Although some people yield to evil and others commit crime for their selfish aim, there is such a mass incarceration of people that one has to wonder why so many people are in prisons all over the nation. "Why are so many non-violent offenders behind bars? Do prisons exist for the benefit of the victims, to reform perpetrators or to provide profit and jobs to certain groups in society? What about reconciliation and restoration? Is the church able to participate in building an alternative reality to the current pipeline of Kindergarten to the prisons, especially among people of color?” These were some of the questions running through my mind as I left the SBC21 Annual training on Saturday and hearing the presentation from Dr. McClenney-Sadler.
North Alabama Conference Strengthening The Black Church for the Twenty-First Century (SBC21) held its annual training at Central Park UMC in Birmingham on Friday January 24 and Saturday January 25, 2014. Presenters at this year’s event were Rev. Kelvin Sauls, pastor of Holman UMC in Los Angeles and Rev. Dr. Madeline McClenney-Sadler, founder of Exodus Foundation.org. Its mission is to stop the flow of African-Americans to prison.
The congregation, at Friday evening worship, experienced vibrant worship with Rev. Sauls preaching on “Locked Up, But Not Locked Out!” based on Peter’s experience of freedom from prison because the angel broke into the jail to break Peter out in Act 12:5ff. Church people have to be open to the breaking out power of the Holy Spirit. Rev. Dedric Cowser described the sermon as “very inspiring; it challenged us to wake-up to the realities and the needs of the world around.” Rev. Sauls was introduced by Dr. Thomas Muhomba, pastor of Lakeside UMC.
SBC21 Choir led the music with some soul on fire specials. The youth dancers of Glen Addie Community Church provided a praise dance special, worship thru movement. Rev. Dr. Genia Garrett served as worship leader. Dr. Garrett is pastor of the new River of Living Water UMC, a multiracial congregation in Jasper.
The next day, about 70 participants gathered for the training. Dr. McClenney-Sadler challenged the church to respond to the pipeline that funnels African Americans youth from home to the prisons. She also questioned the biblical and practical basis for prisons built around punishment, rather than building places of healing for people with mental, social and emotional illnesses, particularly non-violent offenders.
During Dr. McClenney-Sadler’s presentation on “Issues of Mass Incarceration” she called upon the church to become conscience of the historical context that have led to mass incarceration of African Americans at a higher rate than one would expect from a population group of this size. She noted that mass incarceration of African Americans came as a backlash to emancipation; a backlash to reconstruction with creation of aggressive vagrancy laws; backlash to civil rights and the result of the war on Drugs. To get a broad perspective on incarceration and the War on Drugs, she encouraged the viewing of “The House I Live In” a documentary by Eugene Jarecki. If you have not seen this, I highly recommend it.
She also recommended “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander. She invited the church to respond by teaching the Torah, treating the loss and grief that often play itself out in misbehavior and welcome the saints returning from prison to the community. Rev. Cowser described the presentation as “very thought provoking, informative and inspiring.”
Rev. Sauls, during his presentation on Saturday, challenged the participants to move their churches from in the four walls to the streets. He shared the importance of working with the community leaders to make things happen. He called for multi-dimensional and multi-ethnic approaches to ministry.
Pastor Sauls described the church as a verb that has action and mobility. The church should be a place of Vitality, a center of wellness and wholeness. The church is victorious, a connection for empowerment and commitment. And then the church, he said is a place of vision, a place of insight and foresight for without a vision, the people will perish. As church reach out to the community, he encouraged them to also find help at Conference and General Church level. One of the programs he noted was the SPSARV program, a United Methodist Special Program on Substance Abuse and Related Violence.
This year, we also heard from two local ministries, Advance Specials on the front line of outreach ministry. Mrs. Sarah Corson, what a storyteller; she and Mr. Tom Corson, Executive Administrator ofSIFAT, shared on the work of Servant in Faith and Technology (SIFAT). They invited churches to visit the Lineville headquarters as well as get involve in the local and international ministries they provide.
Greater Birmingham Ministries (GBM) does work that connect to social change in all of Alabama. Mr. Scott Douglas, Executive Director, challenged churches to get rid of the 1901 Alabama Constitution that has as it basis, the supremacy of Whites over Blacks. He shared on how GBM, through their direct services to the poor are leveraging for a greater good. For example, helping to pay utility bill of a person in public housing does more than keep the lights on; it keeps the family from losing their home.
Participants signed up at the displays to further connect with SIFAT and GBM. These and other Advance Specials of the North Alabama Conference are on the Conference website.
This annual event is a partnership between SBC21 National, with Dr. Fred Allen, National Director, the local SBC21 in North Alabama with Rev. Dedric Cowser, Convener, and the Ethnic Ministries of NAC with Dr. Richard L. Stryker, Executive Director.
The time was well spent. The training was engaging and powerful, with participants not only listening but sharing the struggles of the churches in Alabama. Training was made relevant to our circumstances by having conversations weaved into presentations. Dr. Kelley, of Race and Reconciliation in the Conference noted the need for all people to work together for change as was the case with the Underground Railroad long ago.