By Anne Marie Gerhardt
The Northern Illinois Conference’s annual celebration of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life was an opportunity to focus on restorative justice and for churches to become healing communities.
“We need some radical justice,” said Bishop Sally Dyck at the service at St. Mark United Methodist Church in Chicago on Jan. 19. “This is an opportunity to renew ourselves in our commitment to justice.”
Keynote speaker the Rev. Dr. Harold Dean Trulear introduced himself and recited his inmate number from memory, something he said is not in his extensive bio, which includes a PhD from Drew University and teaching public policy at Yale and Vanderbilt Universities. “When I was in prison, I was shamed,” said Trulear. “I laid low (behind bars) until I was laying in the bed and a young man called out ‘pastor?’”
That young man ended up being someone who played the drums for Trulear’s church choir. Trulear said prison inmates are people we know, church members, sons, daughters, grandchildren – people who are living in the gap “between expectation and experience”.
“At baptism, nobody expects their son or daughter or grandson to get locked up,” said Trulear. “Nobody plans to be in this kind of predicament or this kind of tension. They’re living in the gap.”
Trulear is the Director of the Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Prisoner Reentry project of the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation. It was designed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and has been implemented in over 20 sites nationally. The United Methodist General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) recently partnered with Healing Communities to encourage churches to engage in helping people and families in their own congregations who are affected by crime and incarceration.
The Rev. Douglas Walker, Senior Urban Ministry Fellow and Healing Communities National Coordinator at GBCS gave an overview of the project at the MLK service. “The Healing Communities framework allows churches to be stations of hope. Places where folks are encouraged, nurtured and supported,” said Rev.Walker.
Healing Communities organizers say that when the congregation embraces the prisoner, the returning citizen, the victim and their families and holds out their hands to them, they are taking the first steps to creating a Healing Community. Congregations can uniquely help erase the stigma and shame of crime or incarceration by offering love, support and understanding.
“Churches are already good at pastoral care and reaching out to those who are sick or hurting,” said Walker. “Healing Communities is about using the tools churches are already good at to help those who have been wounded by crime and incarceration,” said Walker.
Jobs programs, for example, may help a person released from prison get a job – but people working at jobs programs don’t “walk with the person,” open their hearts to that person and embrace him or her with love and understanding. The cost is also low. The Healing Communities resources available can help expand a church’s ministry without necessarily expanding their budget said Walker.
Bishop Dyck said as we honor the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., churches should consider becoming a Healing Community as we continue to overcome societal obstacles and take what may be hard steps toward justice. More information, including United Methodist congregations that have embarked on the ministry is available on the GBCS website at umc-gbcs.org/healing-communities.
If you are interested in your congregation becoming a Healing Community, contact Doug Walker at firstname.lastname@example.org or Bill Mefford at email@example.com. You can learn more about Healing Communities on its website at www.healingcommunitiesusa.org.
Stay tuned for events and resources around Restorative Justice under the Conference’s Urban Strategy Plan.