Faith Community is Breaking Bars in Atlanta

The Time is Now to End Mass Incarceration

By Chanda Burrage

The spirit is moving in Atlanta this week calling Pastors, Rabbis, Priests, Imams, and justice-seeking faith leaders to Let My People Go and End Mass Incarceration. It is a spirit that makes you want to transform lives and heal our nation. At last night’s opening session and service at Ebenezer Baptist church with Michelle Alexander and Rev. Warnock fired me all the way up! The time has come for us, the multifaith community to stand with the despised, convicted and least of these. It’s time to wake up and use our spirit-led revolutionary voice to break bars across this broken country – the “land of the free” and the incarceration capital of the world.

It’s time to wake up and use our spirit-led revolutionary voice to break bars across this broken country

For three days this week, at a national conference to End Mass incarceration, faith leaders, activists, church, mosque and synagogue members, and others are gathering for an in-depth discussion about various facets of America’s criminal system. We are learning how to train and equip communities with practical knowledge that deepen our understanding of the “real’ issues and consequences of policies and practices that target, marginalize and stigmatize our black and brown communities. This conference also provides easy-to-implement tools and strategies that help local congregations host cash bailout events and  “seal” or “erase” the criminal record of formerly incarcerated individuals, known as an expungement, in an effort to restore justice on the ground at the local level.

I acknowledge that this is not new. Many folks in our communities have been doing this work for decades. I knew of several churches with prison ministries in my hometown of Winston-Salem. Typically a deacon or reverend holds a weekly or monthly bible study at a nearby jail or prison, providing pastoral care and counseling. Here in Atlanta, there are numerous grassroots organizations, like Project South, addressing concerns in public schools and communities of color, along with SURJATL, AiR, and Black Lives Matter – Atlanta. These groups are unapologetically revolutionary agents of change and justice in this modern era.

These groups are unapologetically revolutionary agents of change and justice in this modern era.

In addition, if you haven’t been watching the news, streaming Netflix or following social media you’ve got some hashtagging to catch up on. Celebrities like Jay Z, Kim Kardashian, Meek Mills, and John Legend are not only speaking out against the prison industrial complex, they are “on the ground” lobbying policymakers for prison reform and leading bailout efforts in various cities.  

“Most of the time we have no control of the environment we were brought up in,” said Atlanta-based rapper T.I. at Sunday’s press conference. “It’s easier for a young black kid to get into prison than college.”

“It’s easier for a young black kid to get into prison than college”
– T.I. rapper, activist, and actor

Lawyers like Bryan Stevenson are creating monuments and academics are writing best-selling books like ‘The New Jim Crow’ by the conference’s keynote speaker and author, Michelle Alexander.

“[This] system extends far beyond prison walls and governs millions of people who are on probation and parole, primarily for nonviolent offenses. They have been swept into the system, branded criminals or felons, and ushered into a permanent second class status- acquiring records that will follow them for life.”

Filmmakers are big in this space too, chronicling the lives of Kalief Browder and the #ExoneratedFive, formerly known as the #CentralParkFive. My students, friends and ‘em are becoming so much more critically engaged on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Netflix and films and docs like Ava Duvernay’s ‘13th’ and “When They See Us” did that.  

I believe that all this multimedia buzz is not a mere trending fad but rather a complement – adding great value – to a stronger, deeper, long term authentic faith-led movement to end mass incarceration. We, the leaders and activists, who seek to follow the spirit to make the world a better place, draw upon something so much deeper than our and minds can even imagine. We must be the fruit of truth. Not the fruit of facts and data but the fruit of a just society and prophetic voice that calls out ‘million dollar blocks’ where more money is spent on incarcerating a block than feeding and educating individuals in the most underserved neighborhoods in America. Warnock said, “I worry about people who have a whole lot of praise and no protest.” It’s not only time to protest, it’s time to wake up and act up.

“I worry about people who have a whole lot of praise and no protest.” Pastor Warnock

So as we get “woke” on EMI at this week’s convening, our faith charges us to do the work. The real work of restoring lives affected by America’s prison industrial complex. If one of our loved ones is incarcerated, we all are incarcerated. America is incarcerated. Let’s do the work to heal our nation. Let’s do the work to reframe of old, out-dated, dangerous tropes and narratives about criminality, “thuggery” and “wilding”, prison care, reformative justice, and public safety – through a faith-rooted lens. Instead of trying to play it safe…looking like the politics of respectability, it’s time to organize like a multifaith group of believers who walk by faith and act with conviction and power. The spirit is moving…and I’m so glad … singing glory hallelujah… the multi-faith community is finally waking up.

Let My People Go is a conference organized by Auburn Seminary, The Temple and Ebenezer Baptist Church that is galvanizing a multifaith movement to End Mass Incarceration. Chanda Burrage is a Research Fellow at Auburn Seminary.  

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