A major black Baptist denomination is seeking to reduce the stigma of having been arrested by treating mass incarceration as a problem that affects entire communities.
By Bob Allen
The Progressive National Baptist Convention has set out to raise $100,000 to establish its first national center to aid churches in helping individuals re-enter and reintegrate into communities after being released from prison.
The PNBC hopes to open its National Reentry Resource Center housed at the group’s national headquarters in Washington in 2013. The initiative, announced at the convention’s 51st annual meeting held Aug. 5-10 in Memphis, Tenn., would build on historically black denomination’s Healing Communities model for engaging congregations in the restoration of individuals and families torn apart by crime, whether committed against or by a member of the church.
DeeDee Coleman, chair of the PBNC Commission on Social Justice and Prison Ministry, said with 7.1 million people incarcerated in the United States and rates disproportionately affecting black males, leaders expected to find that faith-based organizations were already involved in prisoner re-entry as part of their everyday ministry. To their surprise they found the subject is often ignored because faith leaders are ashamed to talk about it when it affects someone in their own congregation.
The Healing Communities model, used by groups including the PNBC and American Baptist Churches USA, reframes the issue by pointing out that entire communities are affected by crime, incarceration and reintegration. It invokes unique strengths of the faith community like acceptance, compassion, forgiveness, redemption and restoration, while encouraging those who commit crimes to assume responsibility for harm done to others and take action to repair harm to the victim, community, family and self.
PNBC leaders directed prison re-entry training and collaboration at a number of venues in 2011-2012, including the New Baptist Covenant II satellite conference last November in Atlanta. Former President Jimmy Carter, lead organizer of the New Baptist Covenant movement, said recently that he thinks the disproportionate number of African-Americans who are incarcerated will be an increasing focus as the group moves forward.
The National Reentry Resource Center would provide a “one-stop” resource for the 2.5 million members of PNBC churches seeking help with family reunification, domestic violence, victim’s awareness, community resources, training in life and job skills and re-entry support both through conferencing and addressing the social-justice aspect of mass incarceration.
Also in Memphis, the PNBC adopted a resolution to raise awareness of what has been called “the New Jim Crow,” the mass incarceration of African-American males and their continued disenfranchisement after they get out of prison.
Other resolutions called for education about “Stand Your Ground” laws, like one in Florida discussed after the Feb. 26, 2012, shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Martin was an unarmed black teen deemed “suspicious” by a neighborhood watch captain while walking through a gated community wearing a hooded sweater.
Another called for tougher laws to limit access to assault weapons, in light of recent mass shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.