Prison Advocacy: Reimagining the Role the Christian Church

My work with Russell Memorial Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church began as America was on the brink of an unprecedent global pandemic. As a graduate intern, I had an opportunity to partner with Russell Memorial’s food kitchen and food pantry to assist displaced families with hot meals and groceries. It was during this time that I became aware of how badly individuals’ lives had been impacted by Covid-19. With the rise of unemployment, homelessness, and school shutdowns, many families turned to the church.

In response to a community who had been displaced by the pandemic, Russell Memorial functioned not only as a religious institution concerned with salvation and the afterlife, but also as a social service organization — prioritizing service and outreach. Every Sunday morning between 6:00am and 8:00am, congregants gathered to distribute hot meals to hungry families, and on Wednesdays, the church saw a spike in volunteers who assisted with packaging food baskets. As community members lined up outside the church’s food pantry, it became evident that “loving thy neighbor” wasn’t just a slogan posted on the Russell Memorial’s website but epitomized the nature of the church.

One morning, while helping out at the food pantry, a longtime volunteer approached me and asked, “Hey, aren’t you that intern from Duke? I hear you’re interested in prison reform.” Smiling, I nodded, and replied, “Yeah, I think that’s me.” As we continued to fill bags with canned goods and fresh meat, Mr. Roger expressed excitement at hearing that I’d be working to revamp Russell Memorial’s prison ministry.

In reorganizing the church’s prison ministry, I decided first to create awareness of mass incarceration and its impact on communities of color (particularly Black and Hispanic families). This entailed facilitating informational zoom sessions that highlighted specific aspects of the American criminal justice system, as well as inviting community organizers to discuss their experiences with religious advocacy, prison reform, and prison ministry. While many of the congregants knew firsthand how imprisonment could disrupt family life, the informational zoom sessions provided an opportunity for the church to consider how punitive penal policies contributed to the disenfranchisement of Black and Brown Durhamites.

One Tuesday, as we explored the impact of mass incarceration on Black and Brown families, I asked, “Why doesn’t the church have a prison ministry?” In response to my inquiry, many of the members expressed that having a loved one incarcerated often led to shame and isolation, which in turn discouraged them from seeking help. This conversation sparked a dialogue on unresolved grief — particularly, what it meant to grieve the loss of a loved one to prison/jail. In grieving, many of the participants heeded the proffered advice to “not feel bad,” and to suppress their feelings, while others attempted to replace their loss with hard work and busyness. But the grief nevertheless still existed and continued to take a toll.

That night the question was raised, “How do we as a congregation engage families who have been impacted by mass incarceration?” One participant—brother Patrick—suggested that the church should “first listen.” He went on to add, “Sometimes just being a listening ear is the best first step, as grieving and hurting individuals need to feel seen, heard, and most importantly, understood.” Echoing his response, other participants chimed in. The consensus was to first be compassionate, before offering to help.

The informational zoom sessions allowed us to bring the issue of mass incarceration from a broad systemic problem, to one that Russell Memorial could address in a way that authentically fit its congregation.

As I continue to partner with Russell Memorial, I am excited and look forward to exploring how the church can authentically engage families impacted by mass incarceration in a way that is tailored to its congregation and community.

Mass Incarceration and the Church

Darwin will be exploring the collateral consequence of incarceration and the role of the Black Church with Russell Memorial AME Church in Durham.

It is no secret that America has led the charge in mass incarceration, imprisoning more individuals per capita than anywhere in the world. In 2020 alone, the United States of America incarcerated nearly 2 million individuals. Unsurprisingly, persons of color and individuals from minority communities have been disproportionately affected. Perhaps this is due to the reality that mass incarceration has become spatially concentrated, emerging as a distinct urban institution.

Discourses on America’s grand social experiment with incarceration tends to be grouped into two categories. On one side are those who assert that incarceration is effective in that it prevents crime and holds wrong doers accountable for breaking the law—retributive justice. However, on the other side, are individuals like me, who understand the need for some type of sanction against wrongdoers but would also argue for alternative modes of accountability. While there are no easy fixes to mass incarceration, I hold fast to my conviction that there are more effective approaches to addressing wrongdoings that do not entail mass imprisonment.

Let’s be honest, prison growth in America did not simply result from an increase in crime. Rather, the enactment of punitive policies and practices directly and indirectly spawned an unprecedent increase in America’s prison population. In her notable book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander reveals the various punitive policies and practices—such as the antidrug policies of the 1970s and 1980s, mandatory minimum sentences, truth in sentencing, and tough on crime prosecutorial practices—that together fueled explosive prison population growth. Thankfully, overtime, such approaches to criminal justice have proved to be ineffectual.

The effects and collateral consequences of incarceration—what Rachel Condry and Shona Minson define as symbiotic harms—also needs to be reckoned with, for the imprisonment of one person does not simply affect that person alone but can harm an entire community. Often times, men and women who are incarcerated leave behind children and struggling caregivers. Research on parental incarceration suggests that paternal and maternal incarceration tends to compromise a child’s wellbeing. For instance, children of incarcerated parents tend to be at a higher risk of school dropout, physical and mental health issues, drug use, anti-social behaviors, and increased contact with the criminal justice system.

What can we do to address these issues?

This semester, I will be working with Russell Memorial CME Church’s prison ministry. Russell Memorial is a historic African American church located on the outskirts of Durham, North Carolina. I was first introduced to Russell Memorial as a graduate intern for Duke Divinity’s field education office. I spent lots of time at the church’s food pantry and in the church’s kitchen. While passing out food boxes and fixing hot breakfast I got to know many of the congregants and learned the history of the church. Every Wednesday, after finishing up at the food pantry, I would chat with the pastor—Jerry Christian—and so came to learn that the church had a prison ministry program that was currently inactive. Upon hearing this news, immediately I said, “Well that’s about to change!” The following week, I etched out a plan to revamp the prison ministry with a focus on engaging families who have been negatively impacted by the absence of a loved one due to incarceration.

My project will explore how the church—as a theological and social institution—can effectively engage families who have experienced, firsthand, the indirect consequences of incarceration. In the following months, I will work with Russell Memorial CME Church to bring awareness to the cause(s) and negative ramifications of mass incarceration. While this work is no easy task, I have been encouraged by the initial reception and participation of Russell Memorial CME’s congregants. So far, Russell Memorial’s prison ministry program has been revamped with a “virtual” twist, holding informational meetings via zoom with members of Durham, North Carolina’s local and professional community to better understand how incarcerations impacts families, and how Russell Memorial CME Church can begin to affect change.