by Joe Marcucci
Our entry to the dizzying world of Mass Incarceration began with the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, and the book Rethinking Incarceration by Dominique Gilliard. We were determined to move the marker for what our church was engaged with. When the initial registration for our first Rethinking Incarceration learning community stood at an underwhelming three, we remembered that God makes little things grow. The group grew to ten and everyone embraced the participation requirement: make a non-zero response.
A non-zero response does not mean dropping everything and changing careers. It means creating the availability to do something–to take a step forward and get involved. Though we have volumes to learn, our learning cannot be just an academic exercise.
Dominique Gilliard exhorted our first Rethinking Incarceration cohort to pursue proximity. As a mostly white, Asian, and highly educated church, we needed to get closer to the issue and feel the weight of injustice. We pressed on and now there are over fifty Highrockers who have made a non-zero response to the mass incarceration crisis.
By God’s grace, our response includes a micro church of mostly practitioners; a letter writing team with twenty-five plus participants; partnership with Partakers, a non-profit that provides mentors for students taking college classes inside, and mentors for those recently released; and engagement with prison chaplains. We are applying for permission to host The American Bible Society’s Trauma Healing course in one of the state prisons. Please pray!
We continue to learn. Our Pen Pal team learned that they couldn’t send pictures and had to write in a black or blue pen and that they could not include anything embossed or photographs or drawings from their children. They learned about the frustrations of incarceration, the lack of stamps and paper, the struggles to obtain a stimulus check, and the painful isolation of no visitors. Our mentors are learning to carry the weight of hope and lament alongside the incarcerated community. We are now aware that it takes a lot more discipline to rebuild a life than to maintain a life. We are in awe when hope remains for someone taking college classes even though he faces a life sentence. And we lament the death in prison sentence for an eighty year old pen pal.
At the CCDA conference, men from South Street Ministries in Akron taught us that people reentering society need more than a job and a place to live. They can start learning prosocial ways for relating to others while on the inside.
Some of our letter writing pen pals have been released and we are learning how to continue those relationships. One of the recently released pen pals introduced us to a friend who had been incarcerated 43 years and now we are studying the Bible together. Another recently released friend has started a business that we are surrounding with a circle of support through a newly formed nonprofit called Neighbor2Neighbor Ministries, Inc. More than anything, we are asking God to help us become a church that does not disappear when men and women are released from prison.
Since we have started on this path we have been overwhelmed by the issues and information available. We have felt the heaviness of those who suffer, and we have struggled to understand the bureaucratic obstacles and injustices. I frequently use this phrase: “The direction of our path is uncertain, but we are certainly on the right path.”
On February 11, we will host our second Locked in Solidarity conference. We model our gathering on the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “God wants to open the heart before it opens to the world.” (God in the Manger, p.88). We will open our hearts to God with singing, prayer and lament. And we will open our hearts to the world by listening to ministry leaders, returning citizens, prison chaplains, and Boston’s Director of The Office of Returning Citizens
We are vertical and horizontal people. We look up (vertically) to the God of justice who will one day make all that is wrong, right, and we look around (horizontally) to see a world that is not the way it is supposed to be. In solidarity with the Triune God, we seek solidarity with those affected by a broken world.
Rethinking Incarceration: Mobilize the People, Change the System
About Joe Marcucci
Joe desires to develop devoted followers of Christ in every context and taking the gospel out of the church to those who live on the margins. Prior to joining staff, Joe worked for a non-profit transportation company serving the needs of senior citizens and persons with disabilities, and served as a local church pastor for 24 years. He is currently the Outreach Pastor for Highrock Covenant Church in Arlington, Massachusetts. Joe and his wife Lissa have seven grown children and three grandchildren.