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.