The Community Gospel Choir of St. Louis performs on March 15, 2019, in St. Louis. RNS photo by Bill Motchan
Emi Belciak teaches third grade in a tough part of suburban St. Louis, where she says her students are exposed to more violence than any child should be.
The school where Belciak teaches is just three miles from the site in Ferguson, Mo., where Michael Brown was killed. Five years have passed, but this part of north St. Louis County hasn’t completely healed.
Belciak wanted to do something to help — so she joined a choir.
The Community Gospel Choir of St. Louis is dedicated to bridging the black and white communities in a metropolitan area rarely associated with racial harmony. The diverse group aims to break down racial, cultural and economic barriers among its members and the community.
The 75-member choir opens its Monday night rehearsals with group prayer. Next, the choir preps for an upcoming performance or refines a new song. The idea is to get the lyrics and music memorized so the choir can improvise in front of an audience, just like a jazz or blues musician would.
At the core of the repertoire are message songs, about gathering inner strength in the face of adversity. Typical are the rousing “Call on the Lord” and “Now I’m on My Way.”
The choir is 40 percent black and 60 percent white, unlike many choirs that are either all white or all black. CGC members often socialize outside of official choir activities, say group members. They go out to eat and sometimes belt out a rock anthem together at a karaoke bar.
The Community Gospel Choir of St. Louis. RNS photo by Bill Motchan
Most are Christian. For them, singing gospel music is a religious experience.
“What really attracted me was the choir’s endeavor to bring races together through African-American spirituals and gospel,” said Suzanne Palmer, the group’s musical director. “I thought, this is great, to try and bring the races together through the good news of Jesus. I thought, wow, that’s probably for me.”
As part of its mission, the group also tries to collaborate with other choral groups of different backgrounds. An early March concert matched the CGC with the New Sunny Mount Baptist Chancel Choir (which drew a primarily black audience) and the Ambassadors of Harmony, a barbershop-quartet-style group with a mostly white fan base.
The CGC is open to all comers, said Tom Ptacek, CGC president. It had a Reform Jewish rabbi member at one time in its 12-year history and currently has at least two LGBTQ members.
“We’d accept a Muslim member. We don’t have any — yet,” said Ptacek. “We need to get some Hispanic members in the choir, too. We are diverse by race, economics and geography. We made a conscious decision to include people from different economic backgrounds to be part of the choir.”
Up the Mississippi River a bit from St. Louis, the Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir in Minnesota has a similar mission. It seeks to bridge communities across racial, cultural and economic divides through its soulful interpretation of African-American gospel music.
The Twin Cities choir is now in its 26th year.
Founder Robert Robinson started the choir at Metropolitan State University to create a diverse community on campus, said Laura Tueting Nelson, TCCGC president.
The Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir, led by artistic director Ed Newman, center, is in its 26th year. Photo courtesy of TCCGC
“Minnesota has a large chorale tradition, and interestingly enough, Scandinavians initially showed up to sing in the choir, so it started out being a lot of white people,” Tueting Nelson said. “Then Robert brought in more people of color and he started this group singing. Most of the Scandinavian white folks did not have any experience singing gospel music so he started from the beginning.”
That meant they didn’t sing from scores, but rather followed the oral tradition of listening to how to sing the music properly and repeating it.
“From the beginning, it was teaching people about the tradition and the impact of gospel music,” Tueting Nelson said. “They sang throughout the community and were quite successful.”
Emi Belciak sings with the Community Gospel Choir of St. Louis. RNS photo by Bill Motchan
The Twin Cities choir focuses on the cultural and artistic aspects of gospel music, rather than seeing it as a religious experience.
“People from any background can participate and learn something about what this music meant historically as well as where it’s going today since there’s a lot of new music being written,” Tueting Nelson said. “We include an oral talking history of gospel music and a whole capsule about this American music that led into blues and jazz and uniquely American forms of music.”
The TCCGC is 20 percent black, representative of its community’s diversity. The group rehearses weekly, like its St. Louis counterpart.
“It’s impressive to me that people are willing to give every Thursday of their lives, as well as performance dates, to sing with this choir,” said Tueting Nelson. “Anyone can join; you don’t have to go through a tryout. We assume they’ll be able to carry a tune.”
Back in St. Louis, Belciak says being part of the gospel choir has been “therapeutic.” She’s always loved singing and said that getting to know choir members has allowed her to meet people from different walks of life and to hear their stories.
It’s a small step toward building a stronger community.
“I’m definitely supportive of the mission of the choir,” Belciak said. “Seeing the kind of violence that my kids are exposed to and how it affects their self-esteem, I like to think I’m making a difference and playing a part in the solution.”
Our rendezvous point was the home of a saint. Together, we climbed the 25 steps that led to the bedroom of Mother Teresa, a five-foot giant of love and mercy. We peered into the small, modestly adorned space where she had slept, prayed, and responded to letters from every corner the world. Slowly, we descended the stairs and walked into the chapel that contained Mother’s tomb. Some of the women kissed the tomb. Some gave alms. Some cried. One showed her daughter how to fold her hands in prayer. They were prostitutes and owners of brothels. I was a woman who was about to journey from ignorance to understanding, and from judgment to love.
This was just one of the many mind-changing and heart-opening encounters I had on a recent mission trip to India. For years, Anita, a missionary and friend of mine, had been asking me to accompany her overseas, but I always had one good excuse or another. I had supported her efforts financially, but I didn’t think I was called to go to other parts of the world to serve when there were enough folks in my own backyard who needed to be served. Mind you, I wasn’t really serving people in my own backyard, but the excuse made me believe that I had my priorities straight. This year though, she had urged me, was the right year for me to go because she would be doing something different. Along with distributing rice, other staples, and the good news of God’s love for everyone, she wanted to offer soul care to religious leaders as well as HIV-positive children living in orphanages, widows, nursing mothers, those attending churches in the jungle, the hearing impaired, and prostitutes. She thought that since I had a certificate in the practice of spiritual direction and a master’s degree in family ministry and spiritual formation, I was well equipped to help people pay greater attention to the quality of their relationship with God.
I knew that I was ill-equipped to speak to such a broad range of audiences, but I decided to go because I was interested in visiting that part of the world and curious about what I could learn from a different culture. Learning, I was to discover, was about to take on a whole new depth after I spent a day with women whom I thought I knew. What I deemed to be knowledge had been prejudice in disguise.
Sharing Life Together
Writer Maisie Sparks at the home of Mother Teresa.
After we left the chapel, the women and I went to the museum that chronicles Mother Teresa’s life. Some of the women couldn’t read English or their own language, but we looked at the pictures and followed the visual narrative about the impact Mary Teresa Bojaxhiu had made on the world.
The women were well-dressed. Not in that I’m-trying-to-pick-up-a-guy kind of way that I had assumed they would be, but in a I’m-going-somewhere-important-and-I-should-dress-for-the-occasion way. Their saris were made of vibrant, colorful, and intricately designed materials. I, on the other hand, was sorely underdressed. I had bought an inexpensive contemporary Indian-styled blouse on the first day of my arrival. My attempt at replicating the culture’s fashion sense was so bad that one of my interpreters convinced a store owner to give me a better price on some souvenirs because I was not a rich American. The evidence of my station in life, she pointed out, was the kind of material my clothes had been made from. Although my pride was hurt, my wallet was happy.
As we walked through the courtyard that connected the buildings that comprised the Mother House of the Missionaries of Charity, I pulled out my journal and began to capture some of my thoughts. I was starting to feel as if this was going to be a watershed day and that I should write down as much of it as I could. But I had to stop. A group photo was being organized, and I hurried over to make sure that I was part of it to memorialize the day that I began to see similarities and not just differences. Even though we didn’t speak the same language and were from different cultures, we all shared the same desires. We wanted better for our lives, and especially, the lives of our children. We had suffered at the hands of others and had been impacted by systems and circumstances that restricted the financial mobility of the poor—especially women. We all, at some point in our lives, had overstepped the bounds of righteousness to secure the life we thought we wanted.
In some cultures, prostitution is a viable choice for women who are poor, lack education, and have little, if any, hope for help from charities or government programs. It provides a career path to ownership of bars, hotels/brothels, catering services, and other ancillary services once a woman can earn more money than she needs to survive. Indeed, several of the women I met were business owners.
One of the missionaries who we served with in India told me that the women have been open to hearing the gospel, especially in the engaging ways Anita had shared it on previous visits. Yet, few have been motivated to change their careers. Where she’d seen the greatest change is in the numbers of them enrolling their children in the pre-schools she had established.
As the day continued, I would learn that even before the local missionary opened her pre-schools, many of the women had given their children an education. Some had even put their children through college—both boys and girls. Educating girls is significant because they don’t have equal worth in this and many other cultures. I realized that this belief is pervasive and is manifested in my own culture by unequal pay, glass ceilings to career advancement, and the inability of women to obtain business loans.
Teaching and Learning
After visiting Mother Teresa’s home, we took a short walk to a cloistered hotel with a beautiful lawn and an air-conditioned meeting room. Anita began the teaching part of our day by sharing the good news of the sacrificial love of Christ. The session ended with joyous songs of praise from the women. To take a break from a long spell of sitting, we went outside to play a game.
Anita had each woman find a partner. One partner was blindfolded, and the other had to guide the blindfolded person through a maze of chairs by giving only verbal directions. It was comical to watch and uncomfortable to experience. But it led us into a discussion about what it’s like to walk in darkness, to stumble around, to be fearful. We asked ourselves: Can we trust the voice we hear? Are we good at giving directions? Are we good at taking directions? Do we know our left from our right? The exercise elicited much laughter. Anita transitioned from talking about the darkness to introducing the Light. There is a voice we can trust, she declared. That voice invites us to walk a path that leads to the better life that we all seek.
After a spicy lunch, it was my turn to teach, and I introduced the women to the prayer of examen. Each time I shared this prayer in this culture, I wondered whether it would be experienced as relevant. Poor people don’t need a reflective prayer, I thought. They need a prayer about getting God to do things for them through prayer. What I was to learn, however, is that everyone, everywhere needs time to reflect on what they think about God. We all need to discover that our deepest desire is to know God deeply, no matter where we live, what we’ve done, or what our circumstances are.
As I shared my presentation, I often paused, asking questions, and waiting for feedback to see whether I was explaining the prayer clearly. They responded with answers that let me know that they understood me. Near the end, one woman stood and prayed the prayer using examples from her own life—direct confirmation for me that she got it.
I discovered that prayer – reflective, sincere, and unbiased – can activate compassion and give birth to love. We ended the day singing songs of praise, playing balloon volleyball, giving gifts, and sharing hugs. I no longer experienced their presence as “them and me.” We were one: women united with a universal bond and a desire to know God, each other, and our own selves at a much deeper level.
I had traveled more than 8,000 miles to be part of a mission trip, but in reality, I had taken a longer journey. I had experienced the mysterious lengths God will take to get us out of our heads and into His heart. That is the longest and most significant distance each of us can ever travel.
Maisie Sparks is a spiritual director and the author of Holy Shakespeare and other titles.
People browse the eVitabu app on a tablet provided by African Pastors Fellowship. Video screenshot via African Pastors Fellowship
KAMPALA, Uganda (RNS) — On a recent Sunday morning, dozens of South Sudanese refugees gathered inside a tent at Imvepi Refugee Camp to thank God for enabling them to found a new church.
The new Pentecostal church was partly made possible by a new app that links preachers to Bible translations and theological resources from which they can prepare sermons and teach congregants about their faith.
“It’s a new dawn for refugees,” said Pastor Chol Mayak, 48, a father of four who recently attended a training on the app. “We are going to train other refugees so that they can open more churches and spread the gospel across the camps.”
Dr. Yamanda Edwards meets with patient Gail Carter at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital outpatient clinic in March 2018. (Photos by Heidi de Marco)
Dr. Yamanda Edwards, the daughter of a truck driver and a stay-at-home mom, grew up just a few miles from Martin Luther King/Drew Medical Center, at the time an iconic yet troubled hospital in South Los Angeles.
As a child in the 1990s, she knew little of its history — how it rose from the ashes of the Watts riots. And she knew no one in the medical profession.
Still, she wanted to become a doctor. “I didn’t know how I was going to get there, but I wanted to get there,” she said. “I was determined.”
In her lifetime, the community where she grew up has changed dramatically. The population is mostly Latino now, no longer predominantly African-American. King/Drew closed in 2007 amid allegations of malpractice and malfeasance. The new hospital, a private, nonprofit that opened in 2015, is smaller but vibrant, with brand-new facilities, staff and an outpatient medical clinic. It’s part of a broader campus that includes outpatient and public health centers run by Los Angeles County.
What hasn’t changed in the area is the need for doctors like Edwards.
Edwards’ patients have conditions ranging from anxiety and depression to psychosis. Many have never seen a psychiatrist — or any mental health professional, for that matter. Yet the pressures in their lives contribute to poor physical and mental health.
“There are a lot of stressors coming from living in an environment with health care disparities, a lot of access to drugs, poverty, immigration issues,” Edwards said.
The neighborhood surrounding the hospital has higher rates of psychological distress and a greater need for mental health care than the statewide average, according to 2014 data from UCLA. Residents also are more likely to be poor and out of work, though average levels of educational achievement and income have risen somewhat in recent decades.
Edwards teaches her patients about their conditions — what it means to have clinical depression, how it feels to have a panic attack. Many show appreciation for having someone they can turn to. “They’ve tried to do it on their own, but now it’s time to see someone,” Edwards said.
Gail Carter, 62, of Compton, Calif., suffers from chronic pain and depression but said she has been sleeping and feeling better since starting sessions with Edwards. “I didn’t know how to figure it out by myself,” she said. “Dr. Edwards helped me. She gets me to think. And she reminds me to breathe.”
Dreaming Of Being A Doctor
Edwards said she feels some nostalgia for her neighborhood, along with sadness. She escaped some of the worst aspects — violence, drugs and gangs — protected by her family and its high aspirations for her and her siblings. “Higher education was just sort of expected of us,” she said. “I do believe I was somewhat insulated.”
Her curiosity about medicine started in middle school. She attended the King/Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science, which allowed her to shadow doctors at the old King/Drew hospital and help with cancer research. “It was almost like we were medical interns, but we were in high school,” she recalled.
Despite the support, she faced setbacks. When she was 15, her father died of colon cancer, four days after he was diagnosed. For some time after that, she didn’t want to set foot in a hospital. “I thought, ‘How am I going to become a doctor when I hate hospitals?’”
Then she reflected on how her dad had encouraged her to pursue medicine, knowing it was her dream, and “that motivated me.”
Edwards remembers wondering, when the old King/Drew hospital closed, where patients in the neighborhood would go for care — and if the high school students would still find hospital internships.
After graduating from UCLA, Edwards attended medical school at Charles Drew/UCLA — next to her old high school — through a program designed for students who wanted to practice in underserved areas. During a student rotation at Kedren Acute Psychiatric Hospital in Los Angeles, Edwards saw bipolar disorder, psychosis and major depression up close, and she was struck by the need for care among minorities, especially African-Americans and Latinos. “This is something that doesn’t really get talked about in either of those communities,” she said.
That propelled her toward a career in psychiatry. She completed her residency in psychiatry at UCLA in June 2017 and started her job at MLK two months later. “It just felt right,” she said.
In addition to working at the hospital, Edwards also belongs to a new outpatient medical group the hospital started last year to expand specialty care for its patients. Hospital CEO Elaine Batchlor said Edwards is exactly the kind of doctor they wanted to attract. “She understands the people who live in our community,” she said. “And she has a deep commitment to them.”
Separating The Old From The New
Patients come in at all hours of the day and night needing mental health care, said Ameer Moussa, a physician who practices at the hospital. “A psychiatrist is something we knew we needed from day one,” he said.
Moussa said Edwards’ calm personality and patience enables her to communicate effectively with her patients. “Trust is a really important thing, and she gains their trust and gains it quickly,” he said.
That helps, especially with patients who recall the difficult history of the old King/Drew, which came to be known in some circles as “Killer King.”
Edwards’ childhood memories of the area help her connect with patients. When they are distressed about their challenges in life, she will often tell them, “I understand. I grew up here too.”
Edwards, who now lives in Cypress, Calif., with her husband and 19-month-old son, spends most of her workweek helping to triage mental health patients in the ER and visiting those who are admitted to the hospital.
MLK’s emergency room has seen twice as many patients as it originally expected when it opened, and many suffer from mental illness.
On a recent afternoon, Edwards saw a woman who was 30 weeks pregnant and threatening to harm herself. Combative and possibly psychotic, she was convinced her baby was an alien. “Let me go,” she screamed as staffers tried to restrain her. “Get off of me!”
Edwards ordered medication to help calm her down. She also placed her on a 72-hour psychiatric hold and started searching for an inpatient bed for her.
Edwards knew that wouldn’t be easy, given the severe psych bed shortage and the woman’s condition. “Psychiatric hospitals can sort of pick and choose who they want to take,” Edwards said. “Pregnant patients are a little more risky to take on.”
Edwards spends much of her time at the hospital dashing in and out of patients’ rooms, attempting — often in fleeting conversations — to assess them and their risk of hurting themselves or others. Many of her patients are homeless, alcoholic or addicted to drugs.
Once a week, Edwards heads to an outpatient clinic run by MLK a few miles away. Some of her patients take a while to warm up to her. She spends a lot of time with them before even raising the idea of medication.
“Coming from a community where there is a lot of stigma about mental health … the acceptance of medication is another barrier,” she said.
Edwards said she does everything she can to help her patients — both outside and inside the hospital. But in the end, Martin Luther King, Jr. is an acute care hospital, not a psychiatric one. Edwards isn’t there round-the-clock, and the hospital can keep certain psychiatric patients for only up to three days. One of the hardest parts of her job, she said, is wondering what will happen to patients when they leave.
“You want to know the end result of what happened, if you did the right thing, if they’re safe.”
Early Easter morning, millions awaken before sunrise with a purpose. The dark skies give faint hint of the sunrise within the hour. A stretch of the arms, a wipe through the eyes, feet reaching downward for temporary covering against the floor terrain, and it is time to get moving. Slivers of remaining moonlight provide faint illumination through narrow openings above the bed. The millions have heard the call, and now respond! The time has come to join the line as men and women, even some boys and girls put their feet in the line to the appointed destination to which they are called this Easter Sunday. There they will see familiar faces, hear familiar sounds, and may even smell familiar odors. It is a dawn of a new day, and they are on their way.
Their destination? “Chow call” in the prison refectory or “Meds up!” to the cart the nurse brings on the unit for those requiring morning medication. The stretch of the arms relieves some of the tension from the cell’s hard cot, the eyes crusted literally and figuratively by biology and monotony, the floor’s terrain cold on even the warmest day when one’s address is prison. We do not know how many millions go to church on Easter–but we know how many awaken in state and federal prisons: an excruciating 2.1 million men and women arise at Easter’s sunrise to another day when they seem oblivious to anyone on the other side of the prison walls. Another several million arise in county jails, many not physically far from home but incarnations of “out of sight, out of mind” even to those who are descendants of those to whom Jesus spoke just before his arrest and incarceration “I was in prison, and you visited me.”
Yes, millions have arisen with a purpose: count down the days, occupy the mind, anticipate a visit, and perhaps even attend chapel — purpose is a precious commodity for them. They are inmates, prisoners, convicts peopling America’s jails and prisons in record numbers — over two million in state and federal prison alone — and they arise every morning about the time the Easter Sunrise service crowd shakes the cobwebs from their consciousness to face their annual celebration.
The Easter lens well fits any view of incarceration. After all, when Jesus Christ died on the cross, he was an inmate. We celebrate the truth that God raised his only begotten son from the grave — we overlook the fact that the body which breathed its last before burial belonged to a prisoner. He hung between two thieve or malefactors, but “was numbered” with them as well.
Shame and Stigma of Incarceration
Incarceration in America carries more than the punishment of “doing time.” Shame and stigmatization plague an inmate during incarceration and after release. Those twin maladies spread like a virus to relatives left behind, children separated from fathers and mothers, parents grieving for their children, grandparents serving as caretakers for a generation forty, fifty, and sixty years their junior while fathers stretch their arm in the cell and mothers wipe their eyes on the block. Shame and stigma, contagious and infectious as they manifest in symptoms of silence, rendering the affected loved one incapable of sharing the true hurt with anyone at the Sunrise service in celebration of the Risen Inmate!
It is Easter sunrise…. God listens for the praise of God’s people from the cathedrals and storefronts, the megachurch and mass choirs, parish priests and local pastors, pulpit and pew. But God also listens for the prayers of the prisoner, wrestling with past demons, present conditions, and future uncertainty, all with some hope of the transformation promised by the Risen Inmate who makes all things new. Millions arose this Easter morning to attend a sunrise service. Millions more arose to attend to the business of doing time.
An important connection exists between these two populations — this dual set of early risers on Easter morning. Many of them count people in the other crowd as kin — many who run with one crowd used to sit with the other. Many who heard the sound of the choir’s “Hallelujah Chorus” or “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” or “Praise is What I Do,” this morning once heard “Chow Up,” or the slow grind of motors turning to open a series of cell doors. The cymbal was the clanging of cages, the tambourine the rattling of chains. And some who this morning donned uniform orange, blue or tan jumpsuits once sported matching white or black robes on a morning such as this.
Preaching seldom reaches the pain felt by the incarcerated and their families. The separation traumatizes, the anger and disappointment of those left behind papered over by Sunday School memories of lessons on forgiveness. Many incarcerated parents long to see their children; some allow shame to hold their children at bay. Many who do seek the comfort of the Risen Inmate to dry their tears and encourage their hearts find disappointment in the prison chapel service when the local church sends well-meaning but poorly trained volunteers to preach sermons that the church’s pastor would never allow on a Sunday morning, especially an Easter Sunrise service.
Seldom do they hear that the Risen Inmate ministered to another convict before dying by telling him that he would be in paradise with him. They rarely hear that the Risen Inmate suffered brutally at the hands of the corrections officers, and was raised with evidence in his hands of eighth amendment violations of cruel and unusual punishment. They do not hear about the Risen Inmate’s long march up the Via Dolorosa to “endure the cross, despising the shame” as an encouragement for them to receive strength from knowing that “Jesus knows all about our struggles…” They hear an Easter message that rehearses the resurrection as saving act, but seldom as the sustaining act which brings “a living hope.”
Gospel of the Risen Inmate
The late Rev. Lonnie McLeod, who completed his first seminary degree in the New York Theological Seminary Sing Sing program said, “In all my time incarcerated, I really only heard one sermon: you messed up, you got caught, get saved …” But not only does salvation come by preaching, but also “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the “preaching of the Risen Inmate. After his release, McLeod’s preaching both in and out of prisons and jails acknowledged the pain caused by incarceration. At his passing in 2009, he was working on a Christmas sermon that dealt with the pain of incarceration. I asked him how he could make the connection between the manger and the penitentiary, and the good Dr. boldy remarked: “Trulear, this is Christmas. Everybody wants to talk about the first night of Jesus’ life. But no one wants to talk about the last night. And without the events of the last night, the first night loses its meaning! His incarceration, execution, and vindication make his birth worth celebrating!
This does not mean that prison preaching overlooks the responsibility of prisoners to own their sins. Accountability, indeed, signals a recognition of the humanity The Risen Inmate was executed to restore. The “Adam, where art thou” question lives in the Risen Inmate’s heart, for it is precisely for the sinner that he has come. He has come for the one who uses “wrong place, wrong time, wrong crowd” the same way Adam used “wrong crowd” to describe “the woman that You gave me.” He came for the violent defender of a friend’s honor, and will transform and use him even as he did Moses. He came for the popular musician who conspired to put out a hit on another man so he could have his wife, all while singing, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I see what I want.” He counted the transgressions of a contracted hit man, accessory to murder as his own- and that same man later wrote that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.” The Risen Inmate sees their humanity, and for precisely that reason calls the unrighteous, the violent offender to become a deliverer of his people, the lamp of Israel, and an apostle to the Gentiles.
Not only does the Risen Inmate have a word for those persons arising in America’s jails and prisons on Easter, the Risen Inmate seeks to be seen and heard of the families left behind. Families struggle to hear a word for them in the pain of separation. They sit on the Good Friday side of the sentencing of the Risen Inmate, and don’t always see the potential for a reunion in the garden on Easter Morning. “Touch me not” stares from signs in the visitation room. It wells up in the heads on visitors subjected to searches by the corrections officers before and after time with an inmate. It is not a phrase pointing to ascension, but a descent into deprivation, motivated by security and draped in dehumanization. They want a word that addresses the morning they came to visit with new prison clothes, like the women who cam that first Easter with new grave clothes for the Risen Inmate. But when these families are told “He is not here,” it does not point to the surprise turned joy of a resurrection, but disillusionment turned panic in the discovery of a transfer to another facility, or a confinement to solitary. Does the preacher, in the name of the Risen Inmate, have a word for them?
Reimagining Our Prison Ministry
My colleague Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert once asked me to post a sermon on his website The Preaching Project, with the subject being preaching to families of the incarcerated. The message, titled “Preacher, We Are Dying in Here,” makes the case that preaching to the families of the incarcerated is something we already do! They people our pews, tithe their treasure, sing their songs, pray their prayers every Sunday, but suffer in silence. The church may have a prison ministry, but it often does not touch them, or their incarcerated family member. Prison ministry is institution focused, unlike ministry to the sick. If we replaced ministry to and visitation of the sick with the prison model, we would stop visiting individuals and families connected with the church, and just train three volunteers to give a service and a sermon once a month at the local hospital. The Risen Inmate declared that the church “shall be witnesses unto me, in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and unto the uttermost parts of the earth.” For most, the jail of prison is the uttermost part of the earth; for the family of the incarcerated, it is Jerusalem.
Preaching often overlooks the scars of the formerly incarcerated, wounded by warehousing, roughed up in reentry. They looked forward to their release date as a time to step into the Promised Land, only to discover a wilderness of collateral sanctions limiting their ability to work, find housing, access education and exercise their franchise. The wilderness extends to congregations that either openly reject them, or buy into the world’s stigmatization process rendering them silent. Theirs is a tacit fellowship of frustration shepherded by shame, silence, and stigma. And the ones who come home to this stony reality find a wilderness where they had expected grapes in bunches for two men to carry.
The newspapers and other media champion the need for jobs for ex-offenders. Employment woes dot the pages of those outlets that give the formerly incarcerated coverage at all. Poor training and education wed the stigma and shame of incarceration in a double ring ceremony that morphs from ties that bind into chains that restrict. A word from the Risen Inmate can minister Easter hope beyond incarceration, and encourage the jobless soul on the other side of imprisonment. The Resurrection says that there is life beyond the dank jail, the taunts of guards and fellow inmates, the pain of separation from loved ones. “I have scars,” Jesus declares, “but I am useful, triumphant, compassionate and giving!” It is Jesus, post-release, who says “Fear not.” It is Jesus, post-release, who says “Feed my sheep.” The post-release Risen Inmate declares “All power has been given unto me in heaven and in earth.”
And he promises his presence “even to the end of the earth.” There is a word for the ex-offender! A promise of a transformative permanent presence that knows how to look at a former accomplice who turned scared on him to avoid arrest, and tell him to feed his lambs. The Risen Inmate knows something about change, and trusting the formerly untrustworthy. He anticipated the change when he told Simon Johnson that he was a rock. So too does he call the formerly incarcerated by names that spell hope and promise, like the term “returning citizens.” But most of all he calls them human, beloved, and even “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and that, the conspirator who put out a hit on Uriah the Hittite knew right well.
And Remembering the Victims
Is there a word from the Risen Inmate for those who have been victims of crime? What is a bold Easter message for families of victims, by walking toughs of town watch, by drive-by or beef, by violence domestic or street? Does God hear their pain on this Easter sunrise, and what evidence is there in the text expounded to let them know that the Healing God knows. The horrific screams heard on a Florida 911 tape may echo those of the sobs of a mother witnessing the unjust execution of her Son by alleged protectors of the common good. Is there no word for her?
“Woman, behold thy son, Son behold thy mother,” comes from the lips of the Preaching Inmate in a message that speaks hope and application in a moment of deep grief. When the Inmate’s visitors go home, they share space and possessions in a family reconfigured to provide care for her misery. The women received a word — but that word became flesh in the ministry of caregiving John supplied surrounding her, the victim of a horrific crime.
The Risen Inmate demonstrates in three days the woman’s vindication by virtue of the Resurrection. In the background, an Easter choir of formerly enslaved Africans, the old Jim Crow, sings: “I’m so glad trouble don’t last always.”
Grabbing Resurrection Hope
Easter brims with the fullness of incarceration and its implications. It celebrates the vindication of the life of a man who did the hardest of time in the shortest of time. It recognizes that the One whose life we celebrate understood the pain of incarceration. Easter brings to judgment our fear of the inmate, our stigmatization of the prisoner, our shunning of those who return for a second chance-or a third chance, or a fourth chance…Simon Johnson elicited a response from the man destined for incarceration of seven times seventy.
Early Easter morning, millions awaken before sunrise with a purpose. The dark skies give faint hint of the sunrise within the hour. A stretch of the arms, a wipe through the eyes, feet reaching downward for temporary covering against the floor terrain and it is time to get moving. Slivers of remaining moonlight provide faint illumination through narrow openings above the bed. The millions have heard the call, and now respond! The time has come to join the line as men and women, even some boys and girls put their feet in the line to the appointed destination to which they are called this Easter Sunday. There they will see familiar faces, hear familiar sounds and may even smell familiar odors. It is a dawn of a new day, and they are on their way.
Early on the first Easter morning, one was risen for all of them.
This essay originally appeared at The Living Pulpit. It is reposted here by permission.
Even I ask myself: How can someone who lives with depression like such a depressing time of the church year?
Lent is my favorite liturgical season. I’m not exactly sure why.
I did and did not grow up understanding that many Christian churches follow something called a church calendar. My early years were spent in black Baptist churches that celebrated Easter and Christmas as holy days, but large swaths of spirituals, Sunday school and a row of black-suited deacons in-between.
In Catholic elementary school, I learned about Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Trinity Sunday and All Saint’s Day. I thought these were Catholic-specific things. Like confession and rosaries and the puffy white dress for first communion in second grade. Things I learned about, but couldn’t be a part of. Because I wasn’t Catholic. My parents said that I didn’t have to “give up” anything for Lent, if I didn’t want to.
This is how many people think of Lent. It’s this season before Easter where we focus on the sacrifice that Jesus makes for us on the cross. To honor this sacrifice, we too should experience a measure of sacrifice. Many people deny themselves of something. The proverbial chocolate. A bad habit. Foods filled with butter and sugar – that must be eaten up on Fat Tuesday (aka Mardi Gras). Some people understand these sacrifices as a kind of spiritual practice. These are ways to focus our energy and intent more upon our relationship wit the divine.
Other people decide to “take something on.” By picking up a good habit, being more who they are called to be, giving a good service to the world around them, they develop a spiritual practice that engages them more deeply in the world around them.
Either way, it is a time of spiritual introspection that is traditionally focused on the events of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
Do people who live with depression really need more introspection? I mean, isn’t that part of our challenge? That we are too internal. That our thoughts turn in on themselves – sometimes betraying us, or making us think the worst things about ourselves. If we struggle to make it from one day to the next, need we sacrifice any more of our selves? Can we give any more than we are currently giving? Should we really spend forty days focusing on sacrifice and death?
I think I’m into Lent for Ash Wednesday. I like the ashes. Not because they remind me of my mortality. I’m well aware of that. I like them because of the verse in the 61st chapter of Isaiah. The first verses are repeated by Jesus in the 4th chapter of Luke. Words of a calling to liberate others. The third verse indicates that God also calls Isaiah to comfort those who mourn and “give a crown of beauty for ashes.”
I like this song that comes from these verses:
I understand a life of ashes. I understand grief that lasts long past the time of mourning. I understand how it is to feel as if everything I touch is crumbling. I understand the constant readjustment of expectations and abilities based on a crippling I-can’t-do-this-right-now state of being. I understand ashes.
In my early days in ministry, I discovered beauty in them. The ashes for Ash Wednesday services are traditionally burned from the palms used on Palm Sunday. Members of my church brought in the single palm strip they had saved from nearly a year prior. My pastor, decked in barbecue style apron and oven mitt, placed them in a large foil tray and lit them on fire. He tossed them until they became ash and used them to place a cross on our foreheads. Soon enough, the service was over, the congregation had left, and the ministered cleaned the sanctuary. As we left, my pastor whispered to me. “Come back early in the morning. Trust me.” Using my key, I returned at 6:30 am Thursday morning to a strong sweet pungency that hung invisible over the chairs, altar, hallway and musical instruments. All those ashes, given time, smelled amazing! It was … beautiful.
And I like that there are openings to find beauty in ashes. Lent gives me the chance to look for those opportunities. It gives me a season – every year – to turn over rocks, crouch down and look under the bed, sweep together the remnants of my last year, of my life, of the current day in search of whatever beauty may be there. It’s my chance to look for the life that can be found in the midst, or something after, death.
Last Lent, I led an online reading group through my book Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression. I decided that this would be my Lenten practice. Every year, I hope. By sharing my own frustrations, struggles and small victories, I find flashes of grace. I invite you to join me on this journey.
Find more information at www.NotAloneReadingGroup.com
Note: Monica A. Coleman is hosting an online reading group this Lent through her book, Not Alone. Participation includes the eBook of Not Alone, daily inspirational emails, vegan recipes (for those who may give up meat), a resource list and a weekly conference call with the author. Learn more information here. Readers of this blog are eligible for a raffle for one FREE participation. See the information below to enter. This giveaway runs from midnight to midnight on February 28th. Winner will be chosen randomly and notified with 48 hours of the end of the raffle.
Monica A. Coleman is Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology in southern California. An ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Coleman has earned degrees at Harvard University, Vanderbilt University and Claremont Graduate University. She has been featured as an expert in religion and mental health on NPR, blogtalkradio, BeliefNet.com,PsychCentral.com, Huffington Post and HuffPo Live. She blogs on faith and depression at www.BeautifulMindBlog.com. She is the author or editor of five books, including Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression – a 40 Day Devotional.