On the U.S. Prison System and the Church

You tell me Jesus forgives me, how come your church never does?

For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.

Matthew 25

[This is the 3rd post in a series highlighting portions of The Truth About 13th.]

Throughout the hour-long discussion, the LRJ panel reflects on the experience of people who are in prison and their families. In the clip above, Rev. Blake tells a story about a friend who was formerly incarcerated asking him: “You tell me Jesus forgives me. How come your church never does?”

It’s a startling question. What would it mean for us, as a church, to express forgiveness of people who have been in prison? I’ve not thought of it much until seeing this, but surely it would involve actively welcoming them into the life of our congregations and seeking the well-being of their families.

Chaplain Schwarz advises that, “you don’t just incarcerate an individual, you incarcerate a family.” (I’m not sure it’s mentioned in the video, but in the live chat several people recommended supporting Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree ministry as a tangible way to love families with a parent who is incarcerated.)

Later, Rev. Lattimore reflects on the difference between punitive justice and restorative justice. Our criminal justice system is focused on punishment but as Christians our life’s work is to seek restoration.

I have not specifically highlighted a section where Jacq Wilson speaks, but hearing him tell about his brother’s time in prison and the feeling of helplessness in the face of the criminal justice system is powerful. He calls it dehumanizing. He talks about the risk of becoming hopeless. He testifies to the power of faith in Christ to keep hope alive even in that overwhelming circumstance.

Please take time to watch part or all of this discussion. It is worth your time.

On Critical Race Theory

Should we be afraid of critical race theory?

“In the church when we talk about any issues around race or criminal justice it brings up the question of should we be afraid of Critical Race Theory? Could you give us a working definition and talk about that idea?”

I had never heard of critical race theory (CRT), and then suddenly I heard it and now it seems to be everywhere. As the question quoted above reflects, sometimes Christians express fear of critical race theory, believing, I think, that it draws people away from the gospel. CRT is a way of describing how racism works in the United States, how deeply embedded it is in many systems. It was first developed by legal scholars and now informs scholarship in many areas.

The Southern Baptist Convention has been in a relatively high profile debate over CRT. President Trump issued an executive order banning diversity training rooted in CRT.

Every Christian social justice leader I follow has addressed critical race theory in about the same way: “I’d never heard of CRT until someone ‘accused’ me of using it. Then I looked into it and realized, hey, this describes what I’ve been seeing!”

I appreciated how the LRJ panel addressed this topic. Dr. Koehlinger and Rev. Lattimore both address the question from their different perspectives – academic and theological.

When Rev. Bolling picks up the discussion later, he addresses the connection between a theory (like critical race theory) and a concrete experience (like the criminal justice system, which disproportionately punishes people of color). He compares it to the theory of gravity and a child’s ice cream falling on the floor. Whether or not you are willing to discuss the theory of gravity, the effect of gravity happens: ice cream on the floor, inedible. We can refuse to discuss CRT, but it is just describing an actual experience people are having in the world. With or without the theory, the experience remains.

The panel’s discussion here met a need for me and I am thankful for it.

Coming next: On the U.S. prison system and the church

Why study history?

For Christians who advocate for racial justice, understanding a Biblical perspective on justice is essential. It’s also complicated, and ongoing, and sometimes controversial.

So I was intrigued when Lutherans for Racial Justice hosted a panel discussion in response to the Netflix documentary 13th in early December. The panel discussed several issues related to criminal justice and racial justice from their perspective as Lutheran Christians.

The discussion is over an hour long, so over three days this week I’m going to post a short description of one portion of the discussion I found helpful. Each post will have a link to the video that starts at the relevant point. (The video above will start from the beginning of the discussion.)

  • Today: On the value of learning history
  • Wednesday: On Critical Race Theory
  • Friday: On the U.S. prison system and the church

On the value of learning history

What do you know about Black history in America? What do you know about the role of the church during Civil Rights? For most of us the answer is, “Not much.” Does that matter?

Why is understanding the history and experience of Black Americans important?

Our denomination is predominantly White, and we need to make a concerted effort to learn Black history. Rev. Lattimore shows us that this is a need that was identified by our church body more than 50 years ago. In 1968, seminary president J.A.O. Preus wrote that, “the white majority in our Lutheran Churches needs to listen very carefully to what [our Lutheran negro clergymen are saying]… because we need to give to the black man in our churches a position of dignity and equality, which he feels (and probably rightly) that he has not heretofore enjoyed.” (The Springfielder, Summer, 1968)

Dr. Koehlinger talks about the church’s role in the Civil Rights movement and points out that, although we prefer to remember the ways the church supported freedom and dignity, our history is more complicated: for abolition AND for slavery; supporting racial integration AND supporting Jim Crow laws.

Taking an honest account of the church’s role in the struggle for racial justice is essential to moving forward as agents of true hope. God can’t use us to bring healing if we do not acknowledge our complicity with sin. A study of The Color of Compromise, beginning January 11, is one way to do that. Registration is open until Friday, January 8. Find the details here.

LRJ Panel members – Rev. Kyle Blake, Rev. Dr. Gerard Bolling, Dr. Amy Koehlinger, Rev. Warren Lattimore, Chaplain Lorinda Schwarz, and attorney Jacq Wilson.

Coming Wednesday: LRJ Panel On Critical Race Theory

Color of Compromise

“Churches remain racially segregated and are largely ineffective in addressing complex racial challenges. In The Color of Compromise, Jemar Tisby takes us back to the root of this injustice in the American church, highlighting the cultural and institutional tables we have to flip in order to bring about progress between black and white people.”

“This book provides an in-depth diagnosis for a racially divided American church and suggests ways to foster a more equitable and inclusive environment among God’s people.” Read more here.

In the last several months, Jemar Tisby’s book on the history of racism in and around the American church has become a bestseller. He is speaking to the moment we are in right now.

There is a video study version of this material, which we can watch as a group and discuss together. Would you join us?

Who: Christians who are concerned about racism and ready to learn.

What: Group meeting via Zoom for The Color of Compromise Video Study

When: Mondays, 7-8:30 p.m., January 11- March 22

Where: On Zoom

Why: The church needs to be honest about her complicity with racism and actively work against it.

How: We will meet up at 7:00, watch a video (usually 20-25 minutes) together via Zoom, then discuss as a group. If we have a large group, we will spend much of our time in breakout rooms.

Please register by completing this simple Google form. The Zoom link will be sent the week before our first meeting. Registration closes Friday, Jan. 8.

Frontline Explores Poverty

Public Television’s Frontline has produced two excellent documentaries on the experience of American families living in poverty. The first came out in 2012 and followed three families in the wake of the 2008 recession. In September of this year, another documentary followed three different families coping with poverty, COVID, and the foregrounding of racism in our national life.

Both of these films are available online for free. I encourage you to watch them.

Perhaps, like me, you prefer to have an opportunity for discussion with a group. We’d love to meet up with you on Zoom.

Who: Anyone interested in understanding more about the experiences of American families living in poverty.

What: Viewing and discussion of Frontline documentaries on poverty. We will use the tools from Bridges Out of Poverty to consider how families adapt to limited resources. (You do not need to complete Bridges training to participate.)

When:

  • “Poor Kids” documentary (2012) – Thursday, December 3, 7:00-9:00 p.m.
  • “Growing Up Poor in America” documentary (2020) – Thursday, December 17, 7:00 – 9:00 p.m.

Where: Anywhere you can log on to Zoom!

Register for one or both events using this simple Google Form.

Pandemic Perspectives

This morning’s Chicago Tribune has a cover article about teenagers who are essential workers during the pandemic, balancing school and work and concern for their families.

I read the newspaper every morning and often notice an article I want to share here because we need to recognize the wide variety of experiences people are having during the shelter-in-place. COVID-19 affects all of us, but it does not affect all of us in the same way.

“My dad used to work 45 hours a week and now he can barely get 30 hours,” one Chicago Public Schools student wrote in an online petition seeking relief from the district’s grading policy for remote learning. “He doesn’t make enough for bills and food so I started to work two jobs of a combined 50 hours so I can help with the bills. I can’t even do homework.”

(Chicago Tribune, May 26, 2020)

Families organize themselves in part based on access to resources. When a family has stable housing, plenty of food, and steady income, then children are not responsible to earn an income for the household. When a family does not have the resources to meet everyone’s needs, children might carry a heavier load.

“One Chicago high school student aced a physics test by sending a set of photos showing his work, according to his teacher at George Westinghouse College Prep.

“He showed all his work on napkins, which he did while working at the grocery store to support his family,” the teacher tweeted. “And it was a perfect score.”

(Chicago Tribune, May 26, 2020)

The courage and resilience of a teen who completes school while helping to support their family during a global health crisis – it is stunning. God bless them.

Article cited: Teen essential workers juggle labor, fear, stress — and remote learning — to help support their families by Hannah Leone. Some access to the Chicago Tribune is available for free, but please consider paying for a subscription. Journalism is an essential service.

Mobile Food Pantry

Last Saturday the Northern Illinois Food Bank hosted a Pop-Up Market at Six Flags. I volunteered for a 3-hour shift packing boxes as part of the distribution for thousands of families.

The market was scheduled for 10 – 1:00, but the line was closed at 11:30 a.m. The market had reached its limit. Four hours later we were still working to serve people who’d been waiting all that time.

The shift I worked started at 11:00 and was supposed to end at 2:00. Seeing that people were still waiting to be served and there was work to do, I stayed. By 4:00 I could not do it any more. I’d been on my feet for hours. Our work station of 4 people had loaded thousands of eggs and hefted probably a ton of chorizo and venison into family-sized boxes. Every half hour we would change the way we packed when the event manager re-evaluated inventory vs. cars in line: “That’s running low, put in one instead of two per box. We still have lots of that, pack three instead of one.” we worked like an assembly line but our minds could not wander. We had to focus to remember the most recent instructions.

Families waiting in line to get food.

In the line of cars, families waited. The moved from the Six Flags entrance road, to the parking lot, to a set of lanes separated by orange cones. Many had children or babies with them. A few parents who got out of their cars to ask:

  • “Will there be enough food for everyone? I have a 1-year-old and I’m concerned.”
  • “Is there a bathroom? I need to take care of my daughter.”
  • “Can we get some water? We’ve been waiting in the car for many hours.”

Though they were clearly tired and anxious, everyone I spoke to was kind and patient. The families waiting for food, the staff, and the volunteers all showed forbearance, generosity, and good will. I’m sure we all went home exhausted that night. My muscles ached and I felt a little sunburned. Too tired to cook dinner for my family, we ordered takeout and watched tv.

I thought of the families who’d waited in their cars for so long. They were surely also exhausted, got home weary and surprised at how much of the day they’d spent at the pop-up pantry. If they ordered fatigue-induced takeout it was a tight trade-off. Some other expense will go unpaid because of that stress relief.


The statistics about people who’ve lost their jobs in the last couple of months – 20.5 million Americans lost jobs in April – became concrete for me that day. Many of those 20+ million people live paycheck-to-paycheck and losing a job means a sudden tumble into urgent need.

Looking east from Six Flags. I later heard that the line stretched down Grand Avenue almost to Highway 41.

Both the volunteers and the neighbors receiving food were there because of our need. The need for food is easy to recognize; the need to feel useful, to serve others, to help solve an overwhelming problem is harder to see. It is still a need.

The biggest difference between me and the neighbors receiving food is that I have so many choices. I could choose to go help or not. I could choose to leave when I felt exhausted. I could choose to get takeout instead of making dinner. I could even choose to hang out with my family or go into a room by myself, because my house is big enough for that.

Money gives us choices. The millions of people losing their jobs right now are losing access to choices, and many will now trade their time for things they need. Like food.

If COVID-19 is a storm, we’re all in the same storm but we are not all in the same boat. If your boat is sea worthy and well-stocked, please share. We need our neighbors to get through this storm too.

If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. Isaiah 58:10

There are many agencies doing excellent work in Lake County during this crisis. Here are few to consider supporting with your money, your prayers, and your time:

Northern Illinois Food Bank

Christian Neighbors Church is running an emergency food box ministry in Waukegan, partnering with several congregations

PADS Lake County helps people experiencing homelessness

Bernie’s Book Bank providing books for under-served children

Homelessness Forum Report

Recently I dragged my three t(w)eens and a couple of neighbors along to the Community Conversation on Homelessness & Panhandling offered by Village of Gurnee. Once the t(w)eens cleared off the table of treats they sat behind me goofing around and giggling, so I only stayed for half the presentation. Even so, I learned a few things.

This community forum was prompted, I believe, by the consistent presence of panhandlers in Gurnee over the last few years. I’ve often observed people panhandling near the Hunt Club Rd. shopping areas and near the intersection of Route 41 and Grand Ave. Why are people doing this in Gurnee more than other neighboring communities? Why does Gurnee allow it? How should we respond?

Why are people panhandling in Gurnee? Mayor Kovarik said that the volume of traffic in Gurnee is the main reason. Because we are a tourist destination, there are thousands of people coming through Gurnee every day. If 1% of drivers give money to panhandlers, then more drivers=more money.

Why does Gurnee allow panhandling? If someone is on a public sidewalk, then his or her right to free speech is protected. The Village will respond to complaints from property owners about panhandling on their property.

How should we respond? Everyone on the panel agreed that it is more helpful to give our resources to the local agencies addressing the needs of people who are homeless than to give money directly to people who are panhandling. (A list of the agencies is at the end of this post.) One audience member described a connection he has learned of between drug addiction and panhandling – that the kind of small, daily allowance panhandling can provide can support an addiction by paying for drugs and a hotel room for one day. Addiction is a pernicious disease that requires ongoing support to overcome.

Many, many thanks to the Village of Gurnee, Mayor Kovarik and Immanuel Church for hosting this discussion. Thank you to the community organizations who were on the panel:

If you are concerned about homelessness in our area, please make a gift to Housing First, PADS, or Community Partners for Affordable Housing.

End note: Even though my kids did not appear to pay attention, it helped us to talk about panhandling, homelessness, and how we choose to love people with big needs. I suspect that exposure to these kinds of discussions is valuable for them even if they are on the margins of it.

Panhandling & Homelessness

When we talk about poverty, people often talk about panhandling. This is how many of us see – and are challenged to respond to – poverty in our daily lives.

Please join this community conversation on Tuesday, September 24 @ 7:00 p.m. at Immanuel Church, 2300 N. Dilleys Road in Gurnee. Thank you to the many community organizations collaborating to host this event.

Recommended Reading: Online Resources

I have shared a list of books I recommend, and here is a list of articles I like that are available online. Please take some time to read some of these. Alleviating poverty is a marathon, not a sprint. We need to run with wisdom.

Being Poor by John Scalzi – This is a brilliant piece for anyone who has never been poor. It’s a set of vivid snaphots of what poverty means in concrete terms. Don’t stop with the original piece – in the comments section people have added from their own lives. (Scalzi wrote this in 2005. After 500+ comments he finally shut down the comment section. )

The Bottom Line: One in three families can’t afford diapers. Why are they so expensive? by Kathleen McGrory, Tampa Bay Times – The story of Lalandria Goolsby, a brand new mother who is barely getting by, and the American diaper industry. Lalandria’s story reveals some of the ways that systems intended to provide support don’t actually work well for people living in poverty.

The Marshmallow Study Revisited University of Rochester – Ok, this one isn’t recommended reading, it’s recommended watching. You’re welcome. This 4-minute video shows a laboratory experiment comparing how self-control develops in a reliable environment vs. an unreliable environment. Poverty is an environment that is chronically unreliable. What does this suggest about our expectations (and judgments) regarding self-control?

Speaking of self-control,  check out It’s not a lack of self-control that keeps people poor by Elliott Berkman. “This research makes me rethink both poverty and self-control. The science suggests that poverty has powerful harmful effects on people, and helps explain why it’s so hard to escape. Their choices are much more a product of their situation, rather than a lack of self-control.”

This one is for the ambitious reader. Poverty Interrupted: Applying Behavioral Science to the Context of Chronic Scarcity (2015) This one is full of behavioral science theory and practice, which means there are specific suggestions about how to design programs and organizations so that we actually help people get out of poverty. Chronic scarcity is an environment that nurtures different resources and different needs than the stability of middle class. I hope you’ll check it out.