Dealing with the Crisis of Mass Incarceration - Efrem Smith
Our nation has a serious crisis when it comes to mass incarceration. We are in need of major reforms within the broader criminal justice system. The deep divide and demonization surrounding Michael Brown, Officer Darren Wilson, and the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, show us the need for reforms in the criminal justice system and the need for a deeper commitment to racial righteousness and reconciliation.
In terms of gaining a deeper understanding of the crisis of mass incarceration in our nation, I would highly recommend the book, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Instead of painting the picture of mass incarceration and trying to deal with the systemic problems within the criminal justice system, I will focus on solutions and transformation. At World Impact, we are working to implement a comprehensive and holistic initiative we call "Incarceration to Incorporation" (I2I). This is one of our initiatives within our Focus Area of Demonstrating Compassion and Justice. At the same time this initiative brings together the other Focus Areas of World Impact: Planting Healthy Urban Churches, Developing Missional Partnerships, and Resourcing Urban Leaders.
The Purpose of I2I is "to equip local church and parachurch ministries to empower ex-inmates to become faithful servants in the local church as well as prevent urban young people from becoming inmates in the first place." I2I takes both an approach of prevention and intervention. What's more, it takes an approach of empowerment, restoration, and transformation of the poor, marginalized, and incarcerated.
Let me start with the prevention side of this initiative. World Impact began over 43 years ago as an urban missions organization focused on evangelism and discipleship among unreached urban poor children and youth. Initiatives back then included bible clubs, discipleship homes, and other outreach activities. I have heard many experts in the area of mass incarceration say that there exists an invisible pipeline from the cradles of poor urban children and juvenile detention centers and prisons. One of the ways that this pipeline can be dismantled is by ensuring that urban children are at grade level in math and reading by the 3rd and 5th grades. We address this at World Impact through two Christian Schools, one in Los Angeles and another in Newark. To dismantle the pipeline we must go beyond just reading and math skills. We must instill in urban under-resourced children that they can be leaders and change agents within their own communities. Strong education combined with evangelism and discipleship can erode the pipeline to the prison system, in systemic and life altering ways. We want to assist in building new pipelines, that redirect under resourced urban youth towards freedom. We want the urban church to adopt public elementary schools and start tutoring programs. We partner with ministries such as the Urban Youth Workers Institute (UYWI) to equip children and youth ministry leaders to leverage our history of an incarnational approach to urban ministry that raises up young heroes for God.
But dealing with the crisis of mass incarceration is also about intervention. It's about believing that when men and women are incarcerated this is not the end of their story. Jesus stood in between a woman who had broken the law of adultery and capital punishment by way of stoning (John 8). We also see here that the mixture of a religious and criminal justice system was broken even way back then. This is not to condone adultery in any way, but to look at brokenness even in systems that are supposed to be just. Where was the man that broke the law of adultery with the woman? Jesus stepped into this broken criminal justice system and kept the woman from being stoned to death. He didn't believe her crime was the end of her story. This is why we have partnered with Prison Fellowship, Awana, and other ministries to develop The Urban Ministry Institute (TUMI) satellites that provide theological education and leadership development in prisons and county jails. We have close to 60 TUMI satellites in prisons and county jails, serving 1,113 students. We believe that the incarcerated can become disciples who make disciples while in prison. We also believe there are leadership, ministry, and job skills that can be developed.
The next part of I2I focuses on what happens when men and women come out of prison, jail, or a halfway house program. This is really where the incorporation side of the initiative comes into play. Our SIAFU Chapters and Homes are a way to work with the local church so that those who have been incarcerated can be fully incorporated back into a community and they can make a transformative difference. SIAFU is an African word describing a red ant. This insect by itself is blind and living a life of chaos, but within a network of ants becomes a strong community. SIAFU Chapters are discipleship groups connected to a local urban church or ministry that provides an opportunity for mentoring, continued leadership development, and a bridge into the broader life of the church and surrounding community. The mentoring, coaching, and empowerment can also come through a missional partnership between both the urban and suburban church. SIAFU Homes provide a residential approach where World Impact staff and/or local urban church members have a closer, incarnational relationship with the formerly incarcerated. We have run a pilot of a SIAFU Leadership Home in San Francisco and are set to launch another one in Oakland next year.
I have shared what World Impact is attempting to do in dealing with the crisis of mass incarceration. I encourage you to join in as well in some meaningful way. We are called by Christ to see about the incarcerated (Matthew 25:31-40). Let us live into this biblical mandate.
Out of the Wild: Kaleo Teen Camping Trip - Paul Meitler
At the beginning of November, The Oaks staff was able to facilitate a leadership campout for young adult guys associated with the Kaleo ministry in LA. This is part of how the West Coast Camping Ministry is walking alongside leadership development in the cities. They were able to raise funds to sponsor each member on the trip and coordinate the curriculum with LA staff. Justin McKinney, Paul Meitler and Scott Quay were the primary leaders for this trip. It was another way to enforce the experiential learning which trips outside the pavement can provide.
Saturday morning: rain, rain, and, rain. This is normal for most parts of the country, but not Los Angeles in the middle of a drought! Scott, the youth pastor at our Kaleo Teen Center, received texts through the early morning – "I'm not coming, it's cold and raining outside." After multiple calls, texts, and driving out to pick up teens, we had a group 7 from the Kaleo Teen center.
All the teens packed their own backpacks, starting with an exercise where they could select anything and everything from a large pile of equipment. Hebrews 12:1 came to life before their eyes as we paired down extra supplies and packed only the essentials. This shedding everything but essentials kicked off our weekend theme – getting rid of all unnecessary hindrances that keep us from running the race.
Driving just 40 minutes north of downtown, we arrived at Big Santa Anita Canyon. We hiked thin trails with 40 ft. cliffs, enjoying waterfalls, pools, and winding streams along the way. It rained and sleeted. And then, half way along our 4-mile, 1800 ft. elevation gaining hike, we took on another object lesson. Everyone was required to carry a 15-20 pound rock for 2 miles to our campsite. Sheer, agonizing effort! Talk about unnecessary weight!
It was a weekend of many firsts: setting up a tent, hunting for firewood, filtering drinking water, firing up a backpacking stove, and being shrouded in complete darkness. It would have helped if they had packed flashlights!
As the teens shared, they learned about forgiveness, burdens, carrying grudges, weaknesses of judging and perfectionism, learning how to be at peace, not living under the judgment of others, and more. Everyone had chosen to enter into God's presence and He spoke to our hearts. Adrian, one of the teens, said it was an awesome experience – it was a place to be challenged and grow in his faith in a way that just doesn't happen in the city.
In the words of one of the teens:
"I'm so beat! This weekend was a true test of my strength. I don't think I've ever been that cold in my life. However, I do feel that I am stronger for it. I also feel I've grown a bit closer to my brothers. Three guys sharing one tent is a bonding experience you don't forget. We got to share our struggles and share our cookies, but most importantly, God shared some very important wisdom with all of us. On our trip we learned about the story of Elijah and how God restored his faith and strength to continue his calling. I hope He does the same for me so I don't miss school tomorrow."
Breaking the Cycle - Tina Busenitz
One of the most difficult things to witness in the inner city is the cycle of generational poverty and generational sin. Without the redeeming power of the Holy Spirit, individuals caught in these cycles have no real chance of breaking free.
Graciously, the Lord allows us to be His vessels as we help people break these patterns and live as new creations in Christ. We wholeheartedly believe the church is the vehicle through which God brings healing and renewal.
Eric West is a cycle-breaker. Eric was raised by a single mother in the housing projects in Watts (Los Angeles, CA). He became involved in gangs at an early age and became one of the leaders in the Crips. He shut God out of his life—depending only on himself for survival. But the Lord used World Impact missionaries to lead him to the Lord. At that point, his life changed. He no longer wanted to be a part of the violent lifestyle to which he had grown accustomed. He ended up at our young men's training program at Morning Star Ranch. It was there that his relationship with God deepened and he wanted to minister to others who were lost. He joined the World Impact Wichita ministry upon graduation and began working with youth and young adults. He also met his wife and they got married.
Through the Holy Spirit's working and the church, Eric broke the cycle. He did not follow in his parents' footsteps of alcoholism, neglect, and violence. He chose Christ and His love. Both he and his wife are godly parents who love the Lord. Eric never really knew his father and he was determined to be a loving and involved parent. Now Eric is an inspiration to many. He wrote a book recently entitled, From Crip To Christ. This riveting book tells his story of how the Lord rescued him from a life of darkness and brought him into His glorious light.
Tina Busenitz is a World Impact missionary in Wichita, KS.