Mass Incarceration and Race How Must Christians Respond?


A call to study, prayer, and action

By M. Garlinda Burton

By any measure, the U.S. numbers* are stunning. The United States incarcerates more of its population (about 25 percent) than any other industrialized nation in the world. And the odds of going to prison rises sharply for people of color and the poor.

  • One in three black boys, one in six Latino boys and one in 17 white boys born in 2001 will end up in U.S. jails and prisons.
  • More black men are currently in prison in the United States than were held in slavery in the pre-Civil War era.
  • The poorer his family, the more likely a young man—especially a young man of color—will spend time behind bars.

There is a correlation between poverty and race and incarceration. There are yawning disparities in many cities between how white teens are disciplined by school infractions and how black and Latino and Native American teens, especially, are disciplined for the same infractions. So how can U.S. Christians—the white majority community and communities of color—overcome mistrust, anger, fear, and historic division, and work together in faith toward solutions?

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United Methodists across the United States and around the world are responding:

  • By mentoring, tutoring, and supporting at-risk children and youth. (Poor children with consistently low reading scores are much more likely to commit crimes and end up in juvenile or adult penal institutions.)
  • By going into prisons and jails for Bible studies, prayer meetings, and one-to-one support with inmates.
  • By opening their church doors to ex-offenders and their families and offering job training, Narcotics/Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, GED classes, and support for children of incarcerated families.
  • By advocating for victims/survivors and championing restorative justice.
  • By affirming publicly when legislators and law-enforcement officials “get it right.”  (See the story in this series about an incident in Pittsburgh, Pa.)
  • By convening small church groups and larger community groups that study and discuss issues of race, poverty and incarceration, using such resources as The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Alexander’s book traces the clear interconnection of systemic racism and mass incarceration of black and brown men in the United States.

Still, God is calling us to do more and to address root causes, transform unjust systems, and address urgent needs.

The General Commission on Religion and Race is asking every United Methodist congregation, small groups, and district and conference organizations to spend time in prayerful study on these issues.


What church leaders can do now

Christian educators and other laity in leadership: Use books, study guides, and video resources from the list provided with this series. Invite local law enforcement officials, human rights’ and ex-offender advocacy groups to present to small groups in your congregations, your parish or your district.

Pastors and worship leaders: Build sermons and design worship around Scripture and theological writings (including the writing of our church founder, John Wesley) that reference people in poverty and captivity, Jesus’ thoughts on justice, and how God’s people are to confront injustice and bring about restoration.

Bishops and other connectional leaders: Initiate discussions among pastors and laity in leadership positions. Host a discussion using The New Jim Crow and other resources. Plan information events on how the Church can be in ministry with at-risk youth, families living in poverty, people living with addiction and other mental health issues, ex-offenders and victims/survivors. Consider issuing pastoral letters and hosting clergy gatherings to address issues of racism and classism and encourage pastors to discuss and preach on these issues.

Finally, use the resources in this series—including the following vignettes and videos—to spark education and action. These are hard-to-discuss topics and complex issues. Yet, God is calling on the Church to be a transforming agent in the world. Let now be a time when we, United Methodist Christians, rededicate ourselves to a racially and socio-economically just future for all.


White congregations talk about white privilege, support local police chief in ‘challenging racism’

Pittsburgh, Pa., Police Chief Cameron McLay

Pittsburgh, Pa., Police Chief Cameron McLay

In January, Cameron McLay, chief of the Pittsburgh, Pa., police department, was criticized by many in the city after he was photographed holding a sign stating: “I resolve to challenge racism @ work #EndWhiteSilence.” The city’s mayor, Bill Peduto, was also criticized for backing McLay.

Police union officials and others felt the chief was painting all police officers as racist.  But two United Methodist pastors of mostly white congregations publicly supported McLay with an op-ed article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, praising the police chief for “his willingness to participate in conversations about racism” and trying to heal long-held racial divisions in the city.

The Rev. Bob Wilson of First UMC, Pittsburgh, was one of those pastors. His congregation is one of three who have formed a “Wrestling with Racism” team, in which members of two mostly white and one African-American congregation are working together to discuss, struggle with, and undo racism in their own church lives and ministries.

“Pittsburgh has some serious racial issues, including how the police department is perceived by black and Hispanic people,” said Wilson, a member of the Western Pennsylvania Conference anti-racism team.

“In the past few years we’ve had at least two high-profile cases of young black men and allegations of excessive force and unjust treatment,” Wilson said. He referred specifically to the case of Jordan Miles, the black teen awarded a civil judgment last year after he was allegedly stopped for no reason and allegedly beaten by a Pittsburgh police officer in 2010.

Such cases across the nation point to a markedly different way in which white people and people of color view the criminal justice system, including law enforcement systems and personnel. Moreover, Wilson says that the divisions in the community are often reflected in the Church.

In an effort led by the bishop’s assistant, the Rev. William Meekins, Western Pennsylvania adopted and funded, in 2008, a conference-wide work area on dismantling racism, starting with addressing institutional racism in the conference itself.

Wilson and his colleague, the Rev. Don Blinn, who serves both Anne Ashley UMC, a mostly white congregation, and mostly black Warren UMC, have since engaged their churches in joint study, worship, and partnerships to address drug laws, youth mentoring, and public policy.

The joint group began by reading the book Witnessing Whiteness by Shelly Tochluk, which offers white people the tools to recognize and address race-based privilege and power and understand the impact on those who are not white. The group is now reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.

Wilson admits that some people have left the congregation, citing their discomfort with the focus on the Gospel and racial justice. However, he says, most of his young congregation are “on board.”

“We live in the midst of both poverty and privilege, because our urban church is bordered by a poor neighborhood and a wealthy one,” said Wilson. “There’s no denying that people have a very different experience with law-enforcement—with almost every social institution—depending on their race and socioeconomic location.

Adds Blinn, “The members at Warren Church deal with racial bias every day, so it keeps me motivated. We’re learning that a colorblind approach doesn’t work; as a Christian community, we have to confront racial issues once and for all if we are to heal our community—including our Church.”


United Methodists champion ‘Ban the Box’ campaign, mental health and addiction recovery support

Doug Walker, coordinator of criminal justice reform for the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church

Doug Walker, coordinator of criminal justice reform for the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church

For many in prison, their release after serving their time is conditional upon their finding employment and housing. Having a criminal record, however, is often an automatic turn-off to potential employers.

Several United Methodist groups, congregations and individuals have joined in a U.S.-wide “Ban the Box” campaign, which seeks to remove from job applications a check-boxed question about whether or not an applicant has committed a crime.

Instead, the applicant can move further along in the screening and interview process and make a good impression on potential employers before explaining about her/his past incarceration.

Douglas Walker, coordinator of criminal justice reform for the denomination’s General Board of Church and Society said solid employment and a supportive community are critical for keeping those coming out of prison from going back. Removing the check-box would allow ex-offenders to be judged first on their skills and suitability for a job.

“After a person has paid his debt to society, we expect them to contribute to society; but how can he do that if an employer won’t even give him a chance,” Walker said.

A recent article in The Washington Post asserted that about 70 million Americans have some kind of criminal record. About 700,000 people leave incarceration every year. Unemployment rates skyrocketed among those with prior criminal histories during the recession.

Walker, who attends Asbury UMC in Washington, D.C., recalls his arduous search for employment after drug addiction resulted in his incarceration 20 years ago. In fact, he had been accepted for a job until an employer learned of Walker’s prison record. Thankfully, he found an employer who was willing to give him a chance.

“That job, Narcotics Anonymous, and the support of the Church saved my life,” added Walker, a former Baptist pastor-turned-United Methodist layman.  He now works with United Methodist annual conference teams to advocate for prison and sentencing reform, intervention through mental health and addiction recovery programs, and justice for those wrongly accused.


Georgia governor ‘bans the box’


In February 2015, Georgia became the 14th U.S. state to adopt “ban the box,” joining states as diverse as Nebraska, New Mexico, California and Hawaii. Nationally, nearly 100 cities, including Washington, D.C., have adopted the same policy. Most of these apply to state and city employment only. The goal, supporters say, is to remove the box from all employment applications—including church-related agencies.

In signing the legislation, Gov. Nathan Deal wrote that the new policy will “improve public safety, enhance workforce development, and provide increased state employment opportunities for applicants with criminal convictions on their records” and allows “returning citizens an opportunity to explain their unique circumstances in person to a potential employer.”

The Rev. Michael Greene, pastor of Highland Hills UMC in Dallas is also working on “ban the box” advocacy and education, and is developing a ministry with ex-offenders. Formerly a seminary professor who earned his doctorate at United Methodist-related Perkins School of Theology, Greene developed and led a study on mass incarceration and race while he was associate pastor at St. Luke “Community” UMC.

“If the church is going to make a difference in the lives of the poor, we have to address mass incarceration and all the complex issues around it. We’ve got to preach about it, teach about it and collaborate across racial lines to promote skill-building, support, and responsibility in ex-offenders,” he said.

“And we have to work in coalition with other groups to address related issues of drug laws, boosting public schools serving the poor, hunger and racism,” added Greene, who discusses economic justice in his book, A Way Out of No Way.


Making children and youth a priority, locally and nationally: Two Nashville clergy on the front lines to save young people

The Rev. Janet Wolf spends much of her time hanging out with youth whom many would dismiss as “troubled” and “too far gone,” and with ex-offenders and current prison inmates—including those on death row. This, she says, is where the gospel of Jesus Christ challenges us to be.

“Jesus hung out with the least and the lost, those pushed all the way to society’s margins, and those considered ‘unclean,’ explained Wolf, a former Nashville, Tenn., pastor who is now on the staff of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), based in Washington, D.C., and directs the agency’s training center at the Alex Haley Farm in Clinton, Tenn.

Wolf, herself the mother of five adult sons and wife of a retired public school teacher, oversees CDF’s national effort to counter the “cradle-to-prison pipeline.” The pipeline, Wolf explained, is a combination of “zero-tolerance” school discipline policies, a juvenile justice system that emphasizes punishment more than rehabilitation, and lack of resources for and systemic bias against poor families. These factors combined, said Wolf, pushes black and Latino youth—particularly boys—from classrooms and a chance at success in their lives to the mean streets where drugs and violence may cut their lives short.

“Our schools are dealing with disciplinary issues by expelling children with behavior problems and sending them to juvenile court at an earlier and earlier age,” Wolf says. “We are criminalizing some kids instead of finding out what their struggles are.”

According to Wolf, a child locked up for a juvenile offense is 50 percent more likely to end up in adult prison later.

Wolf divides her time between theology classes in the local maximum security prison, traveling the nation preaching policy reform for public school and juvenile justice systems that are weighted against the poor and children of color, and coaching an impressive team of people in Nashville who work directly with teens, teachers, and administrators in public schools.

She also challenges Christian congregations, including United Methodists who tend to be middle- and upper income, to get involved first by joining in partnership with and shifting their social location to be in deliberate and sustained fellowship with poor people, ex-offenders, kids with little hope, and those who face bias because of institutional race and class bias.

Part of her work is promoting church support for after-school and summer programs that encourage education and personal and civic responsibility in children and teens. Among these are CDF Freedom Schools, a six-week summer reading program. Nearly 100 such schools operate nationally, many with the direct support of United Methodist congregations and organizations.

Randy Taylor, a spoken word artist with the Wesley Foundation at Tennessee State University, mentors middle-school students at the Gordon Memorial UMC Freedom School. Photo is by Mike DuBose of UMCom.

Randy Taylor, a spoken word artist with the Wesley Foundation at Tennessee State University, mentors middle-school students at the Gordon Memorial UMC Freedom School. Photo is by Mike DuBose of UMCom.

Gordon Memorial UMC, a historically black, urban church in Nashville, launched a Freedom School in 2014 for 50 children in grades 5-8, and plans to continue this ministry this summer. The Rev. Vance P. Ross, senior pastor, and other Gordon leaders say their Freedom School is a central component of the church’s ministry with people in their immediate community, which is one of the poorest in Nashville.

Local murder is a wake-up call

Less than one day after Ross became Gordon’s pastor three years ago, a black youth from the church’s neighborhood was shot and killed in drug-related violence. Three more murders followed and the congregation and Ross said, “We’ve got to do something.”

“Something” began with a churchwide study using Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and worship and preaching on themes of justice, being in community with the poor, and the call to support and nurture children.

From there, Ross and other Gordon United Methodist Men convened a new fellowship group that included “a couple of brothers with degrees and jobs,” but the majority were “men who had been in the criminal justice system, and were either on probation or parole,” he said.

In launching a Freedom School, the congregation also focused on keeping children focused on school and positive about their own value and their futures. “I saw kids who were angry, sullen and hopeless come alive and get happy about learning.” Ross marveled.

“If the Church does not try to save children, then we are not doing what the Church is called to do and be. Transforming lives must be what The United Methodist Church is about,” he added.


Drugs and gang violence got him locked up, now this layman helps others find ‘life after prison’

Matthew Taufete

Matthew Taufete

The son of two United Methodist pastors who emigrated from Samoa to Hawaii, Matthew Taufete was raised in a Christian home. He and his five siblings were reared in church. While his father was emotionally distant, Taufete’e said, they did their best.

“My parents didn’t teach me to be violent and to lie and stealI wasn’t raised that way,” he admitted.

Still, as a teen, Matthew chose drugs and alcohol and being a gang leader. Convicted first for attempted murder, he later killed a young man his age during a dispute, and received a 20-year sentence of manslaughter. Although Samoan culture (and his parents’ faith) led them to ask for and receive forgiveness from the victim’s parents during a traditional peace ceremony, the young male relatives of the slain man wanted blood for blood. One of them shot and killed Matthew’s brother a year later.

Matthew was released in 1993, after having served nearly five years. He married and had the first of four children. Nevertheless, his drug and alcohol addiction reclaimed him and he was back on the street. He said he attempted suicide and was latter beaten by rival gang members and left for dead. But a beloved, out-of-town aunt and came and brought him home with her. Every morning she read the Bible and prayed with him. She helped him get clean.

“She loved me and told me that God loved me more. She kept telling me until I believed it. I gave my life to Christ,” Matthew recalls. “Almost immediately God put a call on my life and I started this ministry.”

In a modest building adjacent to Pacific Islanders UMC in Honolulu, Matthew directs “Life After Prison” (or LAP), which provides support for men who are ex-offenders coming out of prison and mentoring and community service opportunities for youth to keep them out of trouble and out of prison.

The program was started with seed money from the General Commission on Religion and Race, and received another two-year grant of $38,000 from the agency’s CORR Action Fund.

Matthew and his wife, Sharla, have five children and she runs their family-owned collection agency. He devotes himself full-time to Life After Prison, operating on a shoestring budget and donations from three other United Methodist congregations in Honolulu.

Men in the residential program stay for six months, receiving addition-recovery support, job training and placement and reconnection with the free-world community through church involvement, discipleship, and volunteerism. They are required to stay clean, attend worship together, and to engage in service to youth, older adults and indigent people. More than 300 men have been through the program since it opened, said Matthew, adding that he has connected with 10,000 youth in prevention education. The majority of people he works with are pacific islanders and native Hawaiians.

According to the National Institute for Correction, Hawaii’s percentage of people in prison is nearly 10 percent above the national average. “Natives and Pacific Islanders, are way over-represented,” Matthew said. More than 80 percent of convictions were for drug-related crimes, making recovery programs critical to helping people stay out of prison.

“We’re working to restore men back to meaningful involvement in their families and communities and to say to kids, ‘Your life is too valuable; God cares and we do, too’.”

With the latest GCORR grant, Matthew is creating a how-to manual and acquiring a tracking system for measuring the program’s long-term effectiveness and impact on the life of alumni. He is also adding to LAP’s Peacemakers Program, which involves youth painting homes and doing other services for older adults in their communities, feeding homeless residents, and in school-based discussions on preventing violence and addition. Learn more about Matthew Taufete’e and his ministry here.


Black church initiative to sponsor second summit on mass incarceration and race

United Methodist leaders at a 2014 summit in Dallas on racism and mass incarceration sponsored by the denomination's initiative, "Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century."

United Methodist leaders at a 2014 summit in Dallas on racism and mass incarceration sponsored by the denomination’s initiative, “Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century.”

While all United Methodists should engage in prayer, study, advocacy, reformation, and justice-seeking around issues of mass incarceration and racism, black United Methodist congregations are particularly important, said the Rev. Fred Allen, who oversees the denomination-wide initiative, “Strengthening the Black Church in the 21st Century.”

The initiative was developed to help congregations become more effective in worship, discipleship, mission, and addressing pressing social and moral issues and systemic issues in the black community. The crisis of incarceration of young black males is one The United Methodist Church is uniquely positioned to—and must be willing to address, Allen added.

“[United Methodist founder] John Wesley took his ministry to the streets, to people who were disenfranchised,” he said. “We have a heritage and a theology that celebrate a Jesus of redemption and of addressing social injustice.

“Since the system is stacked against poor, black boys, then it is up to us to challenge that system and to keep our boys out of the criminal justice system and to guide them in another way.”

Last fall, the SBC21 and Hamilton Park UMC of Dallas co-sponsored a national summit on the U.S. prison system, during which clergy and laity heard from leaders in criminal justice reform, as well as those serving at-risk youth and families, about ways that United Methodist congregations can better engage, question, mentor, challenge, and champion.

A second summit is slated for April in Nashville, Tenn.

M. Garlinda Burton is a consultant, writer and editor living in Nashville, Tenn. She is a member of Hobson United Methodist Church.

*Information about incarceration rates are from The Children’s Defense Fund 2014, The Sentencing Project, and

GCORR is building the capacity of The United Methodist Church to be contextually relevant and to reach more people, younger people, and more diverse people as we make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.