,” Newton remarked. “This isn’t a one-time thing; it’s one step in the longer journey of the Brethren life of peace and justice. We’ll continue to work on this together.”
— Kendra Harbeck is office manager for the Church of the Brethren Office of Global Mission and Service.