One of the marks of a Christian is how we treat the most vulnerable in society. Even Jesus remarked that when we feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, provide clothing for the naked and visit those who are sick and in prison, it is as if we are serving him. Well, Van Jones isn’t just visiting prison, but in the CNN Original Series “The Redemption Project with Van Jones,” premiering on April 28th through the restorative justice process, he connects victims or surviving families with those who caused great violence in their lives for a chance of experiencing redemption, grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
I can’t front. I became teary watching The Redemption Project with Van Jones. The pain is palpable, the responses are raw and yet healing. The show, with its focus on redemption, grace, and forgiveness, is a much-needed balm at a time where vitriol is fired off 280 characters at a time.
“I’ve just been so saddened by the exit from our culture of empathy, of forgiveness, of grace, of love, of second chances. It’s in all political parties. It’s in all racial groups, economic groups. It’s so trendy and fashionable to block people and cancel people and flame people and be the 4000th person to retweet something negative about somebody. Just this pile on, nasty culture and we really wanted to do something that was 180º in the other direction,” said Jones.
Uplift it does. Each episode chronicles the restorative justice process of a victim or surviving family with the offender whose actions changed the course of their lives. It’s risky, to say the least, but as the late filmmaker and activist Toni Cade Bambara famously said, “…wholeness is no trifling matter.” It takes great courage and strength. The victims, surviving families, and offenders alike have to dig deep within, confront painful truths, and open themselves to healing even if it does not come in the ways they anticipate. Don’t expect a happy ending every time; The Redemption Project is unscripted and unrehearsed. Sometimes there is forgiveness. Always there is healing.
Van took some time to talk with Urban Faith about the need for empathy in our nation, his personal faith journey and how it connects with The Redemption Project, and why this show is necessary for such a time as this.
How did this project come about? Why now?
For 25 years I’ve been working inside of prisons. I know that somebody can go into a prison and just be a horrifically misguided human being and ten years later, twenty years later, not because of prison, but really in spite of prison, have transformed themselves into someone who has more wisdom and more strength than 99% people who are not in prison. And so, I knew that we have these diamonds sparkling inside of our prisons and that people don’t know. And then when I see how foolishly we have been conducting ourselves outside of prison, having so much data, and so little wisdom in our society. We can now know everything about somebody – with Facebook and YouTube, somebody can whip out their cell phone or camera phone and get on and boom, everybody’s mad. We have all this data, but we have no wisdom to process all that. And if we’re going to have this much information about people, we need to have a more empathetic and understanding culture. And so, I’m trying to push in that direction. That’s the secret agenda.
That’s the secret agenda! I love it! So, the show really shows the worst in humanity as you tell the story of what happened and then delves deeper into the stories of people so that we as viewers can bear witness to the best in humanity. The focus on humanity, being in the same room, making eye contact, and physical touch, how important was it for you to show the humanity of those who folks have written off as inhumane?
The show works because you take people who you would ordinarily just write off and you complicate it, and you begin to show this person was eating out of garbage cans when they were fourteen and you certainly start seeing these people in a different way. Not to give excuses for anybody’s choices because there were other people eating out of garbage cans who didn’t make that choice. But it is to give context. And it is to try to color in some of the humanity. In the way the show works, you take somebody who has done something really bad and who wants to make amends 10 years later, 20 years later and then you take somebody who they hurt—or all too often the surviving family member—and you talk to them and everything they have gone through. You put those people in a room together and let them talk to each other. When that happens, we don’t know how it’s going to work out, but it is a situation where miracles have happened on our show.
I’m glad you used the word miracle. Because as beautifully human as it is, it’s also deeply spiritual work. There was the episode with Teria and Josh, where the Restorative Justice facilitator says, “There is healing. People are lighter.” Throughout the show, you have your themes; redemption, restoration, healing, forgiveness, wholeness, and all of that. As I watched, I thought this is big. This is us in all of our humanity, and yet at the same time, it is bigger than us. Can you talk about the role of faith and spirituality in the project—both your personal faith journey and the role of faith in the lives of the victims or surviving families and the offenders.
Well, I can only speak for myself. I grew up in the church. My grandfather was a Senior Bishop of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME), Bishop Chester Arthur Kirkendoll. I’m his grandson and I grew up in the church and that’s been my touchstone. In my teenage years and early 20s, I got away from it but came quickly back home. Nine times out of 10, the people who are participating in our series, once you scratch the surface, they are also people of faith on both sides. Because you gotta think, who would be willing to even extend the opportunity to have a conversation in these contexts on either side. It’s usually people of faith. Now, not everybody involved in the show is a person of faith, but I know that for me, I insisted—and I didn’t have to fight that hard—but I thought it was very important that the people be able to speak and say, “Listen, I’m praying to God right now” or “I’m doing this because of Scripture” and you’ll probably hear the word God more on my little one hour show than on all of the rest of cable TV combined that week because our culture has become so secular. But this is a case where people’s spiritual journey was key on both sides of the table.
That makes a lot of sense. Because you can feel that. It’s palpable when you watch the show and I’m sure that it was also palpable as you journeyed with each story. You do a lot of work in preparation, but at the time of the sit-down, you are not present in the room. And I wondered, is that an intentional decision? Talk about the decision not to be in the room.
When you’re dealing with stuff of this magnitude it takes a lot of preparation. It takes very skillful facilitators. Even before they sit down, they have to write letters and they really go through a lot because they’re taking a huge risk, emotionally with everybody involved. I don’t have that training and it’s not appropriate for me to be there just because I have a TV show. But I am in the next room over. I’m watching it on the monitor. And we realize that me watching it is actually a part of the show because…by the time we have those folks sitting down talking to each other, I have spent hours and hours with each one separately. And so, I’m pulling for each one. I’m nervous. The first time we did it, after it was over, I cried so hard that my nose started bleeding because my blood pressure was so high and it was just so stressful. But what I love about this show, it’s the opposite of the “True Crime” genre. Everybody loves True Crime, but True Crime is basically Whodunit. In this situation, it’s almost like once you figure out Whodunit, you’re done. Even once you know Whodunit, you’re still suffering 10 years later, 20 years later. What do we do then to have people take at least one more step towards healing? We show that part of the process, which is even more powerful.
As I watched you in the other room, I noticed at times that your eyes were closed. I think it was the episode with Donald Lacey and Mike, I was teary watching it and I wondered how you prepare yourself even for that moment?
You know, sometimes you’re not prepared (chuckles). I wish I could lie and say I was prepared. I’m in there boohooing and stressed out. I’m not any more prepared than anybody else. But you show up and you try. And sometimes there’s a presence that enters the room and everybody can tell when something really extraordinary is happening. Listen, two of the surviving parents, as I’ve said many times, do not get to a warm fuzzy place with the person who took their child’s life. But they still get some of their needs met because they get information they never had, they get questions answered they’ve always had, so there’s still a step towards their healing. But in three of these, the surviving family members and/or the victims try to get the person out of prison. So, you have the whole range of human response to pain and tragedy in these eight episodes. Because it’s real. This is not reality television. There are no scripts. There’s nobody getting prompted. There’s nobody getting paid. This is literally people making the most vulnerable moment of their lives, sharing that with the person who changed their life, one way or the other.
Seeing Donald Lacey at the beginning of the episode you hear him say, “I just wanted revenge” and then by the end you’re seeing this beautiful embrace…
(Laughs) Don’t give away all the goodies now!
We won’t give away all the goodies. Even me saying that little bit is really just a snippet. I think folks need to see this show.
I’m just giving you a hard time because there’s beautiful stuff that happens, there’s bad stuff that happens. There’s a moment in that show that I think is the most heartbreaking moment in the whole series even though at the end of the day things take a turn. Because it’s so real and you can’t script it because, literally, who knows. We’ve had people who swore to God they didn’t want to have the conversation; they were ready to forgive and then they couldn’t do it. Once they say down and saw that person, they couldn’t do it. We’ve had other people who’ve sworn to God they wouldn’t even shake the person’s hand and they went the other way. It’s just an amazing experience. The only thing I want to add is that this is my life. Ok. You have the Van Jones Show that I have every other Saturday. I call that Sesame Street for grown people. I’m trying to have meaningful conversations. I don’t care if I never go viral or don’t have the greatest ratings in the history of the world. If we can have a meaningful conversation with somebody in public life and let them talk about who they really are, that’s what I’m trying to do…the Redemption Project. Also the Reform Alliance, with Jay Z, Meek Mill, and about half a dozen other heavy hitters put together to try to fix our court system, our criminal justice system. I love working with the Reform Alliance because we’re bringing Republicans and Democrats together. I’m a strong Democrat and I’ll vote Democrat for the rest of my life, but I don’t believe any one party is perfect. I don’t believe we can get anywhere without each other and we have just gone too far in a negative direction. Obviously, I’m going to stick up for mamas getting their babies snatched at the border and transgender people being mistreated. You can’t just fight and still have a country. You have to find something you can work on together. I want to be as passionate and excited about where I do agree with Republicans as where I don’t. If we can agree that the criminal justice system should be fixed, if we can agree that addiction and mental health are big issues, if we can agree that poor kids need more help—we many see differently how to help them—but if we can agree on that, let me be as excited working with you where I agree with you as I am working against you where I don’t. And we’ve now come to a place where we can be excited when we’re mad and what we’re against, but we can’t be excited about what we’re for and that’s wrong. So, I’m hoping this show will add some medicine.
The Redemption Project with Van Jones premieres on CNN on Sunday, April 28th and will air on Sunday nights at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
Rev. Donna Olivia Owusu-Ansah is a preacher, chaplain, teacher, artist, writer, thinker, and dreamer who loves to study the Word of God, encourage others, and worship God. Rev. Owusu-Ansah holds a BS in Studio Art from New York University, an MFA in Photography from Howard University, and a Master of Divinity, Pastoral Theology, from Drew University. You can check out her website at https://www.reverendmotherrunner.com.