I discovered my voice for justice after my former church’s (The Brooklyn Tabernacle) first live simulcast service with the Angola Prison Choir on Sunday, August 3, 2014. Amid the sea of outstretched arms singing, “This is how it feels to be free. This is what it means to know that I am forgiven,” the resounding yet celestial voices of the Angola Prison Choir rushed through the congregation like a river of flowing water and seeped through my innermost-being, testifying that there are no hopeless cases with God. My brothers-in-Christ, though serving life sentences or on death row, embodied the transformative power of hope, redemption, and freedom. Their angelic silhouette against the fading monochromatic lighting beckoned me to remember the imprisoned (Hebrews 13:3) and pursue transformative justice.
Assured that God’s unction rested upon me, I joined the Brooklyn Tabernacle Prison Ministry to be proximate to the people and unearth my passion for justice. On August 16th, I eagerly entered Rikers Island and was marveled at God’s sustaining grace in upholding Esmerilda who was awaiting her sentence in a place devoid of life. Though sorrow abounded through steady streams of tears, joy abounded even more as we laughed, shared stories and prayed like childhood friends catching-up on lost time. We have lost touch, but Esmerilda holds a special place in my heart.
As fate would have it, seven months later at the Taconic Correctional Facility, I met Laurie who taught me that no life was beyond the reach of God’s power. I always looked forward to basking in her infectious warmth and tranquil spirit as she recounted God’s benevolence and the transformative power of trading fear with faith during her 22 years and counting imprisoned. Laurie’s unrelenting bright light of hope shined through cascading darkness, a feat unprecedented in the annals of many – imprisoned or not. Visitations were mutually cathartic; farewells grieved our soul, so we refrained from saying goodbye.
Proximity revealed the deep brokenness of humanity and the incessant pursuit of the full assurance of hope – including my own. Esmerilda and Laurie enjoined me to devote more time to an unchartered community of people in need of love, mercy, and justice that restores. While serving in the Prison Ministry, I joined Prison Fellowship to expand my capacity to re-imagine justice and foster community engagement. The privileged seat of proximity to the men at Rikers enabled me to witness the multidimensional power of education, whether it be spiritual or vocational, to serve as a lifeline, a prophylactic measure to reduce recidivism rates, and a redress for grieving families and communities.
Concomitantly, I reached a character-defining moment that prompted me to take a leap of faith from finance to education after my tutoring experience through Innovations for Learning put into perspective the urgent and important need for equitable quality education. Teaching was definitely harder than pulling financial reports, however, it paled in comparison to the disconcerting school culture that mirrored prison vis-à-vis exclusionary discipline practices and the criminalization of seemingly innocuous misconducts. I vividly recall choking back tears when one of my scholars, glancing at the barbed-wire enclosure during an abrupt silent lunch, averred that the school made him feel like a prisoner.
The enormity of the conditions became increasingly agonizing and my role as an educator felt counter-intuitive, because I was advancing transformative praxis at Rikers while enabling my silence for “zero tolerance” policies to render me indirectly complicit in the school-to-prison pipeline. Ultimately, my experience in both institutions taught me that it is utterly irresponsible to have a conversation about education reform in the absence of criminal justice reform (vice versa) - they are symbiotically related. When the prism of an institution, like schools, should be to inculcate critical consciousness and civic-mindedness to citizens of a democracy, but instead disproportionately employs policies and practices that favor prison, it is a cause célèbre.
We must enable our politics to extend beyond the confines of our personal experiences and comfort to change narratives and policies that perpetuate injustice. My unwavering faith lends me to believe that though the pendulum of justice in schools and in prisons swings inconsistently between retributive and restorative, the latter will prevail. The first step is to be PROXIMATE or you risk merely being an echo.