Every Saturday morning, youth from the west side of Chicago are provided a safe place to reflect, create, and express themselves through drums. Started as a ministry of support for children and families with incarcerated loved ones, our community drumline has become a secondary family for many in the North Lawndale community.
In an attempt to get our drumline kids talking, Mrs. Cray, a retired public school teacher who volunteers as a tutor, went around the room asking students random questions. Terrell, a seven year old student in our drumline, was asked, “What was your best vacation, and what made it so good?” As he paused to speak, I became very curious as to what he might say. I thought back to family vacations I had experienced growing up. We would take family trips during the summer to places like the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina or to see the monuments in Washington D.C. I wondered if Terrell had ever been outside of the State of Illinois, or Chicago for that matter.
My quandary was interrupted when Terrell shouted out, “When I visited my dad in prison, because I have fun with my dad.”
After Terrell spoke, there was a brief moment of sacred silence in the room. For me, it was a reminder of why we do what we do. Amidst the sometimes frantic drum practices and tough teen facades, there is pain and loneliness. And regardless of the guilt or innocence of those incarcerated, it is the innocent children and families that are forced to pay the heaviest price. It is not right or just that Terrell’s best vacation is visiting a prison.
The truth is, the prison system is a destructive and violent force in the lives of children and families in our community. One study showed that over 57% of our neighborhood is involved in the prison system in some way – either in prison, on parole, or on probation. That means the majority of kids and youth in our community have loved ones who are incarcerated.
In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander shines a light on the injustice in our prison system. The United States has more people incarcerated than any other nation (2.1 million), half of which are African American. She reports there are more black men incarcerated now than were enslaved in 1850. Blacks and Latinos are incarcerated at disproportionate rates even though research shows that whites, blacks, and Latinos commit crimes around the same rate. Alexander argues that the mass incarceration of low-income minorities is causing the same discriminatory effects in areas of housing, education, voting, and employment as Jim Crow laws did, and as a result is creating a permanent under-class. When you incarcerate that many fathers (and mothers) you aren’t just punishing the parents, you are hurting the children.
What do we do as Christians when confronted with these harsh realities? The Bible urges us to “remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself!” (Hebrews 13:3). Jesus knew what it was like to have a loved one incarcerated. His cousin, John the Baptist, was falsely accused and arrested (and eventually executed). Perhaps this is why Jesus, in Matthew 25, tells his disciples “when I was in prison, you visited me.” As a victim of false imprisonment and injustice, Jesus entered into solidarity with the incarcerated and exposed the flawed justice system of his day. Of all people, Christians should be the most skeptical of prisons. A simple survey of prisons in the Bible will reveal that prisons were mainly used to oppress minorities, exploit the poor, and silence the prophets. And the prison system today continues to do so.
I have hope though, because Jesus came “to set prisoners free.” That is how I know that Jesus is on Terrell’s side.
As many of us will enjoy a vacation with family this year, let us remember those in prison AND the children and families that are serving time without them. I hope you will think about volunteering and supporting organizations working year-round to support families of the incarcerated. And as you get to know those children and families, I also hope you will be compelled to advocate for just policies that will set prisoners like Terrell’s dad free. In Jesus’ name.