This semester at the Graduate Theological Union‘s Berkeley School of Theology, I am taking three classes as part of my Doctor of Ministry studies. They are: “The Qur’an: Origin, Application, Interpretations” (Dr. Majabeen Dhala, Center for Islamic Studies), “Introduction to Prison Ministry” (Father George Williams, Jesuit School of Theology), and “Examining the Case for Reparations for African Americans” (Dr. Ronald Burris & Dr. Aidsand Wright-Riggins, BST).
I just gave my first presentation in Dr. Dhala’s class, called “Joseph – Yusuf.” In this presentation, I considered the story of the patriarch / prophet Joseph – Yusuf as presented in the Torah / Hebrew Bible and in the Qur’an, in the context of my ministry as a jail chaplain. The class and I had a good discussion!
You can see the whole presentation here. See the last pages of my presentation for where I found the images and other sources.
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“The Problem: As part of changing a life path that repeatedly ends in Santa Clara County jail, many inmates want to learn about and develop their faith and theology but lack resource access and the reading capability or education to move forward. Inmates who are Spanish language speakers, have reading difficulties, and those with mental health challenges are at a particular disadvantage and are often isolated and disempowered. America’s punishment-based, racist and classist carceral system, and the constant population churn inside jails, militate against empowering inmates’s spiritual well-being, success, and change of life. Tailoring educational and faith programs to particularly disadvantaged inmates may help to reduce long-term recidivism.
The Purpose: To support the most invisible of the largely-unseen and severely marginalized population of jail prisoners in Santa Clara County, this project revises existing Bible study and theological reflection program materials to support inmates in three particularly-underserved and vulnerable groups: those whose primary language is Spanish, and/or have mental health challenges, and/or have reading comprehension difficulties. Making materials more accessible may help to encourage their faith walk, sustain their difficult journey, and discourage recidivism after release.”
Correctional Institutions Chaplaincy‘s training was held last weekend: Going In, Staying In jail ministry training is for new and returning volunteers and focuses on orientation to chaplaincy and facility updates as well as context specific skill building such as trauma informed ministry and cultural humility. The training is free and open to all over the age of 21. The opening meditation titled “Choosing to Incarcerate Yourself” was presented by CIC Associate Director & Facility Chaplain, Angel Hernandez. Green bracelets saying “I Choose to be Incarcerated – CIC Ministries Jail Chaplains” were distributed.
I was inspired by Chaplain Angel’s talk, especially when he said: “We have these ministry trainings so that as Chaplains, you need to choose incarceration as well. Not like those that are incarcerated, and not like those who have families inside. You choose the surroundings of incarceration in order to be with those inside. We have these ministry trainings so that you can understand what it is like to be inside… We are a ministry that seeks out people that choose incarceration. That know that their rights are left, like their phones, like their smart watches, their rights are left in the car. We look for people that allow the direction of the law inside to have the authority, regardless of the title you have worked so hard to attain on the outside. We look for people who are willing to humble themselves…. As you consider being a chaplain, or if you have been a chaplain for some time, we ask that you understand that you choose incarceration to then be inspiration to those inside. Hebrews 13:3: “Remember those in prison as if you were there yourself. Remember also those being mistreated, as if you felt their pain in your own bodies.”
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This semester, I am taking a class at the Graduate Theological Union called “Christian Ethics: Radical Love Embodied” from Dr. Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Professor of Theological and Social Ethics. One of the texts for this class is Dr. Moe-Lobeda’s own 2013 book, Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation. Chapter 4, “Unmasking Evil that Parades as Good,” has caused me to think deeply on how background social and cultural understandings perpetuate and affirm the way things are, even if those understandings are destructive or evil. The author characterizes this as “‘hegemonic vision’… the constellation of socially constructed perceptions and assumptions about ‘what is,’ ‘what could be,’ and ‘what ought to be’ that maintain the power or privilege of some people over others, and ‘blind’ the former to that privilege” (Moe-Lobeda, 88).
Dr. Matthew Clair, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Stanford University, uses the word hegemony with regard to U.S. law, but does not use the phrase hegemonic vision in his 2020 book Privilege and Punishment: How Race and Class Matter in Criminal Court. He presents similar concepts, writing of how racism and classism intersect, “I found that the working class and poor, especially racial minorities, often sought to learn their legal rights, contest their defense lawyer’s expertise, and advocate for themselves in court. Meanwhile, the middle-class people I got to know found themselves in trusting relationships with lawyers and thus were more likely to defer to their lawyers and the court. Privileged people were rewarded for their deference, whereas the disadvantaged were punished for their resistance and demands for justice” (Clair, xv). That is, Dr. Clair reports that the U.S. justice system has a vision of how people should behave that is based in middle-class assumptions and communication patterns. He finds that those who are poor or working class who do not communicate as expected are disproportionately penalized.
The Prison Policy Initiative affirmed what Dr. Clair has written in their “Mass Incarceration: the Whole Pie 2020” in which Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner write, “People in prison and jail are disproportionately poor compared to the overall U.S. population. The criminal justice system punishes poverty… Poverty is not only a predictor of incarceration; it is also frequently the outcome.”
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“In How to Fight Racism, Jemar Tisby writes, “White supremacy is the belief or assumption that white people and their culture are inherently superior to other people and cultures.” I said in our class discussion of Tisby that understanding white supremacy and its associated racism in the United States is incomplete without also considering class and classism. In this paper, I expand my argument that class is a key factor in racism to include why people of color are imprisoned disproportionally. In support of this, I consider historical, literary, and academic sources as well as my personal experience as a jail chaplain in Santa Clara County.
In researching this topic, I found that race and class were conflated in most analyses, and that usually only race was addressed. Sometimes it seemed as though class and classism were invisible. For example, historian Tyler Stovall, whom I quote on race and class below, has racism in his Index but not class or classism, even though both are extensively discussed. Publications where race and class were considered individually came from many academic disciplines, including anthropology, economics, education, history, sociology and literary analysis. I begin with definitions of class and race.”
“In this paper, I begin the discussion of my Doctor of Ministry project and dissertation for the Berkeley School of Theology. In the first section, I present the problem of creating a theological study program for use in jail and my vision for its solution. The second section considers my theological basis, including three inspiring scriptures that have influenced my thinking. These are followed by a summary and conclusion. My theological basis and the proposed project and dissertation are informed by my experience as a Santa Clara County, California, jail chaplain since 2015.” The three Bible scriptures are Matthew 25:31-46, Genesis 39-41, and Acts 16:22-40. Read the whole paper here.
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ProQuest has just published my Master’s thesis, “Range of Chaplain Engagement with Prisoners” – Hooray! I am still waiting for the 158 page document to appear in the Graduate Theological Union Library catalogue, which will be more easily referenced. I have been waiting since my thesis was signed off in February 2021 for the GTU and ProQuest to make my thesis available so I am very happy that this process is (mostly) complete.
Most congregations interested in jail or prison ministry start slowly, with a desire to act righteously, with moral correctness and integrity but without a strategic plan, goals, or structure. The range of chaplain engagement with prisoners reflects aspects of both sociology and theology. This thesis presents data and a novel tool to extend ministry participation and best practices to benefit prisoners and those reentering society after incarceration.