You likely are aware of facts like these: There are over 2.3 million Americans currently in prison. The US houses almost a quarter of the world’s prison population. Only 23 percent of released prisoners stay out of prison. Black Americans make up 13% of the US population but 40% of the US prison population. The US has more correctional facilities than any other country on earth.
Because incarceration is so common in the United States, it touches a vast majority of families. This is true in Oakland. This is true in faith communities like Lakeshore.
This October, with the encouragement of David Fowler, a doctoral student at ABSW advised by Dean LeAnn Flesher, two “returning citizens” (persons returning to the community after having been incarcerated) have been attending Soup and Study. Both they, and the other study participants, then completed surveys evaluating their experience.
David’s project is titled “A New Theology That Welcomes and Restores those Coming Home from Prisons and Jails.” His research focuses on the plight of returning citizens and working to develop a smart phone application that can help them find support and navigate in a very inhospitable environment.
When I asked the regular participants in Soup and Study if they would like to participate in this research, there was immediate and widespread support. They noted Jesus’ teaching about visiting those in prison. They noted our church’s commitment to welcome and radical hospitality. They recognized how difficult life can be for returning citizens. They noted that the life of faith involves being willing to step into the unknown. I was deeply appreciative and deeply moved.
Clearly, if the high rate of recidivism (77% of those released from jails return to jail) is to be reduced, churches and other faith communities must play a central role. This can only happen if we practice what we preach: all are welcome, everyone needs a community, it is good to be listened to and prayed for, mercy triumphs over judgement, the Bible offers a word of hope, second chances matter, God is no respecter of persons, the Spirit knocks on the door of every heart, Jesus loves those whom society considers unlovable.
It seems that this small experiment is going well. This is a credit to the Spirit and to those around the table. On October 8 our discussion centered on Jesus’ words in Luke 17:3 “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive.” We considered these words in the light of the events in the Dallas courtroom in which a Dallas police officer was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years of prison for shooting her upstairs neighbor, Botham Jean, in his own apartment. Following the sentencing, the victim’s 18 year old brother, Brandt, embraced his brother’s killer, Amber Guyger, and forgave her. The judge in the case, Tammy Kemp, then gave Guyger a Bible and hugged her as well. It was a fascinating, demanding, heartening and insightful conversation. I wish you could have been there. More to come.