Sunday, October 11, 2015

Creation Myths: Christopher Columbus

Wanted Poster for Christopher Columbus

What we now accept as the true history of the United State in reality is comprised of decades of creation myths. After the American revolution, having separated ourselves from the rich history of Europe (and having sneered at this continent's indigenous histories to the point of annihilation), the newly formed United States found itself without a heritage with which to construct its new civilization. We were left without a history, without heroes or cultural icons. And the void needed to be filled.

As a result, we now have a cultural reliance on several sacred stories of our foundation. We revere the country's holy texts, and ritualistically repeat the essential creeds to our children. The stories of Jamestown, the pilgrims, and Plymouth Rock can be piously recalled. Yet none of the modern tales match the actual reality of our past. James Baldwin notes, "what passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one’s heroic ancestors."

Drawing of conquistador: "Let's celebrate Columbus day by walking into someone's house and telling them we live there nowAnd we have made heroes out of our cruelest ancestors, not the least of which was Christopher Columbus. After first encountering the Arawaks, Columbus realized "with 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want." Thus was born America's true founding legacy.

To take advantage of Columbus's 'discovery', Spain declared that "with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their highnesses; we shall take you, and your wives, and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him; and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us."

Pating of conquistadors watching as dogs attack indigenous people
The crimes that followed Columbus's landing set the stage for centuries of abuse and atrocity, the legacy of which continues today. Much of these works were carried out in the name of Christ. Consider that the first English ship to carry enslaved West Africans to the New World was named JesusFor hundreds of people this was the first encounter with God's Son, He that had come to 'set the captives free,'

Book cover: Rethinking ColumbusMany of us already know that the stories we heard in grade school are myths. But white America perpetuates and clings to them anyway. Why? Perhaps we are to afraid look straight into the face of our generational sin. White Americans continue to benefit from our ancestors' actions, and it's time we owned up to the implications.

That Columbus is lauded as a hero is shameful and embarrassing. We need to rethink what stories we tell. Begin by watching this video, and consider who and what we celebrate on Columbus Day:

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Friday Fruit (10/09/15)

Protestors, including clergy and one person with t-shirt that says "This aint yo mama's civil rights movement"
(Rick Wilking/Reuters)
On Fridays, BTSF offers links to other discussions about race & Christianity. It's an opportunity for you to read other perspectives, and for me to give props to the many voices leading the way...

Weekly Round Up:

These are some of BTSF's links of interest this week. What are yours?

Feel free to contribute your own links in the comments section, or submit items you feel should be included during the week. Self-promotion is encouraged.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Life After Prison: How the Church Can Help

Graffiti art: "All In"This is the third in a three-part series on mass incarceration and Christianity’s role in bringing transformation to those affected by it. Previously, we examined the criminal justice and prison policies in the United States that lead to high rates of incarceration, particularly among black and brown men. In addition, we’ve looked at some of the work being done within prison walls to transform lives and communities with the Light of Christ. Here, we will explore life after prison and some creative ways for churches to take the next steps in getting involved with their own communities.

After serving a prison sentence and being released back into the world, one is faced with a wide array of seemingly insurmountable challenges to overcome. Discrimination against the recently released is rampant, and is on top of the racial and economic discrimination one may have faced even before entering prison. Those released from prison often have a hard time finding a job that will pay them a living wage, and they no longer qualify for student loans to help improve their employability. They are often denied safe, affordable housing, and are not allowed live in public housing (even if living with family member that do qualify). They often lose access to food stamps and other government support benefits, just at the very moment they need it most. Friends and family may have turned away, and it can feel like there is nowhere left to go. Could this be where God’s Church is needed most?

Horizon logo with rising sunOver 75% of prisoners released are re-arrested within five years. The first month after release is critical, but recently released citizens often face the same challenges that led them to prison in the first place. As discussed previously, ministries like the Horizon Prison Initiative work closely with men on the inside before they are released, but they also acknowledge that “after paying their debt to society, formerly incarcerated individuals go home. Home to the same circumstances that fostered the environment that led them to prison.”

Horizon’s Chief Operating Officer Jeff Hunsaker suggests that “not everybody’s called to do this work, but on the other hand churches are called to be part of healing community. Churches get real comfortable and don’t see that bigger world we live in.” He laments an attitude that says “I don’t care what happens to them, just keep them away from me,” one that only sees the incarcerated as those deserving of punishment. But Hunsaker notes that “90% come back to your community. What kind of person do you want them to be when they return?”

A Role for the Local Church
The Church can play a critical role in receiving recently released citizens back into their communities. Indeed, we are called to “let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured" (Hebrews 13:1-3).
West Ohio conference/ United Methodist logo of cross and flame 
This is the verse that inspired the West Ohio Conference (WOC) of the United Methodist Church to think intentionally about how its communities in the region could do a better job of receiving returning citizens into their churches. “Transformation is not going to happen if we entrust it to a purely punitive system,” says Deaconess Sue Wolf, “It’s about God’s love and God’s Kingdom. If we can prove it’s true there, then it’s true for all of us, anywhere.”

“A lot of local churches and seminaries are involved in their own individual prison ministries,” acknowledges Harris Tay, Director of Diversity Initiatives at the WOC. But he wondered what a unified effort across the region would look like. Noting the Church’s commitment to hospitality, he says “reentry work should be part of the fabric of what we do.”

So the WOC set out to create the ‘All In Community’ Re-entry Program to address multiple facets of prison ministry within the context of church communities. This program was formed to be intentionally asset-based, acknowledging that the prisoners themselves are assets to the ministry. Thus, the content and curriculums began to form with guidance and partnership of those currently incarcerated, relying on their suggestions rather than on the varying perceptions of those on the outside.

Ultimately, the WOC plans to connect twenty-five churches with re-entering citizens to form relationships and support well before those individuals are released. The hope is to have churches ready to receive wherever prisoners are going. They will create a safety net, a soft landing, for those being released.

Cross through prison bars
The program is designed to be about mutual relationships, understanding that everyone can learn and grow no matter what role they play. While inside prison, participants are required to complete cultural competency training. Thus, participating churches are also required to undergo the same. Kenya Cummings, an intern for Diversity Initiatives at the WOC, says that the churches will need to “lean into some knowledge that the released men will be imparting.”

Indeed, the goal of the partnership is to “transform prisoners, transform prisons, and transform communities.” Thus, volunteers and congregations have much to learn from the prisoners themselves, who have dedicated years to prayer and spiritual discipleship with the time they had on the inside. It’s not about a one-way relationship, but rather a partnership that brings about mutual edification and spiritual growth. Cummings attests that “the men know the Power of God and how it can be at work. They know about transformation. They know if they can be transformed, so can the Church.”

The ‘All In Community’ Re-entry Program will also serve as a hub for community organizing, healing the neighborhoods that are most affected by mass incarceration.  They will employ five Urban Encouragers to act as first-contacts for released citizens and will also serve guides for congregations that are learning how to be good partners.  They will organize within the local community to help restore neighborhoods and to identify assets within the community that can support those being released.

Hands holding a bible through prison barsCummings suggests that churches interested in engaging in re-entry work become “incredibly aware of where their church congregation is located and what they have to offer.” Every church and every community setting is different, with unique needs and assets. “Reentry can never be a carbon copy ministry,” she attests, “you have to look at your church’s assets and passions, and let the ministry emerge from what is currently present.” If volunteers are artists, start an art prison ministry, if they are engaged in legislative issues, she suggests focusing around that. Customizing a church’s prison ministry is key to both its effectiveness and its persistence.

Cummings also suggests churches investigate what programs and resources are already in their local neighborhoods and to them come alongside the ongoing work of the community. “We want to build, not duplicate,” she says.

Overcoming Apprehension with Art
Asked if local congregations have been receptive to the program, Tay observes that “most churches don’t know where they really sit on it,” but that the WOC is willing to invest in the training and development to help with the adjustment. “We’re actually going to walk with you and do the trust building and relationship building to help make it happen.” He notes that many churches affirm a commitment to love and hospitality, but “any church can say it. We have the opportunity to expand and enhance that pledge.”

Barcodes as prison bars (cartoon)
Along these lines, the WOC has created a collaborative for churches engaged in prison ministry to share resources, training, and encouragement with one another. Cummings understands that work like this is rewarding, but challenging: “Folks can get tired in doing the work. They enjoy it, but it becomes tiresome.” Churches starting on the journey may also have concerns. Cummings says they may feel “anxious about what it really looks like…but after talking through fears there’s greater calm.”

To address these needs, Cummings is heading up opportunities for participating churches and volunteers to become rejuvenated. “Art is incredibly healing,” she notes, and she plans to use art to engage with those participating in the ministry collaborative. With a mix of poetry, spoken word, visual art, and storytelling, Cummings hopes to create an environment “for collaborating, not just another burden.” She observes that “as we tell stories and share resources, we experience renewal.”

Tay affirms that “A static meeting may not be the best way to connect with the soul….Performance has always been the voice of movements,” and that churches should be considering how to merge creativity with action. “How do we build trust through the arts?” he asks. He goes on to praise Cummings’s collaborative as “a huge opportunity for those who want to do church differently.”

Cummings anticipates a wide variety of ministries will be able to come together to share the stories and ideas. There will be teams throughout the west Ohio region. “Each team might look really different and I’m excited about that,” says Cummings.
Church for All People logo: cartoon large person (God) embracing smaller persons 
Taking up the Challenge
Hunsaker has a challenge for churches: “What are you here to be and to do?” He says he’s brought Horizon graduates to some churches where they’ve felt uncomfortable and unwelcome. He worries that the decline in attendance that some churches have experienced is because they have “lost touch with why they exist and what their purpose is.” It may be that they profess a value of love and reconciliation, “but how many are actively involved in it?”

Jimmy Cheadle, a Horizon graduate and now an Urban Encourager and Reentry Coordinator with UM Church for All People in Columbus, OH, say the best thing churches can do for the recently released is just welcome them in and create a loving, healthy environment for them.“ But,” he says, “sometimes churches aren’t so good at that.” He has had experiences where he didn’t feel welcome, “You pick up on that, when they keep you at arm’s length. They were nice to us, but they were glad we weren’t coming back next week.”

But Cummings observes that those being released show remarkable bravery and surprising willingness to engage beyond any mutual fear. True, there may be feelings of anxiety, but it is often outweighed by the understanding of what reentry without strong community looks like. They may fear rejection, but Cummings notes that rejection is a reality for them anyway. Part of what the Horizon program offers to the men is the tools and spiritual strength to deal with that rejection on the outside.

Jimmy Cheadle
There are a lot of reasons that a warm, loving welcome doesn’t always happen. Cheadle senses some churches respond out of fear rather than faith. They react by saying things like “What do you mean you’re bringing a criminal here? We have enough of that already.” He says building loving relationships is sometimes three steps forward, two steps back, “and the two steps back takes the wind out of everyone’s sails.” But he urges, “it’s really not so much about what you want to do. It’s about what you’re supposed to do.”

Hunsaker encourages churches to become involved on a relational level, to volunteer and to interact one-on-one with those on the inside. He knows that what your heart will encounter is beyond description and that once you’ve experience it, you’ll be hooked.

First Steps
Jesus himself was put on trial, found guilty, imprisoned, placed on death row, and ultimately subject to capital punishment by the state. If we are to identify with Christ, we are to identify with those who find themselves in similar situations today.

Local churches can play a vital role in God’s plan for transformation. Encourage your congregation to engage in authentic intentional prayer for the incarcerated and for local prisons. Pray for those about to be released and those who have recently reentered their communities. Pray for the renewal of both the imprisoned as well as of the systems and structures that brought them there.

word art with baby footprints: "first steps"Include these prayers in the regular liturgy of your church, perhaps along with other ‘prayers of the people,’ if that is a tradition in your setting. Do not let the incarcerated people of our society be forgotten or left out of our daily prayers, but rather be diligent in lifting them up to God. In doing so, watch as our prisons and neighborhoods are blessed with God’s redemptive.

As prayers continue to be lifted, consider beginning a small group or bible study around the issues of mass incarceration. In partnership with willing correctional institutions, begin to send birthday and Christmas cards to specific inmates. Have all the members of your church sign these cards as part of their Sunday morning routines. Begin to ponder what it would look like for your church to become a sanctuary for recently released citizens.

It is important to engage your congregation early and often around these issues to help increase awareness and compassion. Similarly, it is important that the entire worshiping community remain mindful and prayerful together, not simply leaving it as a specialized interest of a few. Lift up the prisons and those ministering with them as a community, knowing that you are responding to God’s call to remember the incarcerated.

feet in front of the word 'start'
Be prepared for some challenges. The bureaucracy associated with prison ministry can be daunting. So too can be the cultural differences we may experience in prison ministry work. We learn many things about ourselves and our own culture’s assumptions and values when we encounter those different from ourselves. And it is in so doing that we see the face of God.

Isaiah 61:1 says "the Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, Because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to those who are bound." What does it mean to take these words seriously? What witness would we bear by living out God’s challenge to walk beside the imprisoned? Imagine how such a commitment might radically transform not only the individuals we help, but also profoundly alter our own lives, our local churches, and indeed entire communities for the glory of Christ. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

From Trauma to Hope: How One Initiative Is Transforming Prisons

This is the second article in a three-part series on mass incarceration and the Church. Previously, we discussed how a variety of discriminatory factors converge to put millions of people behind bars, a disproportionate number of whom are our black and brown citizens. Here, we examine one organization’s attempt to bring redemption to a broken system.

Prison can feel like a forgotten place. A place where we send our broken and unwanted to hide them away from the nation’s consciousness. For so many, it is a place of trauma, of retribution, that only adds to a lifetime of hurt. But what if instead, prisons were a place of redemption, a place of hope? What if prison became a beacon of God’s love, not just to those living there, but to the world?

These are some of the questions that the Horizon Prison Initiative tries to answer. 

Horizon grew out of the Kairos Prison Ministry when several leaders saw the need to expand beyond a brief three-day encounter into a more in-depth program that could build lasting relationships to truly transform lives. They found that “removing your inner scarring and resentments toward yourself and others is not a simple process; it is achieved in a 24/7 year-long living, learning, and loving environment.”

After an initial launch in Florida, Chief Operating Officer Jeff Hunsaker says the program expanded to Ohio when a compassionate warden saw the importance of faith communities within prison walls. Horizon aimed to do what the prison institution couldn’t—to love on prisoners with God’s love in a profoundly transformative way. Hunsaker observes “you can’t pay people to care about people.” It has to come freely, and from the heart.

Horizon’s mission is to “transform prisoners to embrace society, not harm it. These transformed prisoners then transform prison cultures. Then they transform home communities.” Horizon graduates are told “you are a living example of faith, love, and respect. As a graduate your message of spiritual development and personal growth will impact prison culture. You will make light out of darkness and bring hope where little is expected.”

In explaining how he came to lead such a unique and sometimes trying endeavor Hunsaker said “It’s about calling. You have to be called to do this work. I could not resist it.”

Jeff Hunsaker
The Horizon Program

The structure of the Horizon Program gives participants the opportunity to live out the lessons they are learning as they experience their transformation. As a sort of monastic community, participants are grouped into family units that meet regularly together. “That family part is critical” says Hunsaker. It helps the participants learn to live together, encouraging each other and resolving conflicts as a functional family, even if this hasn’t been their experience with their families outside of the prison.

Though Horizon participants are required to maintain their normal work schedules and prison life during the day, evenings are spent with other participants in a variety of Horizon programing. There are eight core components that are mandatory elements of the program:
1. Awakenings: Enhancing Spiritual Wholeness. Awakenings helps participants find meaning from their experiences, confronting thoughts and habits that contribute to current beliefs and behavior.
2. Building Community helps participants learn to resolve conflicts in constructive and meaningful ways and to gain “faith solutions to life’s trials and conflicts.”
3. Character Reformation is a time set aside to address how one’s thoughts and attitudes can themselves perpetuate negative circumstances and interactions.
4. Daily Family Meetings contribute to participants’ sense of belonging and help foster abiding relationships within family groups.
5. Faith Fundamentals shore up the foundations of participants’ spiritual beliefs and offers the building blocks for a committed faith.
6. Outside Brothers meet with participants to connect them with the outside community in solid, caring one-on-one relationships.
7. The Trauma/Healing Awareness Workshop allows participants to examine how trauma has affected their lives, and about breaking the trauma cycle.
8. Victim Awareness gives participants the opportunity to reflect on the effects of various crimes on victims, their families, and their communities.

Each program element provides an essential component of Horizon’s success, and participants can also create their own activities and electives. Hunsaker notes his particular gratitude for the Outside Brothers who work closely with each participant. He says that they “bring the grace of God,” entering into conversation with no agenda, but listening and loving unconditionally. They bring hope, helping the men realize “I’m not this piece of dirt that people are saying I am.”

Participants also have the opportunity to join in the Family Letter Writing program, which provides them each with two stamps and two envelopes per week. After weeks of exchanging letters with individuals back home, relationships can begin to be healed and families can be restored.

Graduates of the Horizon Program can return in subsequent years as Encouragers. Each family unit is assigned an Encourager who guides the group through the program, helping to resolve conflicts and to serve as a mentor to the men as they progress.

One of the Encouragers, known as Coach, attests “I love what I do. It’s about inmates helping inmates to change their lives. Who’d have thought I’d have the opportunity to go to prison and change lives?”

Transformative Community
As a result of Horizon’s work, lives are changed both inside and out of prison walls. The Horizon Program realizes that “prisons don’t successfully transform lives. Prisoners do.” It is sometimes the first encounter with the deep love of God for men who have never had anyone care about them.

Thus, faith plays a central role in the Horizon curriculum:
“Faith is a critical ingredient in Horizon’s transformation process. Horizon is not a place for quick, short-term, and for-show jailhouse displays of religiosity. The faith experience is real and deep with meaning – one that uncovers truth, gives purpose to those who thought they had none, and reinforces the changes they so desperately want to make.  It provides a way for atonement and forgiveness—of self and others. It invigorates people from the outside to volunteer and places of worship to become reentry lifelines. It gives hope where hope is not expected.”

Horizon also focuses on trauma recovery, knowing that “trauma not transformed is trauma transferred.”
Jimmy Cheadle
Those on the inside note that “just coming to prison is trauma itself.” There is a victim offender cycle in which those in prison were often first victims themselves before becoming perpetrators. Horizon helps them recognize this cycle, and to forgive.

Jimmy Cheadle is a Horizon graduate, and served as an Encourager on the inside. He now works as an Urban Encourager and Reentry Coordinator with UMChurch for All People in Columbus, OH, offering support and programing for recently released citizens. He explains “Horizons changes a few people at a time, letting them go back into the rest of the population to change the culture of the prison. But changing the culture takes a long time.”

That’s why Hunsaker says he actually sometimes prefers to enroll men serving life sentences. They have the opportunity to have the greatest long-term impact on prison culture. There are men who have graduated the program that are “far more effective inside than they would be on the street.” Thus, he note that “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28), even inside prison walls.

Horizons volunteer Sue Wolfe acknowledges that much of the transformative power of the program comes from the men themselves: “we recognize that we’re with them for a few hours a week in a long week.” The men are doing their own work of “reclaiming their own humanity, to learn they are also a person of worth.”

Word art of Romans 8:28 with gears in the background: " We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose."The Horizon Initiative believes that “Honor, Respect, and Dignity are due to each and every Human Being, not because of the greatness of their achievements nor how they have behaved, but because they are home to a soul that is inherently Holy.” Hunsaker elaborates “it’s all about instilling hope and saying that you don’t have to be defined by what society has told you about you”

Wolfe notes that “too often prisons are about retribution, not restitution, but that Horizon can “restore who God created us to be.” She has interacted with many men in the prison who “had thought they were not smart, who were told they aren’t, but now are learning so many things…it changes who they perceive themselves to be.”

Not a One-Way Street
Horizon has become part of the volunteers’ spiritual journey as well. “The volunteers will tell you they receive more than they give,” says Hunsaker. And indeed, the testimony of those visiting the prison attests to this. “I’m braver than I thought I was” Wolfe notes about her interactions and experiences, “I didn’t think I could do that.”

Men in the Horizons program
Susan McGarvey, also a volunteer with the Horizon Initiative shared that she “always lived and worked in communities similar to me. Certainly my world view has broadened immensely.” She goes on to explain “it makes us realize we are more alike than we are different. We sit down at table with each other week after week and find out that they are flawed human beings just like I am.”

The Horizon program provides an important step for volunteers to live into the faith they profess. McGarvey expounds “it’s a real opportunity to find out if the things you’ve been saying your whole life are really true: grace , mercy, forgiveness, loving the unlovable.” She has had a tremendous impact on the lives of men, and the men on her.

McGarvey notes that she also came to realize how similar we all are, that we all do “foolish things could have turned out differently. Hunsaker agrees, “we’re all part of the great uncaught.”

A Lasting Impact
When Dale, one of the Horizon Encouragers went before his parole board they asked him what benefited him the most while in prison, “Head and shoulders above, the answer was Horizon.”

With a recidivism rate that is five times lower than average, Horizon graduates make good use of the tools provided to them in the program. With government budgets becoming ever tighter, the program notes that “for every 10 Horizon participants that get out of prison and stay out, the state stands to save $260,000 per year, for every year they stay out!”

This makes the $1,600/person yearly cost of the program more than worthwhile, with the “return on that investment being in significant reduction in recidivism,” explains McGarvey. In the face of bloated prisons and broken legal systems, more programs like Horizon are needed to let the Light of God shine in dark places.

Having looked at the effect that God’s transformative love can have inside prison walls, we will next examine what local churches can do for those who have been recently released and are looking to rejoin our communities. If you would like to learn more about the Horizon Prison Initiative, or to support their work, visit:

The above article originally appeared at Urban Faith

Friday, September 25, 2015

Friday Fruit (09/25/15)

On Fridays, BTSF offers links to other discussions about race & Christianity. It's an opportunity for you to read other perspectives, and for me to give props to the many voices leading the way...

Weekly Round Up:

These are some of BTSF's links of interest this week. What are yours?

Feel free to contribute your own links in the comments section, or submit items you feel should be included during the week. Self-promotion is encouraged.
Creative Commons License
By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at @BTSFblog