On Saturday, February 15, 2020, a couple dozen people gathered at Mechanicsburg Brethren in Christ Church to learn about the injustice of the criminal justice system in the United States and listen to stories of formerly incarcerated individuals. The event was sponsored by the BIC Peace and Justice Project and Mennonite Central Committee. This is an illustrated recap of what happened from me, Ben White, pastor at Circle of Hope BIC Church in the Philadelphia Region.
I came to the event because I care deeply about this issue as a matter of my Christian discipleship. When Jesus said in Matthew 25 that we would see him when we visit people in prison I think it’s pretty straightforward. “The least of these” clearly include everyone in prison. The hopeless situation so many people find themselves in when they, for whatever reason, find themselves involved with the US criminal justice system, is a place that Christians are called to go. I have only been face-to-face with people while they were incarcerated once, but I know many people who have come out of the system and faced innumerable challenges as a result of their incarceration. This event was a golden opportunity to be face-to-face with people who were willing to tell their story and help us to understand the gravity of the problem we face in this country. For an excellent primer on Mass Incarceration and the Christian mandate, watch the video at mcc.org/stories/mass-incarceration-christian-mandate
The event helped the participants learn about and even feel about this injustice by playing a game that MCC developed called “You Got Booked.” It’s an interactive board game, kind of like monopoly, where each player assumes a character who starts the game with various resources. It is true to reality in that the people of color have a disadvantage, both in the rules that apply to them and the resources with which they begin the game.
I played the game as Professor Patrick, a 43 year old black male with a college degree, who started the game with money, a job, no criminal record and a house. By the end of the game I had gone to jail three times which means I lost. The two white characters, as almost always happens in the game according to ChiChi Oguekwe who has facilitated the game many times, made it all the way around the board, one of them getting paid regularly because of his investments in the private prison industry.
When I went to jail after a traffic stop I lost my job and my house. How often does a life fall apart because of incarceration? Pretty often — you can imagine, right? When I got out the first time I had a criminal record, no job and no housing, which made it almost impossible in the game for me to not go back to jail. Restrictive parole regulations, disadvantages in employment opportunity and the color of my character’s skin all made it very difficult to not go back to jail.
It was incredibly frustrating to say the least. The game functions as a parable of the criminal justice system. It does not focus on the crimes that any of the individuals committed, just on how the system works once you’re in it, and the disproportionate likelihood that you will get in it if you are not white. The dominant narrative in our country about this issue mostly focuses on individual responsibility and the rule of law. Mercy is not at play in policy making or many of the perspectives that even Christians hold in evaluating the decisions of those policy makers. As a people called to reconciliation, we who follow Christ must change our perspective and see people as the beloved ones of God they are, no matter what they have done. Wisdom and an enduring desire for public safety lead me to conclude that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people are incarcerated who should not be. Why is punishment paramount in our perspective if we are Christians?
The game is peppered with revealing facts and figures read by the facilitators. ChiChi Oguekwe, MCC East Coast Philadelphia Program Coordinator, and John-Michael Cotignola-Pickens, MCC Criminal Justice Education & Advocacy Coordinator, were our facilitators. The game can be so frustrating that they are trained in not just helping participants play but also process the intense emotions that often come with it.
Playing the game with Marsha Banks of amiracle4sure.com and Eddie McCreary of friendsoverfences.org made it an even more enriching experience. At one point during the game, Marsha suggested that a person who had lost the game by being sent to jail three times remain standing in jail instead of sitting down. She said that it would be a symbol of how many people feel stuck and without hope. The game offered that kind of visceral connection to the difficulties people face. It was an opportunity to feel it, even in our bodies.
Then we got to learn some first-hand stories from people who lived through it. Marsha Banks and Eddie McCreary told their stories of incarceration and reentry into the community. Holding on to hope was a major struggle. Stephen Sands, the Executive Director of Friends Over Fences, joined them in a panel discussion facilitated by Curtis Book of the BIC Peace and Justice Project, and, until very recently, also of MCC.
For both Marsha and Eddie their faith played an important role in their hope conservation as they struggled in prison and when they were released. Marsha gave birth in prison and had to fight to get custody of all of her children, which she did, and she got a masters degree! Eddie was incarcerated for 36 years and experienced several incredible miracles to fuel his faith in Jesus and his hope for his future. One of my favorite things he said had to do with something that happened recently. After losing a job he said “It was God’s math. I put out two resumes and I got four jobs!” The network he was connected to via Friends Over Fences before he was released played an important role in the multiplicative math of the Kingdom community,
Obviously, Marsha’s and Eddie’s experience with God and God’s people helped them, which I think ought to encourage us who follow Jesus to find ways to participate in community with people like Marsha and Eddie. Looking for hope in a hopeless situation is a community project that should not be left to just those afflicted by the injustice of our criminal justice system. This is our issue, too, and these are our people.
If you wish to bring some of your hope to this situation, check out Friends Over Fences. They write letters to people who are incarcerated and have resources for them when they are released; like job leads, furniture and temporary housing (housing is a major impediment to many potential parolees). A Miracle 4 Sure, the organization that Marsha Banks started, provides housing and other resources to people in Dauphin, Lancaster, York, Mifflin, Juniata, Franklin and Lebanon counties in Pennsylvania.
Thanks to Mechanicsburg BIC Church for hosting the event, MCC for sending John-Michael and ChiChi and all of the participants. Curtis Book, Harriet Sider Bicksler and I (Ben White) count it a joy to help instigate this dialogue. Let us know if you would like to bring the “You Got Booked” game to your congregation, youth group, small group or other organization. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or just leave us a comment. You can also join the BIC Peace and Justice Project group on Facebook.