A CLOSER LOOK AT THE FAMILIES OF MASS INCARCERATION: PART 2

A CLOSER LOOK AT THE FAMILIES OF MASS INCARCERATION: PART 2

In the second installment of a two-part series, Urban Faith Writer Katelin Hansen gives our readers an intimate, behind-the-scenes look into the lives of the family and friends of those who are incarcerated. Be sure to check out Part 1 of this compelling story, in case you missed it. 

Mental Health in the Prison System

One of the biggest concerns for family members is for the mental health of their loved ones inside. “I feel that the reason my son’s life spiraled like it did was that my nephew was killed right in front of him,” Kim explains. “That was never dealt with. I feel like he had PTSD and then he made a bunch of bad choices. He was a different person.”

PJ remains deeply concerned for her nephew’s mental health. “He’s a cutter, I mean a severe cutter,” PJ says. “It’s nothing for him to get 30-40 stitches for a one of his cuts.”

She worries about him.

“I don’t know if they’re addressing his mental health issues. The first thing is to be prisoner, above everything else,” PJ explains. “And whatever mental health problems you have are compounded by the trauma of being in prison.”

In many ways, Kim’s son has grown up in the system. “Mental health is a piece that really needs to be considered,” she insists. “Until they address that inside, or as part of re-entry, I don’t think we’ll be effective in preventing them from going back.”

A Broken System

Navigating the multifaceted labyrinth that is the prison system can be exhausting.

Cheryl’s experience is that it is “very tedious and time-consuming and hard on your emotions, your heart,” Cheryl explains. “It just seems like the system just drags.”

She’s been trying to get answers for months now, and has been given no indication of how long the pre-trial phase is going to last.

Inmates do serve time during their pre-trial period, so if they are convicted, they may be able to reduce the total time that they’re on the inside. But, if they’re found not guilty, they’ve lost potentially months of their lives.

“I just wish it didn’t take so long,” Cheryl says. “It just takes a lot out of you, both the person being incarcerated, but also for family and friends. It becomes very hard because you don’t want to see your loved ones there.”

PJ feels like the whole system is set up for failure. “You take people who are poor, and when they work you pay them minimum wage,” she says. “There’s a way to make a whole lot more, but with the risk of being locked up. But a lot of times the desperation of being poor is greater than the fear of being locked up.”

PJ says she was afraid to do anything that would land her behind bars. “I’d hear about the interacting with other people inside and how scary that was,” she says. When asked if that meant prison served as a successful deterrent, she replied “It might be, but only if 1 out of 6 siblings is what we consider success.”

Life After Release

Having a criminal record means losing access to many of the support structures that are necessary to getting back on one’s feet after incarceration. After release, ex-offenders face severe discrimination in finding jobs or applying to schools.

They often cannot qualify for food stamps or public housing. And family members risk losing their benefits if they are found to be housing felons.

PJ notes that “if you make it so hard for them when they come home, maybe they don’t have the fight in them to make it through without going back to what they know.” She receives messages every day from people asking which companies are willing to hire felons.

“Maybe if they were given an opportunity to know what it feels like to have paid their debt and then be free of the judgment, there wouldn’t be such a high recidivism rate,” PJ says.

Kim’s son has been in for 12 years and he’s about to get out. “Were excited about him coming home,” she says. “But, I’m still concerned about his mental health. It’s taken its toll.”

And, she knows it could get harder.

“Now there are all the barriers around being a felon.” Friends have recommended programs and pathways, but there is no central place to even see what is available, or to compare programs’ success rates. “We’re excited about him coming home,” she reiterates, “but is has been a heart breaking experience for our family.”

Church as a Resource

Scripture tells us that we are to “remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them” (Hebrews 13:3). Sometimes the church struggles with even this much, but what about the families on the outside as well?

When Molly spent some time in jail a couple years back, her church was there for her. “They gave support, cards, love, books. It affected people at church because no one wants to see their friend in jail,” Molly explains.

As she’s gotten more involved in the life of her church community, she’s become more diligent about completing her required reporting to the authorities. She doesn’t want to get locked up again.

“Besides myself, it affects other people,” Molly says. “If all of the sudden you’re gone for 30 days, there’s a gap to fill in your role at the church. I’m not here by myself.”

As was the case for Molly, churches have tremendous potential to walk alongside both the incarcerated and their families. When churches form meaningful and authentic relationships with their communities, many of these caring partnerships happen naturally, offering spiritual and emotional support during difficult times of forced separation.

More formal ministries, like support groups and resource centers, can also be put into place. For example, there are organizations like Healing Communities, a nationwide, faith-based organization that is “building relationships of healing, redemption and reconciliation in families and communities impacted by crime and mass incarceration.” Then, there are other organizations, like Casa De Paz, that support families specifically affected by immigration detention.

Kim says discovering ministry resources for she and her family has been a learning experience. “I feel like some blanks have been filled in about how incarceration affects the whole family,” she explains.

Encourage your church to learn more and to discover what local agencies are assisting with family visitation or providing support services for children with incarcerated parents in your own community.

Read the first part of this two-part series here.

 

 

CAN YOU LOVE AUTHENTICALLY IF YOU WERE RAISED TO BE TOXIC?

CAN YOU LOVE AUTHENTICALLY IF YOU WERE RAISED TO BE TOXIC?

It’s not easy to be hated by the person who is supposed to love you most, and unfortunately, being toxic has become normalized in our culture.

Many see misdirected aggravation, gaslighting, physical abuse, and more as “love tactics.” When a child only knows pain as a source of love, then they too love in that way and any other form of healthy love seems abnormal.

However, the question is, can a person ever love authentically if they were raised to be toxic?

The assumption is no. When someone is exposed to consistent, toxic stress, they are vulnerable to mental and physical illness that can sometimes develop into a genetic trait, according to Hey Sigmund; therefore this behavior is biologically passed on through generations.

However, despite the science behind the effects of toxic love, there is always hope for a better life.

Fighting for Love

“I just felt like I wasn’t loved by my mom, says Monique, a woman in her 40s who was often told she wasn’t good enough. “I felt growing up in my mom’s house I wasn’t allowed to be me, an individual.”

To suit her mother’s perfect image of a family, Monique, was to participate in certain activities without any consideration of her talents or desires. While at the same time, her brother was given free reign to participate in activities of his choice throughout their childhood.

And to make matters worse, Monique’s father suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and would often abuse her. She recalls him touching her to satisfy his physical desires and severely beating her when she reported it to her incredulous mother.

Fortunately, Monique found refuge in her grandmother’s home, where she found the kind of love her mother envied. Monique remembers her mother punishing and verbally abusing her as a result of the love she received from her grandmother.

Like many girls, Monique found herself looking for love in empty relationships during her teen years that lead to a forced, terminated pregnancy and physical and emotional abuse similar to the treatment she received from her own father.

Eventually, Monique met a gentle and caring man named Laz. However, Laz’s compassion and gentleness were unfamiliar to her, which ultimately lead to Monique returning to one of her previous, toxic relationships.

She went on to marry a former flame named Xavier and stayed in her abusive marriage for eight years.

Towards the end of my [3rd] pregnancy, I found out he was cheating and when I confronted him, he hit me,” says Monique who recalls her toxic relationship that mirrored her childhood. “He asked, ‘Who are you to question me?’…It felt like because of the way I grew up, if I wasn’t getting hit, then it wasn’t love,”

After her divorce, Monique fought against her toxic past. She made the decision to rise above her father’s mental illness, her mother’s jealousy and apathy, and their collective effort to make her their emotional punching bag for their marriage troubles.

Although the struggle did not end after her marriage when it came to love, her children, and health, she remains hopeful enough to fight for the love she deserves. She charges her will to carry on to God, because without Him, she would have taken the final blow to end her suffering.

Turning Off the Gaslight

Bella was born to a Catholic family that rejected her mother for having a baby with a man that she later learned was married. The rejection caused her mother to make multiple attempts to prove her worth to the family by making Bella seem exceptional, but in private her mother was spiteful and unloving as the list of accomplishments grew.

“[My mother] did everything for me to prove herself, but not for the love of me,” Bella explains. “She worked hard to put me through private school and extracurricular activities, but at home I was repeatedly told I was nothing; sometimes she even called me a waste of a human being. To this day, she has never told me she loves me.”

Whenever something would go wrong in Bella’s life, she would automatically blame herself as a result of her relationship with her mother. Even when her husband and father of their two children committed adultery, she took the blame.

As time went on, Bella lost the love of her life, her job, and believed that she would never be loved which drove her into a suicidal state .

Until one day, Bella decided that she had enough and began to fight for her life, beauty, and self-love through therapy. “Once I figured out that I wasn’t this awful, unlovable monster that I was made to believe as a reality by someone who was unloved, it turned my world upside down in a great way,” Bella says. “It never would have happened without me doing the work in therapy.”

As a result of her treatment, Bella was led to a love that she has been enveloped in for the last four years. Even though the pain of rejection transcended through two generations, love won in the end.

“In the middle of all of this, I met a man who just rained love on me,” Bella joyfully exclaims.

Is there hope after a toxic upbringing?

“But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of [your abuser], which I also hate” (Revelations 2:6, NIV).

In the beginning of this article, the question was, can a person love authentically if they were raised to be toxic? The answer is yes, but you must fight for it.

It is easy to nurse the scars of someone that you love, because love is to be unconditional, right? But what good is unconditional love when a person’s pain has replaced the spirit that you desperately want to love?

That is spiritual warfare and it is best to back away and allow God to handle it if they are unwilling to get help. It is important to recognize the signs of someone who has been abused and trying to regain power, which can include verbally sharing memories of their toxic loved ones.

Fortunately, Bella and Monique worked past those painful memories found a way to defeat them so that the tradition of toxicity ended with them and a reign of love could begin.

What healing advice do you have for someone who grew up in a toxic environment? Share your thoughts below.

HOW WE CAN WE PROTECT OUR CHILDREN IN Washington D.C. & BEYOND?

HOW WE CAN WE PROTECT OUR CHILDREN IN Washington D.C. & BEYOND?

Imagine a time when members of the Black community looked out for one another. Neighbors were more like family, children were safe, and troubling news such as 26 open missing persons cases were incredibly rare.

There is an unrelenting rage boiling in our community due to the lack of coverage or collaborative effort to find the missing Black and Latina girls in Washington D.C. However, we can point fingers, or even yell at the police, city officials and federal government, but what are we doing to protect our own children?

While there has been coverage from major news outlets and support from organizations such as BET and The Women’s March on Washington Organization, some would argue that the issue is larger than one may think.

There have been many cases of missing children who are White that have received major state and national coverage, along with extensive, coordinated searches, but when 14 Black girls go missing, it is a different story.

The issue is not that there is no coverage. It is that this issue became important when it became a hashtag. It should have never gotten this far.

What can we really ask of our civil servants?

There are mixed messages on the severity of this situation. Some outlets say there are 14 girls missing, while others are implying that the girls aren’t really in danger and are labeling them “runaways.”

While that assumption is not stressed by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser or other public officials, there is still a permeating, public message that lessens the concern of onlookers across the nation.

Since gaining national attention, the news of our missing girls has produced town halls filled with tears and frustration. However we are still left to wonder, “What else can be done?”

New York resident Aura Severino is one of many Americans following this story.

“Law enforcement needs to understand why they are [being] taken,” Aura says. “Are they victims of opportunity or targeted? These are questions that need to be asked to figure out what is being done with these girls. Once that is understood, moves can be made to prevent more girls from being taken and rescuing those who are already gone.”

Aura, a program manager in New York City, also feels that the family unit plays a huge role in making a difference. “Families need to educate their girls and boys about what is currently happening to encourage vigilant awareness,” she says.

Although local and state city officials are making strides to find the missing girls, one can’t help but notice that there is a lack of coverage on the fact that there are missing boys too. What is to be done when our boys, our future leaders who are raised to protect our communities and families, are also missing?

Atlanta resident Mario Jackson believes it all comes down to training and resources.

“There needs to be more neighborhood surveillance and trainings in kidnapping for D.C. Police,” Mario says. “I also believe in the old-school practice of neighborhood watches and communal security.”

Fortunately, it is being reported that Mayor Bowser is unrelenting in her efforts to address the number of missing person cases in D.C. However, some believe that addressing the issue starts right here in our own communities.

COMM’UNITY’

‘Unity’ plays a major role in “community,” and its members have a responsibility to be a part of it.

While Mayor Bowser attempts to reel in the community through her task force and other efforts, none of it matters without the support and action of the community. The task force will follow a procedure as deemed appropriate by the city, but how will the community light the beacon of hope?

Although New York-D.C. Native Aisha Jones commends the city’s efforts to make a difference, she charges us, the community, to do our part.

“We are so quick to save on the money and energy we put into our kids that we don’t worry about safety,” Aisha says. “Most of these girls are being abducted on the way home. Their parents are not picking them up from school or encouraging a buddy system or teaching them how to fight back.”

Like Mario, Aisha agrees that the proper resources are critical in resolving these issues.

“There should be self-defense classes for both boys and girls,” she says. “Also there is a responsibility to speak up if you see something. ‘Snitches get stitches’ does not apply when you see someone in danger.”

 

Take a look at BET’s compelling video on the recent news coverage below:

 

Weigh in below on how you and others can work to rebuild the community and protect our children.

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.

The Me I See: My Race, My Faith, My Identity

The Me I See: My Race, My Faith, My Identity

“Are you brown all over?”

The innocence of the question did nothing to prevent me from being flabbergasted. As I stared into the almost cartoon-sized blue eyes of this 4-year-old boy, compassion filled my heart. I simply smiled and replied, “Why yes, of course!”

He nodded in understanding and continued playing with the toys that had previously occupied his attention. As I sat there watching his imagination create a world only he would understand, I wondered if this moment would be as memorable for him as I was sure it would be for me.

There’s a temptation to somehow prove my humanity, to validate my existence; especially because I live in a society that labels me a minority. The definition of “minority” is “a racial, ethnic, religious, or social subdivision of a society that is subordinate to the dominant group in political, financial, or social power without regard to the size of these groups.”

My nation, my homeland, defines me as a racial subordinate to the dominant group. It’s a label that follows me every time I check “Black/African-American” on any document. It’s a label that follows me any time I walk into a room and I’m the only one there who looks like me. I have a pre-disposition to believe that I am less than because it is what I’ve been told since I was born. It’s even printed on my birth certificate.

In indignation, I wear my hair natural. I comb through hundreds of photos on Instagram that have the “#BlackGirlMagic” marker. I recite Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” at any given opportunity. I go out of my way to compliment any black woman I meet.

I vote knowing what it cost my ancestors to grant me this right. I fight to prove that no quantifiable data could box me in and keep me from living the life I want to live.

It’s funny, all of that effort did nothing to quiet the comparison or stop the Caucasian woman from accosting me and my little cousins. It did nothing to abate the voice in my head that hurls insults every time I’m in front of a mirror. The only thing that has proven strong enough to rectify my identity is the Word of God.

I am black. I am a woman. I am southern. I am a millennial. I can come up with lots of ways to identify myself. I can make a list of a thousand superlatives. However, anything I fathom about who I am does not compare to who I am in Christ.

Society has a lot to say about who we are. In fact, we have a lot to say, ourselves, about who we are, and a lot of times we are better than anyone at putting ourselves down. Is it possible that when we say “yes” to Jesus, when we surrender our lives to Him, in doing so, we subject our idea of identity to Him as well?  Identity then becomes more than a list of quantifiers.

If the Word of God created the world and all we see, how much more powerful then would it be to believe His words about us? We are children of the Most High God. We are His handiwork. In the same way He created the earth, He fashioned us together in our mothers’ womb. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. We, the children of God, are His royal priesthood. We are the head and not the tail. We have every spiritual blessing made available to us through Christ. We are chosen.

We aren’t beautiful because of, or in spite of,  being black. We are beautiful because we were created by Beauty Himself. My skin color becomes more than a sign of my socio-economic status; it is part of the hand-picked design as imagined by my Creator. We aren’t worthy because our society calls us worthy, but because Jesus thought us worthy enough to die for.

Our choice is this: To live subjected to societal labels or to allow this new identity to supersede what we once believed. My faith then doesn’t just inform my identity. It becomes the lens through which I’m even able to see who I really am. It doesn’t stop there.

When we are able to see ourselves through this lens, we are empowered, nay obligated, to see others the same way. It transforms a “me against the world” ideology into an understanding that it is “us under God.” The need for validation becomes obsolete and pure confidence flourishes as the love of Christ permeates the entirety of our beings.