Melissa Cedillo has a word of advice for prison ministries: It’s time to get your hands out of your pockets!
The graduate student at Harvard Divinity admits, in a recent Sojourners Magazine article, that at one time she considered becoming a prison chaplain. Then, she says, the more she discovered how our prison system exploits incarcerated people, their families, and their communities, she changed her mind.
Just going into prisons and teaching Bible lessons doesn’t cut it, according to Melissa. If prison ministries do this “without addressing root causes, (it) merely allow the prison system to continue practices and policies that strip away the dignity of those experiencing incarceration. This is not something I believe is pleasing to Christ.”
Commenting on the fact that black Americans, who only account for 13% of the total population, make up 40% of our incarcerated population (it’s no different in Michigan), she accuses the American prison system of having a white supremacist goal---"to control and dehumanize people of color, the impoverished, the marginalized.” Because of this, she goes on to say, “any form of prison or mail ministry rooted in Christian values must also address the injustice of mass incarceration.” This can be done, says the author, “by advocating for early release, working to dismantle unjust systems of power, and pushing for a rehabilitative, not punitive, justice system.”
Commenting on the negative impact of the coronavirus pandemic on prisoners and their loved ones, Melissa says: “I believe Christ would be using this moment as a chance to move the world from visitation to decarceration, a world in which prison ministry centers around advocating for early release and an end to the use of incarceration as a solution for societal ills such as poverty, addiction, and lack of education.”
After letting this article stew in my mind for a few days, I’m convinced that now is the time for all prison ministries, from local to national, to take a bold, new stand and dare to get involved. Prison ministries have clout. Prison ministries can bring about change. I agree with Melissa: Just continuing what's been done in the past isn’t enough.
Concludes the author:
As I continue my theological studies, I am always asked to take more seriously what mercy looks like. I have been taught that theology, when done right, must translate teachings into actions. It must ask the faithful, what more can I do now?