The problem of dehumanizing criminals in our minds and in our prison systems is a perennial one. Because we as a society feel betrayed when crimes are perpetuated, it is easy to lose sight of the humanity of those who betrayed us. I recently talked to Sharon Gramby-Sobukwe whose background is in public policy and who heads up the Campolo Center for Applied Justice here at Eastern University. She spoke to me about how easy it is for the personhood of criminals to be eclipsed in our minds especially as they are locked away out of sight. Dr. Sobukwe posed the question: “How can we create a sense of imagination, passion and commitment with things that may not affect us directly?” She thinks this is where we need “empathy and a willingness to come alongside people who are suffering.” Sometimes, this means expanding what we understand to be the American story, to make it a fuller story which includes everyone. When we tell a fuller story, “we learn to recognize the humanity of people we see as different than us” because “it’s very easy to demonize someone whose story you don’t know.”
One way that Sobukwe and other faculty members here at Eastern are engaging the imagination of students is by hosting events on campus that bring light to justice issues. For example, a few weeks ago, an event was held by two outside speakers who shared their stories of being incarcerated: one speaker had taken a plea bargain as a youth for marijuana possession which led him to being tried as an adult, sentenced to two years in adult prison and left with a permanent record which continues to hurt him in limiting opportunities for housing, employment, etc. On Thursday, Oct. 27, students gathered in the Jammin’ Java to present art engaging the theme of remembering those in prison (Hebrews 13:3). Sobukwe shared that Eastern has a history of engaging with prison reform; in fact, the university’s urban studies department hosted Michelle Alexander 11 years ago, way before she had achieved notoriety for her book “The New Jim Crow” on the racial disparities of our justice system. Eastern continues to be involved, such as in opting to participate in President Obama’s Fair Chance Higher Education Pledge, committing to reducing barriers to higher education for individuals with criminal records, including individuals who were formerly incarcerated. Additionally, the Center for Urban Youth Development continues to lead Eastern’s work advocating against mass incarceration of juveniles.
Eastern University’s Prison Ministry is another key area of engagement with our justice system. I spoke with sophomore Susie Moore who is on the leadership team of the ministry, studies social work and “wants to be in prisons the rest of [her] life.” As she described her interactions with young people who are in the justice system, her eyes grew joyous, and she began to describe how overwhelmed she is with love for them whenever she is with them. Her descriptions of these encounters are rooted in affirmation of their personhood, based on her strong conviction that “they are valuable and worthwhile human beings.” Moore spoke of two girls in particular who over the course of their relationship with her have begun to open up and share their stories. As a Christian ministry, Moore and her fellow participants (many of whom began as first-year students fulfilling their service learning requirements but who have stayed engaged) seek to establish a sense of safeness that lets everyone speak candidly about God and faith. As the chaplain of the group, Moore always asks if she can pray for each young adult. Moore told me of one such time when she prayed for the one girl who was in the detention center at the time: the Holy Spirit filled the room, and by the end of the prayer, she, the girl and even the corrections officer were all in tears. Moore said that often the young men and women she befriends have assumptions about Christians being judgmental and harsh and that these young adults have never heard of grace. And so Moore and the other participants show them grace.
“We bring games to play with them. Basketball or board and card games,” and also, Moore told me with a smile, “we always buy them Doritos and chocolate.”
Here at Eastern University, students and faculty alike are committed to faith, reason and justice. I believe we are called to engage with justice issues, whether this one or another, in a way that pairs thoughtfulness and the gifts of the intellect with service and the gifts of our hands and feet in loving all human beings. Further, I believe Eastern is a great place for students to find our foundation in thoughtfulness, as well as opportunities to begin serving the world around us. The area of criminal justice is just one of many such justice topics in which we as students might consider investing ourselves. For more information about Prison Ministry and how to get involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you’re interested in finding out more about faculty involvement, upcoming justice events on campus or public policy topics, Dr. Sobukwe (email@example.com) is a knowledgeable and kind conversationalist.