“Then said Jesus to those Jews which are ye my disciples indeed: And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. They answered him, we be Abrahams seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest that ye shall be made free? Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. And the servant of sin abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth forever. If the Son therefore shall make you free ye shall be free indeed.” (St. John 7:31-36, KJV)
Her name does not matter as much as her story. At the tender age of twenty three, she moved from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Brooklyn, New York. She was perhaps, hopeful of a new start, anxious about her opportunities, excited to live for the dash and flash of city life. What she did not expect, however, was that in the city of lights, her life would take a dark turn. She was introduced to the wrong crowd and found herself in the wrong situation. In fact, this situation was irreversible. In an apartment with drug dealers and buyers and the police knocking on the door, she panicked and stabbed two men. Overwhelmed by the thumping of her heartbeat that seemed to have drummed out her sanity, she thought: leave detained in cuffs or leave free through a nearby window. She chose the latter. She jumped six flights and landed on her feet as a cat would have and broke her ankles. She woke up from this nightmare only to find herself in the reality of being inmate 93G666 at Bedford Hills maximum correctional facility. [i]
At the Women’s Advocate Ministry, which provides crisis intervention for women incarcerated and their families, I encountered this and similar stories of incarcerated women. This woman, however, was my first client. I met her while she was serving her seventeenth year of a twenty five to life sentence. As time stopped all around her in the abyss of imprisonment, she shared her story, how in a moment’s flash her life would change forever. Her story resonated with me, perhaps because it evoked memories of when I received letters from my brother from jail, or the cries of my helpless and hurting mother who conceived her first born child at the age of fifteen and raised two children alone in poverty, one of whom she would never experience the joy of sending off to college but only the pain of seeing him go to prison.
Internalizing the parallels between my life and my client’s story, ultimately, I was struck by my client’s wrestling with how to reconcile the meaning of her physical bondage with the liberative meaning of God’s Word for her context. In a letter she wrote from her prison cell, she states, “I want to tell you the passage that I always get stuck on in the Bible. No matter where I am at, something keeps me coming back to this one passage.” In this passage, she refers to John, who talks about freedom, particularly how “the truth shall make you free.” My client wrestled with understanding how, exactly, her freedom was tied to the freedom of God. I too wrestle with the meaning of Jesus’ saving work on the cross for persons incarcerated. Therefore, I stand in solidarity with my client, brother and persons incarcerated to try and make sense of lived realities in theological terms.
This has led me to grapple incessantly with the following question: How does one engage theology in a way that pointedly addresses today’s social and political realities, while evoking the fullness of humanity in a way that is faithful to scripture and the church catholic? Toward the end of forging a response as a sister, relative and friend to incarcerated persons and as an African American woman who is a minister, theologian and activist, I am committed to the issues confronting women and men in prison and their families, particularly the poor and the disenfranchised.
As a minister, I have initiated a prison ministry at my church, which focuses not only on reaching out to incarcerated persons while in prison, but accepting this population upon their release. As a theologian, my research interest contemplates the theo-ethics of atonement and the soteriological vision it has for punitive philosophies and incarcerated persons. And as an activist, I accept the charge to love God with all of my heart and mind by engaging in the fight for justice for “the least of these” – the captives, the oppressed, the poor, the hungry, the sick, the broken hearted and every “other” who is on the margins. Ultimately, my attention to the plight of the poor and the disenfranchised as a minister, theologian and activist informs the whole of who I am.
Hence, in a society where black incarcerated persons consist of 12 percent of the US population and nearly 50 percent of the prison population; where there are more black men in prison then there are in college; and where the number of women in New York’s prisons increased by 635% from 1973 to 2008, I recognize the dire need for communities of faith and for our society at large to get involved in the struggle for justice – this may mean extending the liberative truth of God’s word beyond the pulpit and into the prisons, beyond the church institution and to the psychiatric institution, beyond the sacred and into the streets, beyond the “churched” and to the “unchurched”, beyond orthodoxy and to orthopraxis.[ii] Thus, as I reflect – as a minister, theologian and activist – on how exactly the “truth shall set us free,” I think of my client, my brother and the nameless persons who are incarcerated and I am compelled to challenge an unjust system of justice and seek the eradication of systems of sacrifice, such as prisons, that do not embody the liberative message of God and restorative justice, or seek the transformation of persons incarcerated.
[i] To protect the identity of my client this prison identification number is not real.
[ii] The Correctional Association, March 2008.