Easter Sunrise and the Risen Inmate

Easter Sunrise and the Risen Inmate

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.

Hospitality: What the First Century Church Teaches Us About Welcoming the Stranger

Hospitality: What the First Century Church Teaches Us About Welcoming the Stranger

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2, NIV).

Have you ever known someone who never meets a stranger?

Folks who live their lives in such a way that nearly everyone they meet becomes a new friend astound me with their generosity of spirit. I admire their courage and zest for life, which compels them to embrace even those they do not know well, knowing that each creature has gifts to share with the world.

As a faith leader, when I meet folks with those sorts of spirits, I see some of the Spirit of Christ who, although divine, shared meals with the poor, sick, and sinful, laid hands on the infirm, and drew close to the crowds without reservation.

Even in His dying moment, Jesus stretched His arms wide as though embracing all of us and declared forgiveness over us because we did not realize what we were doing. Jesus is the embodiment of the grace of hospitality, and I would argue that hospitality is the biggest gift we, the body of Christ, can offer the world right now.

The Fear Factor

The current social and political climates have caused me to take a step back to examine what Scripture teaches us about welcoming strangers among us. I confess that I focus much of my time concerning myself with the sins that other people perpetrate on each other. I concentrate on the news stories about hate crimes without giving much consideration to the ways that I allow hate and fear to fuel my actions.

The truth is that fear motivates so much of what we do. Our fears prevent us from loving and practicing hospitality in the ways that our faith demands of us. In today’s social media culture, many of us have a fear of rejection. As humans, many of us also have a fear of not knowing which prevents us from meeting new people and having new experiences.

We also often have fears of being powerless that cause us to try to stay in places that make us feel powerful. We allow our fears to impede upon our ability to love.

Before turning outward and critiquing national and international leaders, I want to encourage us, especially during this introspective liturgical season called Lent, to look within to ask ourselves how we are practicing the kind of hospitality that Scripture and the example of Jesus Christ demand of us.

Love Thy Neighbor?

Many of us have learned the classic stories about hospitality in Sunday School and Sunday morning sermons.

We have heard about Abraham and Sarah, who unknowingly hosted angels who foretold the birth of Sarah’s son. In the passage from Hebrews I cited at the top of this article, the author alludes to that passage from Genesis. Despite the many admonitions throughout the Hebrew Bible to care for the foreigner, widow, and orphan, we, like the lawyer in Luke 10, often ask, “Who is my neighbor?”

In response to that question, we have heard Luke’s well-known story of the Good Samaritan who, despite his vastly different culture and faith, cared for an Israelite stranger he found injured on the side of the road. Even after hearing such a dramatic story of sacrificial love, we continue to struggle with caring for our neighbors. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the story is the way it condemns us for the times we fail to show love to people who are just like us.

We have become politically motivated to care for immigrants in recent months, as we should, but we mistreat those who sit right next to us in the pew or who share our offices at work!

Jesus tells Israelite listeners the story of an Israelite man who was robbed as he traveled from Jerusalem to Jericho. A priest passed by and walked on the opposite side of the road to avoid helping. Then, a Levite, a religious leader from the priestly tribe of Levi, passed him. Only a Samaritan, a man who was from a different culture and faith background, cared for the man.

Many commentaries have explained that the priest and the Levite probably did not interact with the victim because of concerns about ritual purity, but does that not cause us to consider our priorities? We cannot prioritize legalism over mercy and love. Here was Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, essentially urging His listeners to ritually defile themselves because mercy is at the heart of the Gospel.

The Missing Link

What the world needs from the church is for us to be the church. The time is now for us to commit ourselves to following Jesus Christ in our actions. It was the way the early Church first began to thrive.

As J. Ellsworth Kalas puts it in his book The Story Continues: The Acts of the Apostles for Today, “The Christian church was born in a time and culture when the marketplace of beliefs was crowded to its borders. Religion was everywhere … This meant that it was easy to talk religion, but also that it was difficult for the decision to get serious. No wonder, then, that the followers of Christ were known as ‘people of the Way.’”

The earliest Christians stood out, and they increased in number because they lived their Christianity; for them, it was not simply an interesting intellectual idea. They attracted converts because of their countercultural way of viewing religion as more than a list of philosophies.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. provided a practical understanding of this concept in his sermon “A Knock at Midnight,” which appears in his 1963 book of sermons called Strength to Love. King preached, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state … if the church will free itself from the shackles of a deadening status quo, and, recovering its great historic mission, will speak and act fearlessly and insistently in terms of justice and peace, it will enkindle the imagination of mankind and fire the souls of men, imbuing them with a glowing and ardent love for truth, justice, and peace.”

In other words, from the Scripture we read, to the prayers we pray, to the songs we sing, our worship is real and lived and must transform us from the inside out. The church is not a place to go; the church is a thing to do. We call the physical buildings in which we worship churches, but the church is the body of Christ, at work in the world.

So, what does living our faith teach us about hospitality?

A Place Where Ministry Happens

One of my mentors in ministry began a new pastorate at the end of 2016. After examining the needs and challenges of ministry at her new church, she chose as her theme of her church “Radical Hospitality.” The new framework of thinking about the church as a place where radical hospitality happens has changed it in practical ways in just a few short months.

Church members are beginning to imagine their worship space as first and foremost a place where ministry happens. That sounds obvious, I know, but so many churches have gotten away from thinking of themselves as being ministry spaces above all else.

One of the most drastic changes she has made as pastor has been to reimagine the parsonage, the house that is owned by the church for use by pastors and their families. That house now serves a dual purpose. It is both a “meeting house” where retreats, Bible study, and meetings can occur, and it provides accommodations for the pastor and visiting ministers.

Knowing my colleague, and understanding what it means to be “radical,” I am expecting that in the months and years to come, her new ministry will continue to grow and transform to become more welcoming for all people.

It is our task, as the Samaritan did in the Gospel of Luke, to embrace all we meet. As Hebrews 13:2 reminds us, we do not know the actual identity of those we encounter each day. Scripture teaches us that if we open our hearts to the possibility, each stranger has gifts to share with us that will enhance our lives. My fellow people of the Way, let us go forward with joy to spread Christian hospitality.

Jaimie Crumley is a minister, blogger, podcaster, and ministry consultant. She blogs about race, gender, history, and Christian faith at iamfreeagent.com.

 Share your thoughts on ministry and hospitality below.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: A Man with a Purpose, a Dream, and Influence

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: A Man with a Purpose, a Dream, and Influence

“Washington DC, USA-August 24, 2013: Messages are posted on a board in remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the 50th anniversary of the civll rights march on Washington DC. The original civil rights march took place on August 28, 1963. These messages are at the King Center Imaging Project at a park near the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington DC.”

No historical figure has shaped my leadership and passion for ministry like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Growing up in South Carolina, I was exposed to the hardships of the Civil Rights Movement at an early age. I recall my parents taking us to the King Center in Atlanta to watch Dr. King passionately deliver speeches and to trace our African American history in pictures. As a college student and for several years after, I visited the King Center annually and it became a pilgrimage of sorts, reminding me of what the Lord has done for us collectively as black people in America. Visiting the King Center also provided assurance that as sure as God has sealed my past, he most certainly will sustain my future if I continue to abide in Him alone.

Dr. King abided in Christ and he was a dreamer. This year marks the fifty-year anniversary of his Letter from Birmingham Jail, but it also marks the 50-year anniversary of his famous I Have a Dream speech. In the book A Call to Conscience, Dr. Dorothy Height provides an introduction to the speech. She wrote, “Dr. King departed from his notes. He spoke from his heart.” His heart was filled with a God-sized dream that reached across social, economic and racial, ethnic lines to offer a vision and hope that we can be better together. His heart was filled with a dream of reconciliation and justice.

As a seminary student, the expansive reach of Dr. King’s ministry and messages often intrigues me. There are numerous books written by people, both Christian and non-Christian, all across the world that share the convictions and quote the wise words of Dr. King. Whenever they reference him, I am reminded that they have heard and been deeply impacted by the voice of an African-American man. I am also reminded of his faithfulness and the cost Dr. King paid for the influence of his leadership. Walking in a divine purpose, pursuing a dream, and having influence always costs us something, but the benefit of the costs is that our obedience directly impacts the lives of others.

I smiled when I read that President Barack Obama would use Dr. Martin Luther King’s bible to take his oath of office in the upcoming inauguration. Considering African American history, this feels like a full circle moment. I’m certain Dr. King’s dream inspired the vision, hope, and presidency of Barack Obama. That’s why my husband and I honored the historic inauguration of the first African-American President of the United States by celebrating African-American men. We invited young men to a social to hear the wise words of respectable African-American men who were husbands, fathers, hard workers, leaders, mentors, tutors, and servants. We invited them to dream.

When I consider the plight of young black boys, it saddens me that in many ways, we are still living in an “America [that gives] the Negro people [especially African American boys and men] a bad check, a check which is marked ‘insufficient funds.’” I reject the idea that there are insufficient funds for these precious young people. I, like, Dr. King, have “the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, other-centered men can build up.”

The truth is: the “hope” and “change” we all need are not found in President Barack Obama or any political party, government system, or human structure. I am praying for God to raise up other-centered men – Dr. Tony Evans would call them kingdom-minded men – who know their purpose, pursue their dreams, and do not take lightly their influence. In a culture that only values black boys for their physical stamina, the way they carry a ball, or recite song lyrics, I am praying for young black boys to rise in the same spirit that fueled Dr. King. I pray that they will dream again and dream big.

The Genius of ‘Gangnam Style’

The Genius of ‘Gangnam Style’

If you’ve never seen the smash viral hit video “Gangnam Style,” and you missed the recent TV appearances by Korean pop star PSY, let me describe it for you.

Take the silliness of Monty Python, the materialist accoutrements (and shiny suits) from P. Diddy, and the outlandish dance moves of MC Hammer, filter it through the Korean pop oeuvre, then multiply exponentially through internet memes… you know what, I can’t do it.

Just stop and watch it already.

It’s amazing.

(DISCLAIMER — it’s pretty tame overall, but still somewhat uncouth. The chorus says, “hey sexy lady!” and features shots of Korean female yoga-clad derriere. And there’s a random dude with a cowboy hat doing pelvic thrusts in an elevator. It’s a little insane.)

VIRAL SENSATION: South Korean pop star PSY has set off a worldwide craze with the music, dance, and humor of his “Gangnam Style” video, which has received more than 230 million views on YouTube. (Photo: Wikipedia)

In a recent interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, PSY explains the meaning of the song, and came off like a music veteran should – calm, self-assured, and articulate. But there’s no way he could’ve known how far it would go. More than 230 million YouTube views later, the song’s signature phrase, “Oppan Gangnam Style,” has joined the likes of “ayyy Macarena” and “u can’t touch this” as iconic lyrics to dance crazes that people find inexplicably irresistible. (Even SNL couldn’t resist.)

Naturally, it’s already attracted plenty of imitation. And since there are evangelical Christians who love to imitate (seriously, 50 Shades of Grace?), let this post be a public service announcement:

To all the church creative teams out there considering doing a parody of “Gangnam Style,” please don’t. Without a sizable Korean presence in your production, it could very easily come off as racially insensitive, corny, or just in generally poor taste (the Deadly Viper controversy comes to mind).

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t appreciate it.

So here are five lessons about creative ministry we can learn from the “Gangnam Style” phenomenon:

1. Top-shelf entertainment is inherently cross-cultural. No longer is something limited in scope to boundaries of nationality, race, or even language. As a matter of fact, the best films and literature freely borrow and interpret from a variety of styles and cultures. Music is no different. Just as Americans have embraced the Japanese word and concept of “karaoke,” so too have plenty of Koreans adopted mannerisms from American pop culture, including hip-hop. And there are plenty of really good Asian emcees, including several who are Christ followers, like Jin (formerly of Ruff Ryders), and Korean-born Brooklynite HeeSun Lee.

This truth is pretty self-evident, however many creative Christians fall on either extreme of cultural myopia (only being interested in your own culture) or cultural appropriation (taking elements of the culture in an ignorant or disrespectful manner). Believers wanting their work to engage with their broader community should take this to heart. We can’t run away from other cultures, and we can’t be irresponsible with our cultural engagement.

2. Today’s pop culture is dominated by visuals. “Gangnam Style” is a perfect example of this. Without the video, the song, catchy as it is, would not be the juggernaut that it is. This is why, as an artist or a band, you can’t just have a certain sound, you’ve also got to have a certain look to go with it. This is also one of the reasons why church creative teams are beginning to invest more time and energy into set design, because the ambiance makes a difference.

While I’m on this topic … 

3. Production values matter. I can’t say this enough. Many YouTube videos by Christians have clever ideas and funny concepts, but they’re marred by poor lighting and bad editing. A large part of the reason why “Gangnam Style” is popular is because it looks fantastic. PSY and his crew went to a lot of effort with the various outfits, locales, etc.

Speaking of which …

4. Audiences appreciate commitment. What sets this video apart from the millions of others like it is that it’s really funny. Improv coaches believe one of the keys to comedy is commitment. PSY didn’t just do a few silly things and call it a day. He went all out. Rapping in a tuxedo while confetti gets in his mouth. Or in a public bath (complete with uncomfortable elderly onlooker). PSY is not necessarily the most attractive, physically fit guy out there, but he’s likable in this video because of the lengths he’s willing to go to deliver his message. And because of that, many people received it.

Which brings me to …

5. Great songs unify people.  I was reminded by this awhile back when Michael Jackson passed away. One of the downsides of this era we live in, with the proliferation of DIY pop stars and a million different TV channels, is that audiences are so heavily segmented that there are very few things that a LOT of people enjoy together. Thus, viral videos like “Gangnam Style” are filling the void left by top 40 radio and TV shows like Soul Train, American Bandstand, and, if you want to back even further, The Ed Sullivan Show.  “Gangnam Style” isn’t necessarily great music per se, but so much of the fun is that so many people love it. When my phone rings out “Gangnam Style” while I’m on the bus, I get knowing nods and grins. It’s like being in a secret club.

And that sense of belonging is, unfortunately, lost in some evangelical circles. There are direct economic incentives for worship leaders to write, record and sing their own music. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, I think we all need to remember the power that music has to unify. Few things are more healing than being in an unfamiliar church environment and hearing a familiar song.

So let these principles occupy your mental space as you try to deal with having “Gangnam Style” stuck in your head, and enjoy this latest viral video hit.

Just make sure, if you have kids, that you use a little discretion. You don’t want to have to explain why your 4-year-old loves saying, “heyyyyy, sexy lady.”

The Sex Slave Next Door

The Sex Slave Next Door

When Alissa was only 16 years old, she met an older man at a Dallas convenience store. In the amount of time that it took for her to step inside for a Diet Coke and a pack of Newports, the man talked Alissa into giving him her phone number and walked her back out to the car, even opening the driver side door for her. Over the next few weeks he wooed Alissa, taking her to expensive restaurants and complimenting her fragile beauty. Those first few weeks were filled with expensive gifts and a promise of a better life. When Alissa’s new boyfriend asked her to move in with him, she said yes without hesitation, her eyes filled with the promise of safety and security.

Instead of finding security in her new home, Alissa slowly broke to her new boyfriend’s control. He began to beat her, forced her to watch porn so that she might become a “better lover,” and even made Alissa get a tattoo of his nicknames, further branding her as his own. Soon, this man convinced her to begin escorting other men on dates and having sex with them for money. Further expanding his enterprise, he posted prostitution advertisements on the Internet and demanded that Alissa have sex with the men who responded to the ads. This boyfriend turned pimp easily kept Alissa in line. With an assault rifle in the closet and a combination of verbal and physical abuse, he brandished complete control over his captive.

It was only much later that Alissa’s “boyfriend” pled guilty to trafficking (adapted from the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2011).

Alissa’s story serves as a mirror for countless others throughout the United States every day. The United States legal system defines sex trafficking as, “commercial sex acts induced by force, fraud, or coercion or commercial sex acts in which the individual induced to perform commercial sex has not attained 18 years of age.” The Polaris Project reports that though the number is largely indistinguishable, hundreds of thousands of US citizen minors are believed to be at risk for commercial sex exploitation. The same report noted that 40 to 70 percent of youth runaways fall into prostitution as a way to meet their essential needs. Most often, girls are only 12 years old at their time of entry and boys, only 11. In all, it’s been estimated that there are between 100,000 and 300,000 prostituted children in the United States.

The Pervasiveness of Human Trafficking

Human trafficking doesn’t only exist within the confines mentioned above or the boundaries of the United States. According to the Polaris Project, examples of human trafficking cases cover everything from sex trafficking in India and Latin America to exploitation of the workers in the shrimp industry in Thailand to the use of child soldiers in Burma. To further put things in perspective, it’s estimated to be a $32 billion industry and impact 161 countries across the globe.
We generally believe we’re safe here in the United States. We teach our children the basics — don’t talk to strangers, don’t take candy from anyone you don’t know, only play where we can see you. Yet, Alissa’s story is one that follows a common pattern learned by traffickers in the sex trade industry. When examined more closely, many follow similar recruiting and “seasoning” strategies designed to sell the illusion of love and security before conditioning their victims with a new lifestyle and belief system of blind obedience and abuse.

We’re making steps towards recognition. According to 2011 Human Trafficking Hotline Statistics, “2,945 victims of human trafficking were connected to services and support.” Of that number, “calls from self-identifying victims increased by 61 percent,” showing that the hotline number is reaching those people that need it the most.

These statistics help show that there is an increasing awareness and response to the human trafficking crisis. Just this past summer, a child prostitution crackdown — dubbed “Operation Cross Country Six” — occurred from June 21 to June 23 in 57 cities across the nation. Local and federal law enforcement officers worked with the FBI to arrest 104 suspected pimps in the operation. They also freed 79 children who were being forced to work as prostitutes. These children were found at hotels, truck stops and storefronts, some barely over 13 years old.

Overall, prostitution isn’t what it often seems. It isn’t a thrilling lifestyle chosen by women (or men) to expand their sexual portfolio or cash in on ritzy perks. As evidenced above, most barely even have a choice in the matter. Take Patricia’s story, for instance. As a child of Chicago’s South Side, she had witnessed her share of poverty and crime. Her father was a pimp; her mother, a prostitute. When Patricia was a suitable age, her father tried to purchase her. Finding this out, her mother took her and ran. Patricia was later molested by her mother’s boyfriend and forced out onto the street at only 12 years old.

With nowhere left to turn, Patricia engaged in “survival sex” for nearly two decades — very often by no choice of her own. With the help of advocacy groups like the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, Patricia has worked hard to find a rhythm of normalcy in her life. Today she works in the food service business at her first job outside of prostitution.

Shining a Light on the Issue

A wide range of other organizations in the United States exists to bring awareness to the injustice of human trafficking and provide education and empowerment. Nicole Marrett, the owner and founder of Radiant Cosmetics, seeks to raise awareness by raising funds for victims and those involved in leading the movement forward through her cosmetic sales — 20 percent of her company’s profits go toward assisting victims and educating the public on the issue.

Marrett first dreamed about starting this social venture while spending time in Thailand for missions work with the World Race. “I became friends with a prostitute in Thailand, and my heart broke for this woman,” said Marrett. “Walking Bangla Road, home to over 200 bars and countless women who’ve been trafficked, I felt alive. A vision began to form.”

It was from that vision that Radiant Cosmetics sprung forth. With 80 percent of the sex trade industry comprised of women and young girls, Marrett hopes to rally this generation of women to fight for their fellow sisters, “one lipstick at a time.”

Many in the Christian community have been instrumental in calling attention to the sex trafficking issue. In fact, many local churches have added groups ministering around the issue to their missions budgets. And Christian academia has realized the important role that education and empowerment must play in fighting trafficking. Earlier this year, Moody Bible Institute announced a new four-year undergraduate major designed to equip students to work with victims of sexual exploitation. During their time in the program, students will learn about contributing factors (both societal and spiritual) and familiarize themselves with human trafficking organizations in the area. They’ll also have the opportunity to participate in a six-month, off-campus internship between their junior and senior years. Internships can either be with domestic or international organizations, depending on the student’s preference.

Courtney Fillmore, an incoming Moody Bible Institute student, is entering the program this fall. She heard about it from a friend who knew of her passion to fight this injustice.

“Last year, God led me to spend three months in Thailand with Youth With A Mission (YWAM). It was here that I saw first hand the tragedy that is sex tourism, sex slavery and human trafficking,” said Fillmore. “We would go into bars at night and just talk to the women that worked there. It changed my life. I knew that I couldn’t go back to America and continue to ignore the issue.”

Since being back in the United States, Fillmore states that she’s seen how human trafficking is just as prevalent here as it was in Thailand — maybe not as outwardly noticeable, but flourishing just the same. It’s a filigree of secrets and lies, a cobweb in a dark attic corner. Women like Alissa may be our neighbors, students, waitresses that top off our cup of coffee every morning. But darkness can’t survive once it’s brought out into the light. And just as Fillmore has refused to ignore the issue, it’s up to us to respond to the crisis.

How You Can Help

For more information on how you can directly take action, please visit The Polaris Project to find info about volunteering, attending events, advocating on the state or federal level, or even reporting cases of human trafficking.

Recommended Resources

For further reading on this topic, please check out these recent books:

• Escaping the Devil’s Bedroom: Sex Trafficking, Global Prostitution, and the Gospel’s Transforming Power by Dawn Herzog Jewell

The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today by Kevin Bales & Ron Soodalter

• Forgotten Girls: Stories of Hope and Courage by Kay Strom & Michele Rickett

• Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade — and How We Can Fight It by David Batstone

• Somebody’s Daughter: The Hidden Story of America’s Prostituted Children and the Battle to Save Them by Julian Sher

• God in a Brothel: An Undercover Journey into Sex Trafficking and Rescue by Daniel Walker

• Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale by Rachel Lloyd