There is growing attention within Unitarian Universalism to the calls for justice coming from behind prison walls. There are a growing number of UU ministers and congregations getting authentically involved in the work to put an end to the New Jim Crow, a framing popularized by Michelle Alexander. Many congregations across the US are reading Alexander’s book and hosting forums or attending conferences; there is even an active Facebook Group created by the UUA. We are moving our ministry in an exciting way, in many ways returning to some of the work we lost in the 1970s.
Prison ministry need not only happen behind the prison walls however. The prison industrial complex, while commonly seen as the concrete and steel prisons/jails/detention centers, includes the colluding interests of the police, politicians, big business, judges, victims advocates, crime watches, the media, academia, and theologies of punishment. Our shared ministry has endless possibilities. This morning I found myself in a court room supporting an incredible youth worker in Boston. This man has been on probation for the past five years and has been trying to get his probation terminated so he can more effectively live his life and do his job. There were fifteen of us sitting in the court room with him as this man stood before the judge.
Courthouses are such sanitized violence. These buildings house judges and prosecutors who serve the function of deciding the lives of, predominantly, poor people and people of color. Today is just another example of how the system functions. As the lawyer, whose fees were paid by the community, told the judge the story of the youth worker we were supporting we all sat together nodding our heads in support of this man’s great work in the community. After listening for some time the judge made her own statement, commending this man for his great work and recognizing us in the courtroom supporting him. She then went on to deny his request to terminate his probation, suggesting that instead because of his role as a youth worker he can model for the young people he works with how to be on probation effectively. What this judge was saying to this man of color was that he should maintain his servility to the state and demonstrate this to the youth of color he works with who, apparently, will inevitably also end up on probation. This insinuation and documented ruling by the judge perpetuates a racist narrative of the criminal Black and Brown young person.
As I sat there listening to this judge I felt my body temperature rise. Yet, in the moment there is not much to do but to bear witness, hold hands of the people around you, and make plans for resistance. The ministry here is to be a non-anxious, grounded, and loving presence that can hold the pain while also committing to transforming the pain into righteous action. As a Unitarian Universalist I remind myself that there is no saving power in punishment, that the flaws of the system are at its roots, and that through the strength of loving communities targeted by this system there will be a new vision of transformative justice.
When I left the courthouse I found myself walking to yet another court to secure a copy of a police report for a young transgender woman, Lexi, I have the pleasure of knowing. In October Black and Pink, the organization I am a community minister with, posted bail for Lexi and got more directly connected with her after she had been locked up for multiple years on a series of offenses. Two weeks ago Lexi was arrested again. I got a copy of the arrest report, in order to be prepared to share information with Lexi that her overworked public defender does not get to her. In the police report she is described by the arresting Boston cops as, “a man known to dress as a woman.” The report goes on to detail drug paraphernalia that I am 100% sure was not on her person at the time of arrest. Lexi then had her bail revoked and was taken out of the county to another jail where she will be held until her next court date.
The ministry with Lexi looks like building a relationship, building a caring relationship rooted in nonjudgmental listening. It is not my responsibility to “save” Lexi from her life. It is not my role to dissuade her from sex work as a survival mechanism. It is not my role to shame her coping mechanisms of drug use. I am available to her to safety plan, to help reduce the harm in her life, and to value her experience. The ministry includes writing letters, attending court, raising money, and challenging the system that stole her off the street and locked her in a cell.
As we engage in prison ministry I hope we struggle with the possibility of creating a Unitarian Universalist abolitionist ministry. The United States prison industrial complex functions as a system of domination, violence, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy. As we work towards changes in the system we need to be sure we are not creating prettier bricks to wall people up with. We need to be clear that the system, since its genesis, has been to control the lives mainstream society has deemed undesirable, criminal. Unitarian Universalist theology calls upon us to heed the words of John Murray, to “give them not hell but hope and courage.” Our carceral structures are a hell on earth today. We need to be part of creating something new.
As you think of what to do next, consider the following resources:
The Formerly Incarcerated/Convicted People’s Movement
Generation FIVE (transformative justice effort)
Black and Pink (support for LGBTQ people in prison)
All of Us or None
Rev. Jason Lydon is a Unitarian Universalist Community Minister affiliated with Black and Pink and First Church Jamaica Plain in Boston, Massachusetts. Jason can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org