The United Church of Christ’s mission statement on Health and Human Service calls us to demonstrate and convey the compassion of Christ. Our mission statement reminds us that the whole church is itself the creation of God’s compassionate mercy in Christ, and as such the instrument of God’s intention for all humankind. Where the Church is there are those engaged in diakonia – the ministry of healing service, care, compassion and hospitality.
Cancer is a significant issue nationally and in the lives of many faith communities. There are many ways that congregations are supporting people as they deal with a cancer diagnosis and its accompanying life changes. Cancer diagnosis presents a unique spectrum of needs, feelings, pastoral concerns, and phases, impacting individuals, families and indeed, the whole community of care.
The purpose of this resource is to orient you to some of the central questions and considerations that may emerge as you journey with those in your faith community affected by cancer. The PowerPoint slides and Handbook will guide you in leading group discussions. Depending on the time and circumstances, you may choose to divide it into modules. We recommend three sections: God’s Healing Touch (slides 1 through 13); Care Throughout the Seasons (slides 14 through 25); and Y(our) Congregation: What Can We Do? (slides 25-29).
This resource is geared to facilitators of faith community health ministries(both lay and nurse led), Deacons, Called to Care Ministries, grief ministries, Clergy or any group within your congregation that practices spiritual and/or physical care and healing.
This resource comes as the result of several collaborations. In its initial form, it was the product of an independent study at Yale Divinity School in which the authors (James DeBoer and Laura Fitzpatrick) explored ways in which clergy and congregations are responding to the needs of people affected by cancer, with the guidance of Drs. Elaine Ramshaw and Janet Ruffing, OSM. The project also benefitted greatly from the wisdom and guidance of Rev. Shelly Stackhouse (Church of the Redeemer), Dean of Students Dale Peterson, and Rev. Adele Crawford, interim Dean of Chapel. Barbara Baylor, UCC Minister for Health Care Justice, subsequently provided very helpful feedback and also brought in the UCC Faith Community Nurse Leadership Team to provide additional help with editing. Rebecca Anton, Wendy Merriman and Peggy Matteson (all members of the UCC Faith Community Nurse Leadership Team) provided valuable assistance and feedback by piloting the project in several congregations and hospital settings.
For more information, contact Barbara Baylor (216) 736-3708.
Resources on educating and organizing for health care justice and reform.
General Synod Resolutions
- An Urgent Call For Advocacy In Support Of Healthcare For All, As In H.R. 676
- Resolution Reaffirming Universal Health Care
- Reclaiming the church's ministry of health and healing
- UCC Mission Statement on Health and Human Service
- Health Effects and Impacts of Tobacco Use on Children and Youth
Health Information & Resources:
Partners for health care reform:
The Supreme Court decision giving some corporations the right to deny coverage of certain types of contraception to their employees based on their religious freedom will have a great impact on women of color. Although, the ruling does not single out women of color, our political and economic realities tell us that women of color often bear the brunt of the negative impacts of restrictions on women’s health.
Differences in rates of disease and health status among women of color and other vulnerable populations can be defined by many factors including poverty, education, employment with living wages and good benefits, neighborhood economic conditions, presence or lack of social support networks, cultural values, affordable housing, the degree of toxins and pollution in the air and affordable, quality, accessible health services. When these differences are combined with conditions that are unfair, unjust and avoidable, health equity – the achievement of good health regardless of one’s social position or other social factors – is threatened. The Supreme Court’s decision impacts the health equity of women of color in thee ways:
1. The Cost of Birth Control: In 2011 approximately 57 million adult women were covered through employer-sponsored insurance. If the policies of other companies like Hobby Lobby become the norm rather than the exception, it could impact contraceptive access for millions of people in the U. S. and have a disproportionate impact on women of color who, with lower income and wealth on average, may not be able to afford to pay for their contraception out-of-pocket.
Women of color are more likely to be low-income, and also more likely to work a minimum wage job. Getting an IUD could cost as much as an entire month’s rent working at the minimum wage. Purchasing birth control pills without insurance or benefit of plans that include prescription drugs could range $20 and $130.00 a month depending on the brand. Women of color, who are already struggling to make ends meet, may face increased burdens. That could mean doing things like splitting one pack of pills between two women each month or not using birth control at all. There are now more than 1 million Asian-American women living in poverty, an increase from 700,000 in 1999. This decision is yet another barrier for Asian-American and Pacific Islander women who already face significant health disparities and barriers to insurance.
2. Risks of Unplanned Pregnancy: The risks of carrying an unintended pregnancy to term are much higher for women of color. Black women are four times more likely to die during childbirth than white women. Being unable to prevent a pregnancy due to the financial barriers put in place by this decision puts lives at risk. Women of color are also at higher risk for infant mortality, low-infant birth weight and premature delivery – all things that pose significant long-term risks to the mother and child.
3. History: Women of color have dealt with a long history of reproductive control at the hands of employers and the government. From treatment in public hospitals, to welfare reform, to family caps limiting the number of children welfare recipients can have. Women of color have long had to fight for the right to control their own reproduction. This case just adds another layer to controlling fertility, this time at the hands of employers.
For more than thirty five years the General Synod of the United Church of Christ has advocated for health care as a right and a priority for all people. We are rooted in the conviction that all forms of injustice can be overcome. Health inequities are the consequences of public policies, and as such can be changed. Tackling health inequities requires widening our understanding of health and health care to include the ways in which lifestyle factors influence individual and community health. The Affordable Care Act made great gains by requiring insurance companies cover birth control with no out of pocket cost to women. Many women of color rely on a safety net for basic health care and needs. Let us remain vigilant in our advocacy making sure this net continues to remain safe for everyone and especially for women.
Written by Barbara Baylor, MPH
And you, because of my blood covenant with you, I’ll release prisoners from their hopeless cells. Come home, hope-filled prisoners!” [Zechariah 9:12]
America’s justice system is broken. Our prisons lock up millions of people, ruin lives, fail to make our communities safer, and waste $80 billion dollars a year. In the last several years, there has been growing public dialogue about the need to reform harsh federal sentencing laws, which are a central factor in the explosion of the federal prison population. Criminal justice reform has been a bipartisan issue for nearly a decade and now Congress is poised to revise four decades of federal policy that has expanded the number of Americans now incarcerated. (Fast Facts on Criminal Justice & Mass Incarceration)
United Church of Christ Historic Witness on Criminal Justice Reform
Throughout its history, the witness of the United Church of Christ General synod has reflected a faithful and prophetic engagement with our calling to address injustice in the cranial justice system. Through its resolutions on criminal justice, the General synod has provided a solid foundation or our continuing work on criminal justice reform. (Learn more about the United Church of Christ and Criminal Justice Reform)
Letters and Action Alerts
Support of: Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA), Youth Promise Act, Mercy Act, Juvenile Justice Development Prevention Act, REDEEM Act, Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act. Additionally, UCC/JWM served on planning team for the first faith based Capitol Hill Briefing on Criminal Justice Reform.
Ecumenical Advocacy Days Pre-event
Where Do We Go From Here: A Faith Call to End Mass Incarceration. Half day forum gathered passionate voices from policy, media, law, faith, youth and impacted communities to examine the current state of the criminal justice system and to create a platform for UCC faith support of criminal justice reform. Over 70 persons attended this event.
Formation of the UCC Criminal Justice Network
Following the UCC Ecumenical Advocacy Days pre-event, the UCC Criminal Justice Network was established to advance the conversation on public policy advocacy related to criminal justice and mass incarceration by maximizing the collective UCC voice at national, state, and local church levels. The Network is compiling information to capture activities, advocacy and formation of partnerships by congregations and individuals in UCC conferences and associations. The Network has approximately 90 members and holds quarterly conference calls.
In addition, Network members will be in collaboration with the Ferguson group led by Rev. Elizabeth Leung so that collective efforts are multiplied and not duplicated.
UCC General Synod Resolutions
Thirtieth General Synod adopted two resolutions: Dismantling Discriminatory Systems of Mass Incarceration in the United States and Dismantling the New Jim Crow. These resolutions reaffirmed the UCC commitment to restorative justice, improving the criminal justice systems of state and federal governments and rearticulated its vision of, and commitment to, the common good concerning the New Jim Crow, which describes the disenfranchisement, marginalization, and re-subjugation of African Americans resulting in the creation of a permanent caste of second-class citizens. Justice and Witness Ministries, 10 conference co-sponsors of the resolutions and the UCC Criminal Justice Network plan to address issues related to these two resolutions through an Implementation Framework that has been drafted to help provide leadership on this issue across all settings of the United Church Christ in the areas of education, training and resources; direct service opportunities; policy advocacy and public witness.
Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition (ICJC)
The United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries actively participates in an interfaith coalition of more than 50 national faith-based organizations and religious institutions uniquely positioned in Washington, DC, to engage in federal advocacy campaigns to address mass incarceration in the United States. ICJC is the only faith-based coalition on Capitol Hill working for criminal justice reforms. During a recent White House phone call on Criminal Justice, a spokesperson from the White House indicated that the faith community is driving this historic moment and that faith voices can make critical differences because values are undergirding the efforts. We are listening to these values to change hearts and minds.
2015 Federal Advocacy:
Hill Visits, Letters
In efforts to support the proposals for legislation to advance criminal justice reform, the Coalition has planned and participated in more than 70 Hill visits to Senators and Representatives. One of the biggest successes of the Coalition this year was in persuading Senator Chuck Grassley (IA), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee to advance legislation on Sentencing Reform. Through countless letters, and visits by prominent faith leaders in his home state of Iowa as well as here in Washington, the Coalition helped convince Senator Grassley that the time is right for reform and resulted in bipartisan legislation S. 2123 – the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA). Several sign-on letters were sent to the U. S. Sentencing Commission, Federal Bureau of Prisons and several key senators asking for their support of this legislation. The Coalition has also adopted Criminal Justice Reform Principles.
Capitol Hill Briefing
What are faith voices saying about criminal justice reform? A firsts-ever briefing for senate and house staff with invited national faith leaders helped to convey the importance of criminal justice reform now! Panelists representing diverse religious teachings including one minister directly impacted by the system shared their thoughts on crime prevention, restorative justice, incarceration, juvenile justice, rehabilitation and reentry. Following each briefing, panelists and members for the Coalition visited key Senators and House members to further discuss the importance of the Senate legislation. One successful conversation helped Senator Rand Paul to cosponsor the bill. Americans of the federal prison population
Read stories of our Disciples of Christ and UCC panelists:
- Rev. Dean Bucalos, Disciples of Christ, Op-ed – Time Is Now for Criminal Justice Reform.
- Minister George Chochos, introduced to the UCC by Rev. Martin Copenhaver, President, Andover-Newton Theological School – Yale Divinity School Student Talks About Life Behind Bars.
National Call-in Day and Lobby Day
In collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (LCCHR), the Interfaith Coalition will be flying in faith leaders from key Senate states to lobby for the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.
S. 2123 – Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA)
Last month with a 15-5 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee sent this legislation to the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). This bipartisan legislation has cleared a major hurdle in the push to overhaul the criminal justice system. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would bring a number of reforms to the federal prison system, including an expansion of the "safety valve" exception to mandatory minimum sentences, the creation of a second "safety valve," and rehabilitative programs designed to reduce recidivism, or repeat offenses. Although the faith community had hoped the bill would eliminate some mandatory minimum sentences laws, it is a modest compromise and a first step in creating criminal justice policies that move us closer to fair more equitable system. The Senate bill includes provisions for both Title I-Sentencing Reform and Title II-Corrections Act, which deals with treatment and rehabilitation programs and some juvenile justice issues.
H.R. 3713 – Sentencing Reform Act (SRA)
On November 17, The Sentencing Reform Act (H.R. 3713), the U.S. House version of the (S. 2123), was approved unanimously by the U.S. House Judiciary Committee. Like its Senate counterpart, the bill moves us one step closer to criminal justice reforms. The House version only includes provisions for Title I – Sentencing Reform and not Title II – Corrections Act. The Houses bill also prescribes an additional consecutive sentence of up to five years for offenses involving fentanyl-spiked heroin.
NOTE: S. 2123 and H.R. 3713 are not laws. No one knows if or when these bills may become laws. While both Bills have been voted successfully by their individual Judiciary Committees, they must now be brought before the full Senate and full House for a vote. If votes are favorable in each Chamber, the Bills must be reconciled, meaning that an agreement must be reached on the content and provisions to come up with one final bill.
The Senate Bill contains both sentencing and corrections provisions. Faith advocates need to make sure that the House Bill brings along the elements of both sentencing and corrections by including not only sentencing but elements of juvenile justice and reentry provisions. The Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition supports these bills and is hopeful that both Bills will be brought to their respective floors before the end of the year or by early January.
S.993 – Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act of 2015
Bill introduced by Senator Al Franken (D-MN) has passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee but has not come up for a full Senate vote. Jails are no substitute for a Mental Health System. This bill would improve outcomes for the criminal justice system, the mental health system, and for those with mental health conditions.
S. 2999 and HR 2728 – Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act (JJDPA)
These Bills introduced by Senator Grassley and Whitehouse and Representative Bobby Scott respectively, improve conditions of confinement in juvenile facilities and provide comprehensive services and support for youth in juvenile facilities. S.2999 has passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. H.R. 2728 has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.
S. 1513 and H.R. 3406 – Second Chance Reauthorization Act
These bills have been introduced and referred to respective Senate and House Judiciary Committees. Both bills aim to improve to help returning citizens successfully reintegrate into their communities upon release and avoid reoffending.
What you can do - Action and Advocacy
- Contact your Senator and urge them to cosponsor S. 2123 – Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. Urge them to ask Chairman McConnell to bring this bill to the full Senate floor before the end of the year.
- Contact your Representative and encourage them to become a cosponsor of H.R. 3713 – Sentencing Reform Act. Urge them to ask Chairman Ryan to bring this bill to the full House floor before the end of the year.
- Contact your senators and representatives and express your support for S.993, S.2999, H. R. 2728, S. 1513 and H. R. 3406 as listed above.
Following the United Church of Christ Ecumenical Advocacy Days pre-event – Where Do We Go from Here: A Faith Call to End Mass Incarceration, Justice and Witness Ministries staff enlisted interested UCC members in establishing the UCC Criminal Justice Network to advance the conversation on public policy advocacy related to criminal justice and mass incarceration by maximizing the collective UCC voice at national, state, and local church levels. Network participants, along with JWM staff and UCC Conferences who co-sponsored GS Resolutions on mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow have drafted an implementation to framework that will serve as a vehicle for assisting the United Church of Christ in all its settings to successfully address this issue, seek a just resolution, coordinated engagement and strategic unity.
Together members of the UCC Criminal Justice Network and UCC National Staff collaborated to draft an implementation framwork for addressing our General Synod Resolutions related to Mass Incarceration and the New Jim Crow.
Throughout its history, the witness of the United Church of Christ General Synod has reflected a faithful and prophetic engagement with our calling address injustice in the criminal justice system. The United Church of Christ currently joins its ecumenical and interfaith partners across the nation in mobilizing its members to act and speak out against laws that are not just or fair to all communities they are intended to serve and protect. The United States imprisons more of its own people than any other country in the world with 2.2 million people currently in the nation’s prisons or jails. More than 60% of people incarcerated in U. S. prison and jails and racial and ethnic minorities.
In order to successfully address issues related to criminal justice reform and mass incarceration and to effectively seek a just resolution, Justice and Witness Ministries in collaboration with sponsoring Conferences have drafted an Implementation Framework to assist the UCC in all of its settings to carry out critical work related to criminal justice reform, mass incarceration, racism and racial/ethnic disparities in the system. The successes of recent General Synod resolutions are built on the assumption that the national setting will provide network coordination and national policy advocacy.
Justice and Witness Ministries recognizes that social change is dependent upon conference and local leadership engagement. Therefore, Conferences will be asked to support a church-wide effort by active involvement and support of the national network work through volunteer leaders and financial resources
The Framework includes four focus areas that are essential for mobilizing local congregations in this work:
1. Education for mobilization, advocacy and service
2. Influence state and federal policy issues
3. Direct service ministries
4. Influence and shape public debate
All focus areas include purpose, process and outcome statements. A Communication’s strategy for the overall Framework has also been included. A consensus on the Framework is expected to be reached in late October after a national steering committee is assembled from suggestions and input from Conferences. In November a national coalition of advocates will be convened and work will begin.
The work on this Framework is an outgrowth from the JWM pre-event at Ecumenical Advocacy Days “A Faith Call to End Mass Incarceration,” held in April. Following this successful event, a national Criminal Justice Network was formed. In addition, former General Minister and President Geoffrey Black led several conference call conversations among leaders following the tragic incidents in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, etc. (“Following Ferguson”). Because many of the same persons are participating in both of these networks, it was proposed that they join together to strengthen the movement. A group of national staff and conference/local church leaders have been working closely together to develop an implementation framework for responding to these two resolutions related to criminal justice reform and their intersection with racism.
For more information on the UCC Criminal Justice Network and the Implementation Framework, please contact Barbara Baylor, MPH, Policy Advocate for Domestic Issues – (202) 543-1527 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more than 40 years, the United Church of Christ has affirmed our commitment to improving the criminal justice systems of state and federal governments, citing our belief that prisons should be primarily institutions for the training and rehabilitation of the inmates. We base this affirmation on our call to service, justice, and restoration through faith. To sell facilities to private companies for the purpose of profit is a violation of these fundamental beliefs.
The primary source of income for private prisons is based on the number of people incarcerated. This contradicts our belief that we are all first and foremost children of God, and our bodies are not first and foremost the mechanism for corporate profit-making.
Income for private prisons depends entirely on maintaining a large and stable inmate population. Privatized prison management often demands guaranteed occupancy rates. These guarantees run counter to declining prison population trends, and they violate efforts toward early release, alternative sentencing and other forms of restitution, especially in cases of non-violent crimes.
When corporate profit is the primary purpose of prison ownership, the purpose of prisons to train and rehabilitate inmates is subverted. Rehabilitation is an expensive undertaking, and yields benefits to society as a whole, but is not profitable for shareholders. We believe that rehabilitation is an essential function of prison administration that completely contradicts the purpose of private ownership.
Private prisons have been exempted from public reporting of crimes and escapes and the Freedom of Information Act, among other fundamental legal reporting mechanisms. To privatize prison facilities or their management contradicts all initiatives for public information that can lead to necessary prison reform, and greatly reduces public accountability for the equitable and just safekeeping of convicted persons.
Private prisons have been known to maintain profit by cutting costs in the areas of training and staff remuneration, with the consequence that these prisons raise serious concerns about management, staff competence and supervision, with potential to endanger the populace as a whole.
Private prisons are most active in the incarceration of immigrants, who are often held in detention for indefinite and lengthy periods of time without public accountability or reporting.
We publicly urge that private ownership and operation of state-owned prison facilities be abolished throughout the country.
The United Church of Christ historically has opposed capital punishment. We first formalized this position in 1969 and we have reaffirmed it many times in the years since. In 2005 our General Synod passed a resolution calling for the common good as a foundational idea in the United States. We simply believe that murder is wrong, whether committed by individuals or the state. Currently our churches are working for abolition of the death penalty.
Call on Governor Kasich to Grant Clemency for Arthur Tyler
(April 2014) The UCC has long opposed capital punishment. Now the state of Ohio is ready to execute a man who was wrongfully convicted. Please call Gov. Kasich on Friday, April 25, and urge him to grant clemency to Arthur Tyler.
Ndume Olatushani: Finally Home
(June 2012) Ndume Olatushani (Erskine Johnson) was released from a Tennessee prison on Friday, June 1. He served 26 years, 11 months and 5 days – most of them on death row.
Troy Davis Executed
The State of Georgia executed Troy Davis on September 21, 2011, even though seven of the nine witnesses who testified that he committed murder have recanted their testimony, and one of the two remaining witnesses has been implicated as the actual killer. The original judge in his case said his ruling was “not ironclad” and the original prosecutor has said that he has reservations about Davis’s guilt. Read reflections from the UCC:
“For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink . . .” - Matthew 25: 35
Historically, religious organizations and nonprofit agencies have distributed food and meals to people in need. The sharp increases in such requests associated with high unemployment, cuts in the social safety net, decline in the value of public assistance benefits, and increases in housing and other costs has led to unprecedented growth of food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters and emergency food programs.
Below are 11 ideas for fun projects to help motivate your congregation to do food donations.
Simply choose a theme and place a large box in a convenient spot at your church so that members can deposit food items that will be delivered to the food bank or food pantry by a designated person at the church. Or encourage your members to deliver items to the food bank/pantry themselves.
1. “Plant a Row for the Hungry” – Plant an extra row in your vegetable garden and donate the harvest to the food shelters. You can also begin this project in the spring or begin to plant a container garden. Donating your extra produce will help others live better and healthier lives.
Things to note: It is important to first contact the local food pantry and make arrangements with the director or staffer at the food bank/pantry to receive your produce. Compile a list of all the government and independent food pantries in your county/community who accept donations of fresh fruits and vegetables. Circulate this list to other congregations.
If weather where you are located does not support planting a row this time of year, consider “planting a seed” by a forming a group to work your state Cooperative Extension agency to identify local Community Supported Agricultural (CSA) farms and recruit members for an early spring garden start.
2. “Casserole Wednesday” – Have your church members make Casseroles. Deliver these casseroles to local shelters and outreach centers. Volunteer at the shelter on this day by helping to serve the meal. Show extravagant hospitality by sitting down and breaking bread with community recipients.
3. Have a “Souper Day” – Ask your congregation to focus on gathering cans of soup. Soup contains many nutrients and has many health benefits. Choose soups that are lower in sodium and fat.
4. “Festive Fruity Friday” – Have everyone commit to donating fruit. Inquire if the food bank/shelter accepts fresh fruits, if not, focus on canned fruits that are packed in their own juices or have light syrup.
5. “Tasty Tuna Saturday” – Whether you’re a fisher who could provide a fresh catch or a shopper who could hook some cans, your donations will be much appreciated. Bring these items to your church to be delivered to the food bank/pantry. Fish and meats are good sources of protein and can be mixed with lots of vegetables and grains for a nice meal.
6. “Dedication and Commitment Sunday” – Choose a Sunday and ask your congregation to commit to bringing cans on that day. Designate a special time in the morning service where members may come forward with their food donations and drop them into a special basket in front of the altar. Have a special dedication and prayer over the food items. The items may be delivered to the food bank/shelter during the week.
Take it further and distribute simple “pledge” cards that members by which members of your community can pledge to donate food to pantries and food banks for an entire year. Have members drop their pledge cards into the offering plate. Print out a list of those who have pledged and post it somewhere in the church. Encourage others to pledge throughout the year.
7. “Miscellaneous Mondays” – On this day ask people to donate whatever they’ve got lying around in their house! Bring it to the church to be donated to the pantry/food bank.
8. “Cereal and Oatmeal Shoppers” – Choose a day to donate cereals that are multi-grain with low sugar content. Donate low sodium oatmeal. Cereals supply protein, vitamins and minerals.
9. “Pasta Party” – Focus on collecting all kinds of Pasta! Pasta is a food source of carbohydrates. Don’t forget to add the sauce – tomato-based sauces are good.
10. “Thankful Thursday” – Use this day to collect items for Thanksgiving dinners. Many shelters will prepare and serve thanksgiving meals. Donate turkeys that can be frozen (check to make sure that the food bank has a freezer), dry mashed potato flakes, canned vegetables, condiments, bread, etc. Don’t forget the cranberry sauce!
11. “Calling all Pet Lovers” – People are making choices between feeding their pets and feeding themselves. Many families have to give up their pets because they can no longer feed them. Give donations of pet foods to the shelter or food bank so that people can support their pets and families when they are struggling financially.
Excerpted from the Mission: 1 "Food Donation Resource"
Here is a shared letter from a friend, Rev. Philip Reller of Arizona.
In Matthew’s oft-recalled “Judgment of the Nations” the king will say to the sheep, “I was in prison and you visited me” and the unknowing righteous will ask “when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
And the king will say, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Mathew 25: 34-46 NRSV)
Jesus is intimate with his family. He is specific about visiting prisoners. We are called to embody Jesus’ heart and show forth his compassion to prisoners.
It is a very practical ministry of - Incarnation – love made visible in the flesh. Being there. Ours are a new set of ears listening to immensely consequential stories which have worn thin in the retelling to familiar cell and pod mates. Ours are new conversations and new perspectives.
It is a ministry of advocacy. Being there. The men I visit are cut off by thousands of miles from their families, communities, and support systems in private for-profit prisons. They are treated as strange enemies and are forced into culturally and religiously molded programs of “rehabilitation” which strip them of their cultural identity and dignity. Visiting allows us to witness their struggle and speak as allies for rehabilitation and respectful treatment.
It is a ministry of reconciliation. Being there. I have been allowed to share first hand reports of the condition of their sons, husbands, and daddies with families who have been estranged or ashamed or in the confusion of unresolved anger and grief. Appropriate sharing can build bridges towards forgiveness and new relationships. It can calm deep anxieties. It can pave the way for connections that create positive re-entry.
- Seven million citizens are active in the US criminal justice system.
- 2.2 million US sisters and brothers are incarcerated.
- 1 in every 100 men, 1 in every 1700 women resides in a state or federal facility.
- The US incarcerates more of its own citizens than any other country in the world.
- The fastest growing industry in Arizona is the private for-profit prison industry.
What do these facts tell us about our country, our communities, our relationships? What do we as people of faith, both the incarcerated and those on the outside, have to say about these realities? How do they call us to be engaged as Jesus’ family?
Visiting the incarcerated becomes a prophetic ministry. It changes lives. It opens doors to find solutions. It fills deep empty places with hope and love.
Let us come together to support renewed ministries for and with prisoners and their families, to seek alternatives to current culturally-biased, punitive rather than restorative criminal justice stances, and let us create networks of covenant partners for education, advocacy, and presence with our incarcerated sisters and brothers.
Puerto Rican Political Prisoners and the positions of the United Church of Christ, the United Nations, and other bodies calling for their release.
- Commentary: A Word on Freedom: Oscar Lopez Rivera's 32 years in prison are inhumane. Our appeal to President Obama is to release him with a small stroke of his pen so we can join the whole world who has taken notice of him as well. (12/15/2013)
- Letter of Thanks from Carlos Alberto Torres, Puerto Rican Nationalist
From its inception, the United Church of Christ has affirmed its support for fundamental human rights, and has acknowledged the dignity and worth of each person. We are called to care for prisoners and to set free the oppressed, reminded that Jesus himself was imprisoned and murdered, and that even the patriarchs before him were oppressed and in held unjustly prison. The setting free of captives was central to the ministry of Jesus, who read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, saying “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4
In 1980 and 1981, the F.B.I. and the U.S. National Guard in Puerto Rico removed 30 Puerto Rican men and women without notifying the Governor of Puerto Rico, and charged them with arms possession and conspiracy against the United States government. Those arrested believed that the U.S. government was a colonial power operating within Puerto Rico, and refused to participate in the U.S. judicial system that tried them. The group requested war court trials in accordance with a number of United Nations declarations, which were refused. Some of the 30 were tried and sentenced within the U.S. judicial system; others were released because there was no valid evidence against them. Of those convicted in U.S. courts, the average sentence was 71.6 years for the men, and 72.8 years for the women – roughly 20 times greater than sentences for others convicted of similar crimes. Their sentences and the conditions of their arrest are considered by many throughout the world to have been politically motivated, excessive, and in violation of international law. International human rights groups have cited the similarity between the case of Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years for an attempted overthrow of the apartheid regime, and that of the Puerto Rican prisoners arrested, charged, and incarcerated for their fight against U.S. control of Puerto Rican sovereignty.
Ultimately, 14 Puerto Rican nationalists were incarcerated in the United States. In 1999, President Bill Clinton commuted the sentences of 12 of these men and women after they had served from 16 to 19 years of their sentences, which originally ranged from 35 to 90 years. He did so because, in his words, “they were serving extremely lengthy sentences…out of proportion to their crimes.” Two other nationalists – Carlos Alberto Torres and Oscar Lopez Rivera -- did not accept the terms, and were not released. Carlos Alberto was eventually paroled in 2010. In January 2011, Oscar Lopez appeared before a parole examiner, who recommended that he remain incarcerated.
The United Church of Christ stands in solidarity with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and with United Nations in its repeated resolutions of support for people who struggle against domination by alien powers In the1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and People (Resolution 1514, adopted in1960), the U.N. recognized that people of the world ardently desire the end of colonialism, welcomed the emergence of dependent territories into freedom and independence, and proclaimed the inalienable right for all people to freedom, the exercise of their sovereignty, and the integrity of their national territory. U.N. Resolution 2621, adopted by the General Assembly in 1970, declares continuation of colonialism in all its forms and manifestations a crime violating the U.N. Charter, and reaffirms the inherent right of colonial people to struggle by all necessary means against colonial powers which suppress their aspiration for freedom and independence. In 1973, the U.N. published basic principles of the legal status of combatants who struggle against alien domination and racist regimes (Resolution 3103, adopted by the General Assembly December 12, 1973), reaffirming its prior declarations and calling to mind repeated calls to the body for support for colonized people. Specifically, the United Nations proclaims that the struggle of people under colonial domination is legitimate, that attempts to suppress the struggle against colonial domination is incompatible with the U.N. Charter and with principles of international law, and declares that combatants struggling against colonial and alien domination who are captured as prisoners are to be accorded the status of prisoners of war, entitled to protection under the provisions of the Geneva Convention of 1949. In similar resolutions, the U.N. has declared a right for protection of persons detained or imprisoned as a result of their struggle against apartheid, racism, colonialism, and foreign occupation (Resolution 32/122, December 16, 1977), calling upon member states to support and assist those who fight for national independence from foreign occupation. The U.N. also declared a universal recognition of the right of people to self-determination, and the speedy granting of independence to colonial countries for the effective guarantee of human rights (Resolution 33/24, November 29, 1978).
These Declarations, along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are available in their entirety at www.un.org. The United Nations encourages their distribution and duplication as a means to support education on the subject of human rights, from a broad and international perspective.
In light of international law, and based on a call for social justice and human rights, and founded in its faith in the teachings of Christ, the United Church of Christ has joined with many other religious and secular bodies over the past three decades in calling for self-determination for Puerto Rico and amnesty for political prisoners of conscience. In 1979, the United Church of Christ called for release of four Puerto Rican nationalist prisoners who were concerned with the political independence of Puerto Rico, and who attacked the Blair House and other sites on Capitol Hill, as a result of which they were convicted and imprisoned more than 25 years before. The position of the United Church of Christ at that time was to support their release, given the extended sentences they had served, and in solidarity with the U.S. Justice Department which recommended their release in 1978, these prisoners should be released. U.C.C. Resolution 79-GS-87 called for a presidential pardon for these prisoners, and in so doing, supported similar calls by the Puerto Rican Council of Protestant Churches, high bodies of the Episcopal, Methodist and Catholic churches in Puerto Rico and the United States, the National Council of Churches, former governors of Puerto Rico, both houses of the Puerto Rican legislature, labor unions, professional organizations, student councils, cultural groups, political organizations, and ten U.S. Congressmen who had written to the U.S. government expressing similar concerns. This position, shared as it was by so many other bodies, was founded on principles of mercy, love and reconciliation as the foundation of human rights concerns.
In 1985, the General Synod voted to adopt a resolution (85-GS-71) on the discriminatory treatment of prisoners of conscience, especially as they concerned women prisoners of conscience, citing Christ’s concern for those who were in captivity and in prison, and the foundational call to bring attention to the cry for justice and mercy for prisoners who are subjected to harsh and unmitigated conditions. In 1989 (89-GS-89), the United Church of Christ General Synod adopted a resolution on the Ministry to Prisoners of Conscience, recalling the Christian responsibility to address the needs of prisoners and calling to mind that Jesus himself was held prisoner. The United Church of Christ again acknowledged maltreatment of prisoners of conscience, and encouraged local congregations to reach out to prisoners of conscience and their families, and to effect visits and to call for an end to discriminatory treatment. In so doing, the United Church of Christ supported the prison ministries of many other denominations (Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, and Disciples of Christ among them) who had adopted similar resolutions and had joined with the U.C.C. in this work.
In 1991, the United Church of Christ called for self determination for Puerto Rico, and amnesty for prisoners of conscience (91-GS-85). The U.C.C. General Assembly called for the immediate and unconditional amnesty to all Puerto Rican prisoners of conscience, as defined by Amnesty International, the granting of amnesty to advocates of independence who were in exile, and an end to the prosecution of advocates of independence.
Similarly, in 1995 (95-GS-63), the General Synod recognized 100 years of U.S. colonialism in six island nations in Guam, Eastern (American) Samoa, Hawai’i, the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico, and called upon the government of the United States to affirm the rights of native peoples to self-determination.
For information on the positions of other denominations and bodies, see the Statement of the Methodist Church, “Free the Puerto Rican Political Prisoners,” adopted by the General Board of Church and Society in 1995; a statement calling for release of the Puerto Rican Political Prisoners approved by the Board of Directors, Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America on February 10, 1995; a resolution calling for unconditional and immediate amnesty for the Puerto Rican political prisoners by the Episcopal Church of Puerto Rico on October 22, 2995; and multiple calls by Nobel Laureates (Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, and others); Human Rights Organizations (including the Center for Constitutional Rights, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, European Human Rights Foundation, the Institute for Ghandian Studies, and others); labor unions; other religious communities (including the World Council of Churches and other international bodies); representatives of other countries (including Northern Ireland, the Caribbean, Australia, New South Wales, Nicaragua, and Mexico); and elected officials of the United States and Puerto Rico.