The Church and Criminal Justice: What it Looks Like “On the Ground”

I am fortunate to work on the edge of the Eastern Mennonite University campus—known around the world, literally, for the amazing and effective Center for Justice and Peacebuilding and the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice. One of CJP’s graduates, Leymah Gbowee, went on to receive a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, and I was happy to meet her on one occasion at EMU.

When my daughter spent a college semester in Belgium in early 2002 (just months after 9/11/2001) I was surprised to learn that her roommate, a cultural Muslim from Cyprus, had heard of EMU. One of this roommate’s textbooks for her international studies major with a focus on conflict transformation was Changing Lenses by Howard Zehr, published by Herald Press.

Recently I participated in “A Day of Learning: Criminal Justice and the Church in Our Community” in order to get better acquainted with one of MennoMedia’s partners, Mennonite Central Committee, as we publish the Third Way* website (check under Third Way’s “Justice” tab, or the Wider View archive you find there). But more importantly, I wanted to find out how our area, with its huge Mennonite, Old Order and Church of the Brethren population, (to say nothing of many other religious groups interested in reform for the criminal justice system), is doing in applying the principles of restorative justice. In a nutshell, restorative justice aims to right the wrongs that have been done rather than just punish offenders.

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Jason Gerlach and Ben Risser (at left) address the Day of Learning on criminal justice. Your truly on far right, heart t-shirt. (Photo by Joshua Russell, MCC)

At the Day of Learning, two pastors from Harrisonburg, Jason Gerlach (associate pastor at Community Mennonite) and Ben Risser, (pastor of Ridgeway Mennonite) talked about their prison ministry.

Jason was a beginning pastor at Community when one day an article hit him between the eyes. At the time, his office at the church overlooked the local Rockingham Regional Jail facility, housing over 400 inmates awaiting trails or sentencing (including some maximum security and federal inmates).

The article he was reading, “The Church and the Concentration Camp: Some Reflections on Moral Community”** reflected on the disconnect between an Orthodox church in Hitler’s Germany in the 1940s located outside the perimeter wire of the Dachau concentration camp. The author of the article, Duncan Forrester, pondered whether those inside the concentration camp ever wondered about the beautiful singing or organ music they heard coming from the cathedral, whether any Nazi camp guards went to worship there, or what, if any, interaction there was between camp and cathedral.

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Rockingham Regional Jail, Harrisonburg.

And there was Jason, within a stone’s throw of a prison of another type. Surely the suffering is not as grave, but the irony hit him and he began to explore how he could at least try to reach out to the residents of the local jail next to his church and his work—which is a worthy question for any Christian to ponder. Both Ben and Jason help lead Bible studies at the Rockingham Regional Jail. Many inmates there are just awaiting the next step in their judicial process, which means these pastors have limited long-term contact with inmates. But they feel called to at least be a presence—to bridge the gap between jail and church.

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Restorative Justice Circle in library of Eastern Mennonite University.
Photo by Joshua Russell, MCC. Raymond (story below) is seated at the right end of the circle participants, gray jacket.

In the afternoon at EMU, we met with two graduate students in the Restorative Justice program, who introduced us to the “circles” they use to make sure everyone gets a chance to say what’s on their minds in mediating an issue. Raymond served 20 years in a penitentiary for selling and using drugs. One day Howard Zehr, the author of Changing Lenses and also the book, Doing Life: Reflections of Men and Women Serving Life Sentences (Good Books, 1996), was taking photos for a project.

Raymond began asking Howard questions about what he was doing. Ray learned about restorative justice and Howard’s work, which “changed my life.” He couldn’t really read or write, in spite of graduating from high school; he failed his GED twice. But eventually he got a bachelor’s degree and is now working on a graduate degree in addition to doing motivational speaking. Raymond said he went from the “halls of the penitentiary” to the “halls of Congress,” most recently in a day of advocacy spent talking to members of Congress in Washington, D.C. He sees a need for the U.S. to work at its systemic racism issues because of the relationship of racism to the justice and incarceration problems here.

I was fascinated by my six hours of learning about restorative justice and the local issues workers here face. Harrisonburg has the blessing of EMU’s programs and people, but that doesn’t automatically translate to local implementation.

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Gemeinschaft Home and the FairField Center are two area organizations that also work on the ground in this field. Gemeinschaft offers both day and residential opportunities for helping offenders integrate back into society upon being released from incarceration; residents have to find employment, become more independent, and participate in counseling designed to help them become successful citizens. (Above, Richi Yowell, program director at Gemeinschaft Home addresses the group.)

Although FairField Center wasn’t present for the day of learning and advocacy I experienced, later I talked to Sue Praill, director of Restorative Justice there. I asked about the efforts they’re making to work with the local courts, police officers, and jails. These include:

  • Victim impact training with juvenile offenders: This is a program that has been running around 18 months, consisting so far, of ten groups of juveniles, to educate youth on how their actions impact their victims and their own families. The youth who participate are part of the juvenile court diversion program that aims to give young people an opportunity to learn from their mistakes. The victim impact training has been generally well received, with parents reporting very good feedback, and the youth talking about wanting to “turn their lives around.” According to Sue, statistics do show that when people (adults and youth) understand the impacts of their behavior, they are less likely to re-offend.
  • Victim impact training with adult inmates. Sue has been part of an effort to educate adult inmates on the impact of their actions on victims and their own family members (Federal Correctional Institute, Petersburg, Virginia). “We talk about their own experiences as victims; we discuss case studies that enable them to put themselves in the shoes of others; help them take responsibility for their actions; and learn how to repair relationships with their families, who are also victims,” she said. The men who participate are in the eighteen-month Interfaith Life Connections Program that prepares them for release and reintegration into society. Counselors from that program have been “blown away” by the response of the men and the intensity of their engagement.
  • Collaboration with Harrisonburg Police Department. FairField Center is part of a coalition of partners, (including HPD, EMU and JMU) to broaden the impact of restorative justice in Harrisonburg. The goal is for police officers to divert certain cases to be processed restoratively. As part of that program, Sue and the other partners have been training city police officers in the basics of restorative justice so that they understand the benefits, both to those affected by crime, and the police department. When the victim and offender are willing to participate, they work together to create a plan to repair the harm done.
  • There is also considerable effort to work in the local public school systems here at all levels from elementary through university. Two daughters of our director Russ Eanes at MennoMedia, Allison and Carolyn Eanes, were interviewed by a local NPR station on their efforts to bring restorative justice to their 6th grade classrooms.

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More learners and practitioners at the Day of Learning.

Much remains to be done. I’m encouraged that there are good, smart, people working on these efforts locally and in many locations. One woman present at the workshop had worked in helping restorative justice efforts for 18 years in Colorado. Google “restorative justice” and you’ll find examples all over.

May the numbers of effective programs spread. And so gratified to know that Changing Lenses (see below) by Howard Zehr has had such a huge role in changing the way the world thinks about justice. And to meet one man, Raymond, whose personal life was changed for the better by this book and Howard Zehr.

–Melodie Davis
Managing editor, Herald Press; Curator, Third Way website. Photos by Melodie Davis, except for those by Joshua Russell.

Contact info: Joshua Russell, Legislative Assistant/Communications Coordinator
Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office washington.mcc.org 

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To purchase Changing Lenses by Howard Zehr, click here.

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*Third Way website has information and resources on Mennonites, beliefs, and activities. In addition, the MCC Washington and Ottawa offices supply a current issue “Wider View” blog post (you can sign up for here) two to three times a month on various critical and hot button issues in North America and around the world.

**The article by Duncan Forrester titled “The Church and the Concentration Camp: Some Reflections on Moral Community” can be found in the book Faithfulness and Fortitude: Conversations with the Theological Ethics of Stanley Hauerwas, edited by Mark Nation and Samuel Wells.

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