BC: For more information or to support our work, contact us: Becoming Church, Inc. 1656 Columbia Road, NW Washington, DC 20009 202.387.8001 www.becomingchurch.org
FC: strength to LOVE | Mission to the Corrections Corporation of America, Nashville, TN May 11-13, 2010
1: Inspired by the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., "Strength to Love" is a movement to re-imagine the incarceration system and end the injustices of incarceration and re-entry.
2: Liberation: Journey Inward, Outward, Forward Strength to Love is the outward mission of the Church of Christ, Right Now. Our church’s primary longing is to be connected to God, and in that connection, to act according to God’s guidance. It is out of this longing and connection that Strength to Love has been born. Because so many who are involved with our church have been directly affected by the injustices of incarceration, God is using our first hand experience, wisdom and faith to address those injustices as disciples of Jesus. Strength to Love particularly senses call around God’s presence, spoken word and acts of wonder in liberating the Hebrew people, narrated in the book of Exodus. In that great and holy journey of bondage, miracle and redemption, Moses wasn’t naive to the task to which he had been called. Deconstructing the backbone of Egypt’s economy of empire and slavery, then spending forty wilderness years forming a people into a Hebrew nation with a new, manna economy, was beyond what most of us would readily sign up for. But, Hebrew-born and Egyptian-raised, Moses had been groomed by God for the task. Against unbelievable odds, he went before Pharaoh and all that the empire was. Not by Moses’ doing, but through Moses and a series of miracles, God freed the people from slavery and advanced the early and crucial movement of the world’s salvation history. We have encountered our burning bush. Through Strength To Love, ministry with and to ex-offenders/returning residents, God is sending us to a modern-day Pharaoh to insist that Pharaoh, “Let our people go.” --- The privatized, for-profit prison industry is particularly plagued by a conflict of interest at its core: On the one hand, the industry is responsible to its shareholders to make money, and its income is determined by how many beds are filled. On the other hand, its civil responsibility to the inmates and to the whole of society is to help incarcerated people become their intended selves, and to prepare them to succeed upon release. It is well established that services and programs like job training and education serve to lower the occurrence of re-offense. But it is better for the company’s bottom line to minimize staff and services, let the inmates succeed or fail on their own terms and reap the financial benefits of strict sentencing laws and high rates of recidivism.
3: It is this experience of exploitation, frequently referred to as a modern day form of slavery, that many members of Strength to Love have personally experienced, and which we have been called to dismantle. To have access to the Pharaohs of the prison industry, we set up shareholder accounts for ex-offenders and purchased, for each, a share of stock in the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) – the largest owner and operator of private prisons, controlling 65 incarceration facilities with over 85,000 beds. | Now, these ex-offenders/returning residents are part owners of the company that once held them. On May 11th-13th, 18 Strength to Love members traveled together, as shareholders, to attend the CCA Annual Shareholders’ Meeting in Nashville, TN. Through our presence and words at the meeting we proposed that the industry be compensated not by how many beds it fills, but by the success of its alumni, and we asked for the CCA's partnership towards such a change. We went to speak a word knowing ourselves to be experts on the issues, not because we came with statistics, but because we came with firsthand testimonies of our own experience.
5: Six Principles of Kingian Nonviolence The Strength to Love movement and those involved are committed to the Six Principles of Kingian Nonviolence, and our adherence to these principles created the context and spirit with which we traveled to Tennessee. In his work Stride Toward Freedom, Dr. King spoke of a “philosophy of nonviolence,” which is a way of thinking and being that he explored through much study, by asking difficult questions and through practical action. He explained the philosophy by identifying six key principles of nonviolent living and action. We see these principles as consistent with the teachings and ministry of Jesus and strive to live into them at all times, in our mission to CCA and beyond. Principle 1: Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. Principle 2: The beloved community is the goal. Principle 3: Attack forces of evil, not persons doing evil. Principle 4: Accept suffering without retaliation for the sake of the cause to achieve a goal. Principle 5: Avoid internal violence of the spirit as well as external physical violence Principle 6: The universe is on the side of justice.
7: The Journey Begins On the morning of May 11th, we prepared for the beginning of our journey. One of the most striking characteristics of the trip was a pervasive, consistent and holy spirit of patience, kindness and unity amongst the travelers – and this spirit was present even before we left Washington, DC. On the morning of departure, we gathered and waited for the chartered bus to arrive. As the departure time arrived, however, the bus was nowhere to be found. After several calls it became clear that the bus – which had been reserved and paid for long before the departure date – wasn’t coming. Members of the group then worked, for the next five hours, to find another transportation option, and fast! Meanwhile, we waited. Our waiting, however, was patient, calm, gracious, joyful and hopeful. And, without prior reservation, we were able to secure another bus and a driver who became a partner with us in the mission. The Spirit was abundant even in those seeming moments of distress and delay – and in every moment of the trip that followed. "...The genuine fellowship of the group [was] given by the Spirit early on when we waited for the bus and continued throughout the trip.” -Barbara Moore
8: Study & Worship at Haley Farm We arrived at Haley Farm in Norris, TN – our first stop – at 2am, after a five-hour delay and an eight-hour bus ride. There, along with fellow activists from the American Baptist College in Nashville, TN, we rested and worshiped. It was also here that we studied and located our movement in the context of the Civil Rights movement and in the context of a radical faith in a loving, mountain-moving God. It was appropriate to begin our journey at Haley Farm, because it is steeped in the heritage of the very justice movements that inspire our work. Now owned by the Children's Defense Fund (CDF), the farm was once owned by renowned African-American, Pulitzer Prize winning author, Alex Haley. Haley wrote the book Roots and he helped write The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Haley was committed to using the written word to foster awareness and action. Further, it was the founder of the CDF, Marian Wright Edelman - who has long been part of the Church of the Saviour faith community in Washington, DC, who extended the invitation to Strength to Love to spend a day of retreat on the farm. Edelman was actively and passionately involved in the Civil Rights movement and maintains a commitment, through grassroots and policy-related work, to social justice. "I also really enjoyed the presentation [on the background and history of injustices of the prison industry] at Haley Farm by Keith and Nataska [of the American Baptist Bible College]. Spiritually I grew in learning, to face my fears; not letting future expectations scare me out of doing what I need to do.” -Larry Watson
12: “We must be able to distinguish between the forces of evil and the beloved people of God who act, unfortunately, according to those forces. This is what King did in the civil rights movement; it is what Jesus is talking about in the passage from Matthew 5, and it is what we must do with regard to those in power in the prison industry. God's love and mercy are for everybody: the rich, the poor, the slave, the slave owner, the perpetrator and the victim.” -from the Bible study used during the trip, called "Love Your Enemies" "Love has within it a redemptive power. There is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That's why Jesus says, 'Love your enemies.' Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption." -Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., "Love Your Enemies" in Strength to Love
14: Corrections Corporation of America Annual Shareholders' Meeting On the evening of May 13th, we traveled to Nashville, TN, where the CCA is located, and rested well. We woke on the morning of May 14th and prayed together. We didn’t know what to expect from the meeting, the board members or the experience, but we were certain of our commitment to the Kingian Principles of Nonviolence and to a spirit of love. When we arrived, we found that the CCA board members were already aware of our coming. They were suspicious of us at first and had increased security, but after introducing ourselves and interacting with them further, they sensed that we were kind and open and we were received warmly. While several members of our group distributed information to bystanders and met the press outside the CCA headquarters, most of us proceeded to enter the meeting. During the meeting, we listened to the board’s business agenda and at the designated time we shared our statement of purpose and action. After the meeting, we continued to speak with those present and even spoke privately with Dennis Bradby, the CCA’s Vice President of Inmate Programs.
16: Strength | SSS | Strength to Love - Statement to the CCA Board Good morning. My name is Larry Watson. I am a CCA shareholder, and I am an ex-offender/returned resident of Washington, DC. Since my release from jail, I have been very fortunate. I have a loving family, I have decent housing, and I have been supported in my recovery from addiction. I have meaningful work helping homeless men and women, most of whom have been incarcerated and have not been as fortunate as I have been. Across the country, there are millions of ex-offenders who are struggling. They struggle to find housing, employment, supportive community, health care and other basic needs. I am here with other ex-offenders from Washington who own shares of stock in the CCA. We know from first hand experience that our country, especially the prison industry, and especially our churches and faith communities, must start doing things differently in order to help our brothers and sisters who are being released. There are some efforts in place—some basic programs in the corrections facilities, and some programs like the Magdalene House, supported by the CCA— but they only scratch the surface. These efforts are not enough to meet the need. Together, we need to explore a whole new frontier of what Dr. King called the Beloved Community. Our group is called Strength to Love, and we have been studying the thought and method of Dr. King and the civil rights movement. We believe, like King did, that love is more powerful than confrontation. Our group is prepared to give local and national leadership towards the Beloved Community. We are here to ask whether the CCA will work with us to create a new spirit and a new hope for imprisoned people and for all people in our country. This would mean exploring new, innovative ways of lowering rates of recidivism, devising new financial incentives for the industry, preparing inmates for success in the community, and working with community leaders towards positive change. Most importantly, it would mean working together for the common good. There would be no more powerful team to move the country in the right direction than the prison industry working hand in hand towards the Beloved Community with ex-offenders like us. Our question is: Is the CCA ready and willing to give leadership with us— to explore new frontiers to heal and rebuild our communities and our nation at the point of reform and re-entry? If so, please advise us on how to contact you for our first meeting. Thank you.
18: Only the Beginning Our presence at the CCA Annual Shareholders’ Meeting is only the beginning. Like Moses, we aren’t naive of the task to which we have been called. The prison industry is no small thing. Indeed, it is part of the backbone of injustice, deeply embedded in our nation’s economy. But by the experience of our Strength to Love members, who know the prisons from the inside, we have been groomed for the task, and attending the CCA meeting is one way we have said yes to the Lord’s call. Our presence and work is also a part of the way that we understand the truth of what it means to really be church. It took ten visits from Moses to get anywhere with Egypt’s Pharaoh and this book describes our first address with the Pharaohs in Nashville. "The beautiful thing to me was to see so many of our tongues loosed, and to see that the heart of our group [was] warmed and prepared by the love of Jesus Christ [and that love was] spoken to the hearts of the many board members.” -Janet Stauss "The following morning we gathered aboard the bus and headed to the CCA Shareholders meeting. Upon arrival...it was evident that they knew that we were coming...To witness how receptive the board members were to our concerns was a testament to how the Lord was with us. The whole experience reinforces the belief I subscribe to: absolutely nothing, nothing, happens in God's creation by mistake.” -Ali Kirnon "Tennessee was beautiful. The people were the best. It was God's plan. We talked and we listened. We prayed and we studied. We watched movies on civil rights and we sang. We made up a song: ‘We are shareholders.’ It was great. We found love everywhere we went. It was somewhat strange, so many good and perfect things happened. We were strong and filled with confidence." -Deborah Body
19: "I strongly believe everyone in that [board] room felt our words deeply! I believe what we set out to do will come into the true light.” -Larry Pittman "Lord, I give You thanks and praise for the amazing dignity, forthrightness and effectiveness of our presentation of our cause and the manner in which it was received.” -Yolande Ford "The Strength to Love group, for me, personifies the attitude displayed by Christ during his journey. One that says that we should look past the problems or shortcomings of our fellow humans and see their need.” -Darryl Jackson “Thursday was CCA day. In the posh part of town, our 12 shareholders entered the CCA building for the corporate meeting; our 6 non-shareholders (including me) were outside giving literature to those willing to take our papers. One willing recipient was an Associated Press reporter from Kentucky. After the official meeting ended, we all went inside for helpful, respectful dialogue with CCA’s Vice President, to elicit a commitment to ongoing conversation.” –Doris Stelle “The structure was based on just being there and showing that you do have strength and hope, you know, one day at a time, that’s how I look at it.” –Anonymous
20: Next Steps After the CCA Annual Shareholders’ Meeting, we returned to Washington, DC motivated and more ready than ever before to continue proclaiming the work of liberation that is already complete in Christ. Not long after the meeting, Dennis Bradby, the CCA’s Vice President of Inmate Programs, agreed to meet with Strength to Love in Washington, DC. However, after a host of unreturned phone calls, emails and letters, we received word through his assistant that Mr. Bradby had retracted his offer to meet with us. We were disappointed in his lack of presence and in his failure to keep his word to us and so many others committed to the Strength To Love mission. As we continue to be open to the Lord's call and fresh action, we remember that our hope for this meeting is much the same as the hope we had for our travel to Tennessee. We are gentle as doves and wise serpents. We are committed to moving forward in the same spirit of love and abundance that so overwhelmed us during our visit to CCA, and we are confident that the Spirit will enable us – just as the Spirit enabled Moses – to speak truth to power. Our movement forward will revolve around two main points. First, we want deeper and more holistic support and assistance for those preparing to transition out of incarceration. We feel, also, that the CCA should accept significant responsibility for providing this support. Second, we want to be and want to encourage others to be a welcoming presence to those leaving jail facilities and returning to the their communities. We are open to the experience and insight of the CCA as we explore how this welcoming looks and lives. Together, our little group has a total of 20 shares of stock in CCA. Those 20 shares are up against 111,000,000 publicly traded shares! We can think of it in either of two ways: as 20 tiny shares, up against a huge, multi-billion dollar prison industry or as a tiny little prison industry, up against the eternal reign of Love, known to us the life, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. Because we know the Good News to be true, we are committed to moving forward and, in the words of the same spiritual we sang together on the bus, “We shall not be moved.”
21: Travelers Dwight Abney Jean Badalamenti Deborah Body Thomasine Brown Antonio Celey Lucious Flood Yolande Ford CW Harris Darryl Jackson Ali Kirnon Barbara Moore Larry Pittman Masi Sithole Janet Stauss Becca Stelle Doris Stelle Terry Thompson Larry Watson