ATLANTA (ABP) – Baptists must view prison ministry as more than prayer meetings and Bible studies if they are to follow Jesus’ Luke 4 mandate to “proclaim liberty to the captives,” former Arkansas Appeals Court Justice and Baptist pastor Wendell Griffen said Nov. 18.
“I do not have anything against prayer meetings and Bible studies,” Griffen, coordinator of ministries at Mt.
Pleasant Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., said in an address simulcast to viewing sites across the country participating in this week’s New Baptist Covenant II gatherings anchored in Atlanta.
While America claims to be “land of the free,” Griffen said, it imprisons more of its citizens per capita than any nation in the world, including Russia, China and Iran. Prison populations have grown from 300,000 in 1974 to more than 2.3 million. Most of the growth stems from drug convictions, which disproportionally target people of color.
Griffen said the United States incarcerates a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did during the height of Apartheid. More African-Americans are in prison today than were enslaved in 1850, and more black men are disenfranchised from voting because they are labeled felons than in 1870 when the 15th Amendment was passed declaring the right to vote cannot be abridged “on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.”
“This is not an academic issue,” Griffen said. To be true followers of Jesus, he said Baptists in the 21st century must confront forces that keep people confined.
“We must confront racism,” Griffen said. “The war on drugs is why the jails and prison populations exploded over the last 30 years,” he said. “The harsh truth is the war on drugs has been a war on black and brown people.”
Griffen said studies show that illegal drug use and sales occur in equal rates across all groups of income, class and color, yet most people in prison for drug crimes are non-white. “Confronting racism will require Baptists to discard the idea that justice is blind or color blind,” he said.
Griffen called on Baptists to also confront “the mass incarceration mindset that calls for building more prisons.”
“We can’t cure cancer and AIDS, let alone control the cause of cancer and AIDS, by building more cemeteries,” he said. “I’m amazed that people say that the way we are going to deal with crime is by building more jails and with longer prison sentences and hiring more prison guards.”
“When you build more jails, you are forced to fill them,” Griffen said. “Nobody builds a building for less than full occupancy. You will have to fill prisons and jails even if you must pervert justice to do so.”
Finally, Griffen said, Baptists should demand an end to the “second-class citizenship afforded to ex-offender status.”
“Number one, it means we must end the voter-discrimination stigma,” he said. “Why should people who paid their debt to society and have a job and pay their taxes be denied the right to vote?”
Felons are also barred for life from public housing. “That makes no sense to me,” he said. “Prison is public housing.” Ex-offenders are also barred from the educational system, even though most need assistance with education.
As part of restoration of status, “We must welcome ex-offenders into our churches,” Griffen said.
DeeDee Coleman, pastor of Russell Street Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit and founder of The Wings of Faith, a resource center for ex-offenders, said the church has “its own stigma” about incarceration and those who come into their midst upon release.
“As long as I don’t know what you’ve done, I can preach the gospel to you,” she said. “Once it comes out that you have been incarcerated, it changes.”
“We have no problem going to visit the sick, feeding the poor or clothing the naked, but we do have a problem visiting those behind prison walls.”
Coleman said if any institution should care about people in prison, it should be the church, because so many Bible characters from Joseph and Daniel in the Old Testament to Paul and Silas, Peter and John and Jesus in the New were at some point incarcerated because of their beliefs.
“My charge to the church is to go behind prison walls, go behind the detention centers of this world and see the lonely, the outcast and the forsaken,” she said. “Go and look into the faces of those who need a word from the Lord.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of Associated Baptist Press.