Preston Shipp delivered the following keynote address at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America South Carolina Synod Rostered Leaders’ Convocation on October 23-25.
First of all, please accept my deep thanks for inviting me to join you for this gathering. I count it a great honor to be in the company of many good Lutherans here at the 500th anniversary of the publication of the 95 theses.
I like the title that you have chosen for this retreat, Discipleship at the Cross-Section of Faith and Life. The cross is a powerful symbol of sacrifice, and often when Jesus speaks about discipleship, he speaks in terms of taking up the cross. So as I think about the point at which our faith intersects with our “secular” lives, as if any part of life could be secular, I think about what sacrifices are we called to and willing to make at that point. During my first address to you, I would like to simply share how this played out in my own experience, how my discipleship came into conflict with my career choice, and how Jesus screwed up by best-laid plans for myself.
Franciscan priest Richard Rohr writes,
If we are not marginalized ourselves in some way, we normally need to associate with some marginalized group to have an enlightened Gospel perspective and to be converted to compassion.
The United States has an immense population of marginalized people locked away in its prisons. It is the largest prison population in the history of the world, approximately 2.3 million people. As a result of America’s war on drugs, which has been waged over the past four decades and disproportionately against poor people of color, many of these people are serving long sentences for nonviolent crimes. The collateral damage, both emotional and financial, of such mass incarceration to children, spouses, and entire communities cannot be calculated. Poet Adrienne Rich once said that war represents “an absolute failure of imagination,” and I believe the same can be said of our criminal justice policies, not to mention an absolute lack of compassion.
I first became acquainted with people who are imprisoned not from a position of solidarity, but from an antagonistic point of view. I was a prosecutor in the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office. I first knew that I wanted to be a career prosecutor during my junior year of college. I had obtained an internship in the local district attorney’s office, and when I saw the prosecutors in action – giving orders to police officers, negotiating with defense counsel, questioning witnesses, arguing their cases in court, comforting victims and their families – I was sold. Prosecutors were the “good guys,” wearing the white hats, vindicating victims, enforcing the law, making society safe by putting the bad guys in jail. Walter Wink talks about the myth of redemptive violence, and I bought into the myth. These people needed to be punished for what they had done. I distinctly remember one day in particular when I overheard a young prosecutor ask the defense attorney, during a break in the trial of an especially heinous case, how he could defend such a miserable blight to society and sleep at night. How indeed, I wondered. Who wouldn’t want to wear the white hat? I knew which side I wanted to practice on.
So I went to law school solely to become a prosecutor. I took every criminal law, criminal procedure, trial advocacy, and evidence course the law school offered. I spent a summer clerking in the local prosecutor’s office. Every step was calculated to prepare me for my career as a white knight. When I finally accepted a position as an appellate prosecutor in the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office, I felt like I had achieved my dream.
What does an appellate prosecutor do?
Day after day, month after month, year after year, I drafted briefs and made arguments to the court about people I did not know. They had broken the law, and they needed to be punished. Although I knew almost nothing about these people, I was convinced that I was right and they were wrong; I was good and they were bad. Our criminal justice system, like all authorities, thrives on these us-them dichotomies. There are good people and bad people. The people on whose cases I worked were bad people, criminals – murderers, rapists, robbers, thieves. I was one of the good guys, a prosecutor. Other good guys, who were labeled judges, helped decide the cases. Even the people who were most directly affected by crime were labelled victims, and they enjoyed little or no say in how the case was resolved. In these systems, there is a category and label for everyone.
My friend and professor of religion at Belmont University David Dark has this to say about labelling people in his new book:
When I label people, I no longer have to deal with them thoughtfully. I no longer have to feel overwhelmed by their complexity, the lives they live, the dreams they have. I know exactly where they are inside – or forever outside – my field of care, because they’ve been taken care of. The mystery of their existence has been solved and filed away before I’ve had a chance to be moved by them or even begun to catch a glimpse of who they might be. They’ve been neutralized. There’s hardly any action quite so undemanding, so utterly unimaginative, as the affixing of a label. It’s the costliest of mental shortcuts. ~ Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious
This is how the criminal justice system, like all systems, institutions, principalities and powers, tends to operate. And I played along.
Furthermore, because I was primarily responsible for prosecuting appeals, after the trial has already taken place, I had virtually no interaction with the defendants in the cases because they were often already serving their sentences. As a result, they were names without faces, they were a trial transcript that I had to read, a legal brief I had to write, and argument to make, a case to win. All I knew about them was the worst thing they had ever done. In retrospect, I can see what a dangerous position that is for a Christian to be in, called as we are not to judge lest we be judged and to love our neighbors as ourselves, and of course the Lord himself self-identified with prisoners. But I experienced no angst whatsoever. Like a lot of people, I had my life pretty conveniently compartmentalized, with the faith compartment not intersecting with the career compartment. Moreover, I was on the right side after all, helping punish evil deeds. I slept well at night.
All of this began to change for me in the spring of 2007, when my old college history professor Richard Goode called me about teaching the inaugural class in a prison college program. Inspired by the great Baptist minister, civil rights activist, and prison abolitionist Will Campbell, Dr. Goode was launching a program modeled after one that had been started at the Vanderbilt Divinity School by the great restorative justice pioneer, Harmon Wray. Richard’s vision was to take 15 university undergraduates to the Tennessee Prison for Women to study alongside 15 prisoners. Unlike the Vanderbilt program, the inmates would actually be enrolled as Lipscomb students and would be earning college credit toward a degree. And he figured what better class with which to begin than Judicial Process, as the very subject matter named the elephant in the room – half of the class had little to no experience with the criminal justice system, and the other half knew it intimately well, as the system was responsible for their incarceration, the division he hoped in some small way to overcome. And who better to teach it than a young prosecutor who was a bit too sure of himself? Looking back, I suspect Richard knew that it would be me who would learn the most from the experience.
So with fear and trembling, I started teaching my first college class in a prison. We had 15 bright-eyed, rich, spoiled college kids taking a class alongside 15 people that the State had condemned as unworthy to exist in the larger society. The inmates were awfully nervous at first about whether they would be able to do college coursework. For some of them, this was their first college class. Many of them were the first person in their family to attend college. Would they fail and be embarrassed one more time? And they were concerned as to how the traditional students would perceive them. Would they be judgmental upon seeing all of the prison garb? Would they be treated with scorn again as they had been in the past, according to their crime? Those inmates were putting a lot on the line.
The traditional students had their own apprehensions. None of them had ever been inside a prison before. Prisons are designed to be intimidating to insiders and outsiders alike. Those walls serve as much to keep people locked out as they do to keep people locked in. The first time you receive a pat down from a guard is a little nerve racking. Then they had to listen to a volunteer orientation about what do to in the event of an emergency, such as a hostage situation. As we took our seats, the traditional college kids were shaken, to say the least.
So we were all a little on edge that first night. Hoping a little honesty might ease the tension, I asked the class what we were nervous about on our first night. Fortunately for us all, one quick-witted inmate, knowing what the outside students had just gone through during the orientation, quipped, “I’m nervous that one of these college kids is going to take me hostage!” Thanks be to God, she broke the ice, and we began.
It quickly became clear to me that the coursework was just the picture frame, just a context. We could easily have been studying literature or history or anything else. The real work was bringing outside students and inside students into the same room and letting them get to know each other. Richard was using academics to carve out a little space where the lines that divide us, in this case, literal fences and razor wire, didn’t count for as much. He was hoping to build a little “demonstration plot,” for reconciliation, to use Clarence Jordan’s term. After all, if there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, insider nor outsider, if all is one in Christ Jesus and we are all made in the image of God, then those prison uniforms and identification numbers and strip searches and all the rest of the casual indignities, the dehumanizing reminders that prisons use to try and strip people of their dignity and personhood are a form of blasphemy, to use religious language.
Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community, puts it this way,
There exists a gap between the so-called ‘normal’ world and the people who have been pushed aside, put into institutions, excluded from our societies . . . This gap is a place of invitation in which we [are called] to respond . . . the gospel vision . . . is a vision of unity, peace and acceptance. It is a promise that the walls between people and between groups can fall.
This was Richard’s attempt to start tearing down a mighty big wall.
It turns out that I didn’t know too much about the criminal justice system at all. I knew how to make an argument in court, I knew about the laws of search and seizure and how Tennessee’s sentencing structure worked, I knew everything I needed to know to do my job. But never before had I contemplated the legitimacy of an adversarial system that seeks only to punish, never to heal. I had never before thought about the ways that our criminal code makes an abstraction out of very concrete harm that people suffer, the ways we push the victims and offenders to the side while legal professionals take center stage, and the ways in which the system preponderates against a true experience of justice, including answering victims’ questions, having offenders apologize and take responsibility for their wrongs and work toward a resolution. The system doles out retribution and calls it justice, and I was complicit in the process.
I learned a lot from those 15 remarkable inmates in that first class. Although many of them had committed terrible, violent crimes, to a person they were all more than their worst moment, as are we all. They were kind, compassionate, articulate, women with the potential to do great good. Although many of them had not been in school in decades, they consistently outperformed the traditional students. They were hungry to learn; they did not take education for granted. They recognized the opportunity that Lipscomb had given them and they were determined to make the most of it. They were diligent and conscientious in their studies. They proved themselves quite up to the task of being university students. They blossomed and grew in confidence. They told their stories. And listening to their stories was the most impactful part of the class.
I was accustomed to reading a defendant’s case in a cold trial transcript. But trials seldom tell the whole story or paint a complete picture. The stories I heard from these women often involved prior abuse at the hands of a spouse or boyfriend, substance abuse, and finally a violent episode. Crime does not occur in a vacuum. Each woman had a heartbreaking story to tell of feeling trapped, hopeless, and desperate. Juries do not hear all of these details. And I was confronted with the realization that had I been in their shoes, I may not have acted any differently. The good/bad, us/them dichotomy was obliterated. I came to see that we are all pretty much the same.
As firmly as I had believed in the system as a young prosecutor, I was becoming increasingly convinced that the system was like a broken assembly line. The more I learned about the sheer size of the prison population; the number of people serving long sentences for nonviolent crimes; the way that the system discriminates against people of color at every stage of the process from arrest through sentencing; the way that the system not only fails to rehabilitate offenders, but actually makes it harder for them to move forward and succeed by denying them the right to vote, access to public assistance, and opportunities for education and employment, the more I came to hate the work I was called upon to do every day. How could I write another brief? I felt like I was betraying my new ideals of healing, redemption, forgiveness, mercy, and second chances, all of which should have been my ideals from the beginning, and also betraying my new friends.
I felt a bit like Nicodemus, or even Paul.
I taught in the program again in 2009. By this time, I had become so convinced that the criminal justice system is broken, and I had so come to identify with my new friends in prison, that I had to leave my career as a prosecutor. This had been more than a career decision. It was a discipleship decision. Those old compartments of mine had crumbled. I could no longer hear about redemption on Sunday and serve as an agent of retribution on Monday. I could no longer read Jesus’ instruction to care for prisoners while arguing in favor of imprisoning them. I was a cog in a wheel that was broken, and it was crushing individuals, families, and communities. I could no longer hold my career in tension with what I had come to understand to be a gospel imperative, so I quit my job.
As I started teaching for the second time at the prison, I got to know a young woman named Cyntoia Brown. Cyntoia was one of the brightest students in the program. She was a voracious reader and very enthusiastic about being in college and learning. She had a quick, sarcastic wit. She was also very opinionated and not shy about making her thoughts known. It was great fun having Cyntoia in class. As we got to know each other, we would loan each other books and trade stories. Hers was heartbreaking.
Cyntoia was born to a drug-addicted mother who abused alcohol throughout her entire pregnancy. In a sense, Cyntoia’s well-being was sacrificed in utero to her mother’s alcoholism. As a result, Cyntoia suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, the effects of which include intellectual disabilities that affect a person’s ability to think rationally and appreciate the consequences of her conduct, as well as neurological, emotional, and behavioral issues. Cyntoia’s birth mother abandoned her as a young child. As a young teenager, Cyntoia began abusing drugs and alcohol herself. She dropped out of school, ran away from home, and lived on the streets of Nashville. After being locked up in a juvenile detention facility for a while, she took up with a pimp who called himself “Cut-throat.” They lived together in a cheap motel room, and would spend the day having sex, drinking, and getting high. The pimp forced Cyntoia into prostitution. Cyntoia was again sacrificed. This time it was her trafficker who sacrificed her sexuality to pay for a motel room and drugs. Violence was at the center of their entire relationship. He physically and sexually abused her himself, and he let his friends abuse her. Cyntoia was sixteen years old.
One afternoon, having been put out on the street by her pimp, Cyntoia was picked up by a john at a Sonic restaurant. Cyntoia was about to be sacrificed to satiate this man’s lust. The man, a regular church-goer, was forty-three years old. He took her to his house. He showed her his gun collection and bragged about being an excellent marksman. They went to bed together, but Cyntoia tried to keep him from kissing and touching her. Cyntoia, strung out on drugs and having been the victim of several rapes over the preceding two weeks, became afraid. She thought the man would rape or even kill her. Cyntoia, having existed in a culture of violence from the time she was conceived, and having suffered unimaginable violence for months while living on the street and with her abusive trafficker, responded to her fear of more violence with violence of her own. While the man lay naked in bed with his back to Cyntoia, she took from her purse a gun her pimp had given to her for protection and shot the man in the back of the head. She took two of the man’s guns so she would not return to Cut-throat empty-handed and fled. Not long thereafter, Cyntoia was arrested, tried as an adult despite all of the mitigating circumstances, and a jury unanimously convicted her of first degree premeditated murder.
As you might expect, Cyntoia was vilified in the media: sixteen-year-old prostitute guilty of murder. You can imagine the headlines, the names she was called. All of the ways that Cyntoia had been victimized and exploited over the course of her short life – the brain damage from fetal alcohol syndrome, the drug-addicted mother and broken home, the drug and alcohol addiction as a young teenager, the prior victimization, the trauma of being physically and sexually abused, the violence she had suffered most of her life – none of it was taken into account when deciding Cyntoia’s fate. There was no acknowledgement of the many ways that her family, community, and society had failed her every step along the way, failed her right up to the point that she took a man’s life. The criminal justice system placed all of the responsibility and guilt on Cyntoia, labelled her according to the worst thing she had ever done, and gave the automatic sentence for first degree murder in Tennessee, 51 years in prison. She was banished, thrown away as worthless, essentially sacrificed once more to spend the rest of her life atoning for what she had done when she was 16. Society tied a heavy burden onto Cyntoia’s shoulders, and no one lifted a finger to help her. She would not be eligible for parole until she was 67.
As I considered Cyntoia’s tragic story, it seemed to me that she was like a mirror into which we can see some of the worst problems in our society – child abuse, mental illness, addiction, failing educational and juvenile justice systems, rape, modern-day slavery in the form of sex trafficking, gun violence. But when we – the prosecutors, jury members, judges, the whole system – looked at her, we did not confess or repent for the ways we have let so many children slip through the cracks. Instead, we blamed her. We laid all of the guilt and condemnation on her. Up to the point where she retrieved a gun from her purse, Cyntoia was a sympathetic victim. But when she resorted to violence, she became a suitable scapegoat for all of the evil she had endured since before she was born, and she was banished from the society that had failed her so many times before.
Cyntoia’s story put a fine point on my paradigm shift from a law-and-order prosecutor to an advocate for criminal justice reform. Her community had failed her too many times to count. She was a child victim of human trafficking, targeted and forced into the commercial sex trade to acquire food, shelter, and clothing necessary for survival. But the system did not regard her as a victim at all. No attempt was made to help her heal from the years of abuse that led up to her tragic, impulsive decision to resort to deadly violence rather than be victimized one more time. And after all the ways that society had let Cyntoia down, in the end, all it knew to do to her was sacrifice her again, refusing to acknowledge her as a victim, opting instead to throw her away as a wasted life.
By the time I had Cyntoia in class, she had been locked up for five years, and already she was a changed person. She had grown and matured into a funny, caring person who very much wanted another chance to tap into her potential to do good. It made me so angry that the system, the judicial process we were studying in class, had so little regard for the great potential that all people, but especially children have to change and grow and be transformed into something beautiful and wholesome and altogether different from their traumatic past. Giving a 51-year sentence to a sixteen-year-old girl constituted a complete failure on the part of society to imagine a better future, to trust that people can and do change, to be faithful to what we claim to believe about redemption. The system pays lip service to rehabilitation, but Cyntoia’s case shows that the system’s goal is vengeance, punishment, the infliction of suffering. It treats people as disposable and hopeless. It is a betrayal of our best values – compassion, forgiveness, redemption, second chances. As the quote often attributed to Dorothy Day goes, I was fed up with the “filthy, rotten system.”
But one day, I got the mail at my house. In it was an envelope from the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals. This was not uncommon, as I continued to receive court opinions from cases where I had served as the prosecutor even though I had left my position months earlier. But when I started to read the opinion, the defendant’s name stopped me cold: Cyntoia Brown. Without realizing it, I had prosecuted Cyntoia’s case on appeal. I had argued that she was properly tried as an adult when she was only sixteen years old. I had argued that the evidence against her was properly admitted and that the evidence was sufficient to support her conviction for first degree murder and the resulting sentence of 51 years in prison.
I was stunned. How could I have missed her name on my class roster? How could I have failed to notice that one of the students in my class was the defendant in one of my cases? But as I said earlier, the defendants in my cases weren’t real people to me. They were court records I had to read, briefs I had to write, arguments I had to make. The possibility of me ever bumping into one of these people was so remote that I didn’t give it any consideration. So the notion that the Cyntoia in my class each week, my outspoken friend and student, was the Cyntoia Brown on whose case I worked, never entered my mind. I felt horrible. It was brought home to me in an awful way that I had been a part of the filthy, rotten system, the system that knows only how to punish, never how to heal. With the terrible power of the State behind me, I had taken a stand against a child, a child who never had a chance, and I argued that what needed to happen to her was for her to spend the rest of her life in prison. What had I been thinking? Why was I ever comfortable making arguments about people I didn’t know? How many other arguments had I made which, had I been afforded the opportunity to know the person, I would not have felt comfortable making? Why was I ever willing to make such arguments about people I had not met, whose story I never heard? What happened to judge not, lest ye be judged, to be compassionate as your Father is compassionate, that what I do to the least, to the most vulnerable, I do to the Lord?
I had failed. I had betrayed and denied what is best about my faith. And I had let Cyntoia down. I didn’t know how I would face her because I knew she would also receive a copy of the opinion and would see that I had argued against her on behalf of the State. I assumed she would hate me. I was afraid she would drop out of the college program. The principality and power that is the American criminal justice system had pitted me against this girl, and I had unquestioningly gone along with it. She and I stood on opposite sides of a vast chasm. I still wore the label of prosecutor, and she was the defendant. Not only was her worst moment laid bare, but I had been an agent of retribution in a system that knows only how to condemn and punish, never to heal and reconcile.
Wednesday night rolled around, and I went to the prison for class. Cyntoia was there, but we didn’t speak as we usually did. During a break I approached her and asked if she was okay. She told me she was. I apologized for the part that I played in her case. I didn’t make any excuses; I just told her how sorry I was that I had ever allowed myself to be in the position of making arguments against people I did not even know. Cyntoia, in a moment that beautifully crystallized the wonderful person she had become, graciously accepted my apology. She told me that she understood that I was only doing my job, that I did not know her, that I had changed my mind about being a prosecutor and left that career. She said everything she could have said, but it didn’t help much. She was clearly hurt and disappointed. More than that, she was intensely vulnerable. She knew that I was familiar with her crime. Without her consent, I had received terrible information about her, and it was like a wound being reopened. All of the awful, degrading things that had been said about her in the press came rushing back. Her past had followed her into the haven of the college program.
In II Corinthians 5, St. Paul writes that we are ministers of reconciliation. We no longer regard anyone from a human point of view. But those human categories do not pass away easily. The labels that are placed on us dictate how society views us and the value it places on us. I was not sure Cyntoia and I would ever be able to move beyond the human categories that had defined us against each other. But as Chad Myers writes, “Divine realities are waiting to be realized in our lives.”
So Cyntoia and I went back to class. We resumed our discussion of judicial process and our critique of an adversarial system that defines justice in terms of punishment. Together we read Hoard Zehr’s Changing Lenses, and we imagined a system that sought transformation and healing for victims and offenders, not merely to inflict more suffering. Cyntoia remained active in the class and as adamant as ever that the way things are is not the way they have to be.
At the end of our semester, we had a celebration, which has become something of a tradition. During the party, Cyntoia and I found time to talk. I confessed that it was hard for me to reconcile the person I knew her to be now with what I had read about her in the court record. She explained to me more of her story, her context, and her upbringing. She filled me in on the details of the life she was caught up in and the terrible circumstances she had endured since she was a child. These details were not contained in the trial transcript, and were never presented to the jury that found her guilty. I came to see that had I been in Cyntoia’s position, I might have made the same choices. But Cyntoia refused to allow the label that society placed on her when she was sixteen years old to define her, and she likewise refused to define me by the role I used to play in the criminal justice system and in her case.
To experience reconciliation, Cyntoia and I had to step outside of the adversarial, retributive system that pitted us against each other. In that system, we both wore labels, prosecutor and defendant. Such human categories serve only to divide and dehumanize people. To be reconciled, Cyntoia and I had to no longer regard each other from a human point of view. We had to let the old things pass away in order for there to be a new creation, a reconciled relationship. I had to repent and ask for Cyntoia’s forgiveness and experience a kind of conversion. Cyntoia had to be willing to see me as a person and not as the role I had played in her case. We had to realize that she and I are the same.
I witnessed my good friend Rahim Buford come to a similarly profound realization on Easter Sunday, 2016. I met Rahim while I was teaching a class at the main maximum security prison for men in Nashville. Rahim was serving a thirty-year sentence for first degree felony murder. When he was seventeen years old, he was poor and living in a bad part of town. He procured a gun, which was just something young men in his position did. He used the gun to rob a restaurant. The person behind the cash register was not moving fast enough, so Rahim fired a shot at the floor to scare him. The bullet, however, ricocheted off the floor, struck the man, and killed him. By the time I had Rahim in class, he had been locked up for 25 years.
After our class concluded, Rahim came up for parole, and he asked me to be there to support him. Rahim was released in the spring of 2015. And he was eager to make a difference. He started working with the Children’s Defense Fund, talking to at-risk youth and trying to interrupt what has been called the cradle-to-prison pipeline. One day he called me and expressed an interest in going with me to the prison where I help conduct church services. This prison is out in the sticks about an hour west of Nashville. I told him I would give it a shot, though I didn’t think they’d let someone visit who had so recently been released from prison. For whatever reason, Rahim’s visitor memo was approved by the chaplain. So on my birthday, March 27, 2016, which happened to be Easter, Rahim and I went to the prison. It was his first time to go back to a prison since he was released, and this prison happened to be the place where he served the first eleven years of his sentence. He was understandably a bit apprehensive, not knowing what to expect or how he would react.
When we arrived, Rahim looked like someone returning to a dream. As we walked from my car to the prison, he simply said, “I used to live here.” As we waited at checkpoint, he mentioned that he used to wonder where his family waited before they were admitted into the prison on visitation days. Now he was sitting in the spot he had tried to imagine for eleven years. As we walked across the compound to the chapel, he showed me where he used to jog on the yard for exercise. He saw two men with whom he had served time, and they hugged him, almost in disbelief that he had returned to visit them. So few do. When we entered the chapel, he saw three more men that he knew.
During our service, we did many of the same things that had occurred in church buildings across the world that morning: we sang songs of praise, we shared the Eucharist, and we read the gospel account of Mary Magdalene discovering the empty tomb. Rahim even preached a powerful sermon about all people being made in the image of God and being God’s children. This is our truest identity, the very core of who we are. God’s power is at work in all of us, Rahim said, and we can have new life as a result of that power. Heads nodded. “Amens” were offered. In his homily, Rahim drew from his experience as a captive to encourage these men, who were still in a sense “entombed,” with the good news that prison and death would not have the final word.
Many of the men came up to Rahim after the service to thank him for returning to that dark place to offer a word of hope. One man stood out. In 1996, while Rahim was still serving time at the prison we were visiting, Rahim’s brother, who was also incarcerated there, had a conflict with a member of a gang. As a result, the gang targeted both the brother and Rahim, though Rahim had nothing to do with the controversy. One day, one of the gang members confronted Rahim, two other gang members jumped Rahim from behind, and a fight ensued. Thankfully, Rahim was not seriously hurt, but all of them were sent to solitary confinement. When they were released back into the general population, everyone understood that Rahim had been wrongfully targeted and assaulted, and he was entitled to vengeance. To keep the situation from escalating, however, a rival gang mediated the dispute, and determined that Rahim was entitled to compensation in the form of cocaine. As he relayed this story to me, Rahim admitted, “I haven’t always been a good person.” Once the restitution was made, Rahim and the gang dropped the issue.
Twenty years later, on Easter Sunday, one of the gang members who jumped Rahim just happened to attend our church service. After Rahim’s homily on new life, the man came forward to Rahim. Rahim recognized the man immediately. The man hung his head and apologized for acting violently against him. Rahim, embodying his lesson on the power of God at work in dark, death-dealing places, forgave the man, and they hugged. This Easter evening, Rahim’s word became flesh, as resurrection broke through in the form of an apology, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Easter happened.
Henri Nouwen wrote,
We become neighbours when we are willing to cross the road for one another. There is so much separation and segregation: between black people and white people, between gay people and straight people, between young people and old people, between sick people and healthy people, between prisoners and free people, between Jews and Gentiles, Muslims and Christians, Protestants and Catholics, Greek Catholics and Latin Catholics . . . To become neighbours is to bridge the gap between people . . . Only when we have the courage to cross the street and look in one another’s eyes can we see there that we are children of the same God and members of the same human family.
This is the invitation – to regard each other as neighbours. To cross the road for one another. To allow the image of God in me to recognize the image of God in you, despite any other difference between us. You don’t get much more different than a prosecutor and a prisoner. But I can say without hesitation that I have learned more about the nature of God and the gospel of love, peace, justice, and reconciliation from people in prison than in 40 years of going to church buildings and seventeen years of religious education.
In my own experience, the cross-section of faith and life is prisons. It is among people in prison that I have most fully encountered the Spirit of the living God. My salvation, it turns out, is bound up with that of people like Cyntoia and Rahim and so many more.
Following the shooting at the church in Charleston, South Carolina, President Obama delivered the eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. President Obama said, “[J]ustice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other.” This kind of justice, a justice that affirms that we are all neighbors, is not available in our courtrooms. True justice, biblical justice, the justice that prophets through the ages have longed to roll down like waters, this kind of justice “grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other.
Cyntoia and I needed an experience of justice, to recognize ourselves in each other, despite the way the system had pitted us against each other. Rahim and his attacker needed an experience of justice, to recognize themselves in each other, despite the violence and animosity that had once divided them. This kind of justice is at the core of the gospel. It is where our faith connects with our daily life. Jean Vanier writes,
The Word became flesh to bring people together, to break down the walls of fear and hatred that separate people. That’s the vision of the incarnation. . . . Jesus came to change a world in which those at the top have privilege, power, prestige, and money while those at the bottom are seen as useless. . . . [O]ur deep need is to meet those on the other side of the wall, to discover their gifts, to appreciate them[.]
And when it happens, it is breathtaking. I am convinced that this is the way of God’s peaceable kingdom. This is the kingdom come – to be reconciled to and experience solidarity with the other, the one who is overlooked, pushed aside, discarded, scapegoated.
Transformed people transforming the world, not settling for the narrative of offense and retribution, not willing for any to perish under the unfair weight of labels or be sacrificed to a spirit of institutionalized vengeance, not being guided by fear or a tendency toward self-preservation but by God’s Spirit of Love. Recognizing our common humanity and dignity as bearers of the divine image, may the church make known to the principalities and powers the manifold wisdom of God. Amen. Thank you.
Where are they today?
Cyntoia Brown continues to serve out her 51 year sentence. Since 2004, Cyntoia has been working diligently to make amends for her crime. Today, Cyntoia is an incredibly intelligent, compassionate, and resilient young woman. She recently graduated with an Associates of Arts degree with a GPA of 4.0 from Lipscomb University’s LIFE Program (Lipscomb Initiative For Education), and she will soon earn her Bachelor’s degree from Lipscomb. As she has progressed in her rehabilitation, Cyntoia has served as a beacon of light in the prison environment. She has helped other inmates earn their GEDs, worked in various meaningful jobs, and encouraged those around her to be their best selves. She has maintained meaningful relationships with positive mentors in the community, many of whom feel that they have become better people through their friendship with Cyntoia.
The documentary on Cyntoia’s life has been used in educational curricula across the country to teach students in Criminal Justice, Sociology, and other disciplines about Adverse Childhood Experiences, childhood trauma, and the devastating effects of human trafficking of juveniles. Cyntoia has served as a consultant for the Juvenile Court Master Plan in Davidson County, Tennessee, helping design a trauma-informed juvenile detention facility that will ensure safety of the community and youth by identifying design flaws that can cause juvenile facilities to be vulnerable to the introduction of contraband and abuse of juvenile detainees. She is currently working on a Capstone Project at Lipscomb University on the issue of human trafficking, where she is further using her personal experiences to increase human understanding of the plight of juvenile runaways and trafficking victims. She corresponds with people from around the world who wish to understand how they can use her story to keep others from meeting similar fates.
In 2010, attorneys Charles Bone and Houston Gordon took on Cyntoia’s case pro bono after watching a documentary on Cyntoia’s story called “Me Facing Life” https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=DKSx205bqPo. Since then, a team of lawyers have been fighting tirelessly for Cyntoia’s freedom. We ask that you join us in pursuing freedom for Cyntoia. You can find more information on Cyntoia’s case in the following Nashville Scene article: http://www. nashvillescene.com/news/ article/13037415/for-a-teens- impulsive-unthinkable-act- cyntoia-brown-got-an-adults- life-sentence-was-justice- served.
Rahim Buford is a man of passion and purpose who uses his voice and personal experiences to make a difference in the lives of others – from young people to veteran lawmakers. He is a formerly incarcerated social justice advocate from Nashville, Tennessee. Rahim was paroled in 2015 after being locked up for 26 consecutive calendar years. While in prison, he acquired certifications from numerous educational institutions and became a leader in SALT (Schools for Alternative Learning and Transformation). He received a Presidential scholarship at American Baptist College and loves being in college. Now a consultant organizer for Children’s Defense Fund Nashville Team and ICAN (Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network) member. Rahim self-published his book, Save Your Own Life, utilizing simple prose, poetry, reflection and writing exercises for youth battling the “cradle-to-pipeline.” He founded Unheard Voice Outreach to connect with at-risk youth and to assist individuals affected be incarceration. Rahim facilitates critical reading, writing, and dialogue sessions at the Metro juvenile detention center on Thursdays. Watch Rahim’s Story on YouTube
Preston Shipp serves on the board of Theology & Peace. In 2016 he delivered an eloquent and moving presentation at the Theology & Peace Conference, “People & Policing: Compassion for Our Violence.” Unable to serve two masters, Preston left his career as an appellate prosecutor in 2008. Since then, he has taught in universities and churches, lectured at conferences, and written about the urgent needs for criminal justice reform, a shift in how we regard imprisoned people, and a new vision of justice that seeks healing, transformation, and reconciliation, not merely the infliction of suffering. Preston’s conversion from prosecutor to criminal justice reform advocate has left him convinced that his salvation is bound up with that of his friends behind bars. He lives in Nashville with his wife Sherisse and their three children, Lila Joy, Ruby Faith, and Levi.