One for the Choir

United Church of Christ, Church of the Brethren and Presbyterian groups in Madison, WI, Chicago and Elgin, IL have hosted me in the past week to share stories of restorative justice and Marie’s work in the prisons.

In each group, we talked about some of the almost incomprehensible statistics (1 in 100 American adults currently incarcerated, 1 out of 31 American adults under some form of corrections control, 50-65% national recidivism rate, and rapidly escalating corrections spending rates that take money away from education and other proven prevention programs.)

We talked about the overwhelming needs for education, treatment and rehabilitation programs in the prisons, the needs for mentoring and support for the estimated 650,000 people who are released from prisons every year, the needs for more alternatives to incarceration and more restorative justice programs.

And we got ourselves a bit depressed and overwhelmed about it all.

“You’re preaching to the choir, you know,” observed Jerry Hancock, my host at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Madison, WI.

He was absolutely right – and not only about the people who attended the event at his church.

In the three churches where I’ve spoken in the past week, I met prison chaplains, prison literacy and GED tutors, legal aid and employment counselors for released offenders, a woman whose daughter has adopted children born to incarcerated mothers, domestic violence counselors, victims advocates, families of offenders trying desperately to help their loved one get his or her life back on track, the author of a book about a crime victim who became a restorative justice advocate, people who had opened their homes and hearts to people with prison records, college professors incorporating restorative justice into a new criminal justice curriculum, death penalty abolitionists . . . in short, folks who already know plenty (and in most cases, who know a lot more than I do) about the issues in the criminal justice system and the need for radical change.

Folks like Jerry Hancock, who had been a lawyer for three decades and is now an ordained minister and full-time Director of the Prison Ministry Project, an outreach program of First Congregational UCC. I asked Jerry about his unusual career path from JD to M.Div.

“Once I was introduced to restorative justice, I felt I could no longer be part of the criminal justice system because I realized that system is anything BUT just,” he explained.

Jerry personally logs about 2400 miles per month traveling to different state prisons five days a week to work with incarcerated men and women. When he isn’t “in prison,” he’s talking with legislators and policy makers, advocating for reform in the criminal justice system. And he leads a group of about 100 volunteers who travel all over Wisconsin to run restorative justice programs in half a dozen state prisons, all sponsored by First Congregational. The sign in front of their church lists Jerry and the Prison Ministry Project side by side with the names of their other full-time ministers. I think that speaks volumes.

Jerry, his volunteers and First Congregational UCC have made a tremendous commitment to addressing many of the justice issues we talked about. So have the prison chaplains, tutors, counselors, offenders’ families, advocates, authors, grandmothers, mentors, professors, abolitionists and others I met this week.

Each of them individually is making a difference by speaking up, speaking out, raising his or her voice for change.

Collectively, they make up one of the most powerful and wonderful “choirs” I’ve ever heard.

So, here’s one for the choir – a powerful song to affirm the importance of what you are doing, and to offer all of you encouragement to keep believing and to “keep on keepin’ on.”

The song is performed by “Sweet Honey in the Rock” – one of my very favorite ensembles of voices raised together for change. If you aren’t familiar with them, Sweet Honey is a group of women who have been raising their voices for peace and justice for over 30 years.

Sweet Honey in the Rock singing “We who believe in freedom” (Ella’s Song)
I love how each woman is doing her own very different part – yet together, they make a powerful statement – and soul-licious music.

Blessings and peace to each of you and to ALL of you,

PS – If you’re interested in knowing more about Sweet Honey in the Rock, here’s a terrific NPR interview with Sweet Honey in the Rock, which includes them singing several additional songs.

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: grace goes to prison restorative justice criminal justice book tour death penalty

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