Episcopal Charities Hosts First Criminal Justice Roundtable

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On April 4, representatives from over a dozen parishes and programs came together for a roundtable discussion on the current state of criminal justice ministries within the diocese. The meeting was organized by Trinity Wall Street and Episcopal Charities as the first step in exploring a funding partnership that would expand parish-based outreach in this area.

The Rev. Winnie Varghese, Director of Justice and Reconciliation at Trinity Wall Street opened the meeting by adding context to Trinity’s focus on criminal justice. She stated that Trinity has decided to focus on criminal justice ministries because of a desire to “address the institutions that perpetuate racism in our time.” The endgame for Trinity, she added, “is that the system be reformed.”

Multiple parishes within the diocese have existing criminal justice ministries. These ministries vary widely, from connecting incarcerated people with their families, to offering hospitality to people on parole, to advocacy work with the #CLOSERikers and recently successful Raise the Age campaigns, to higher education inside prisons, to leadership and job training programs for citizens returning to society, to simply welcoming formerly incarcerated people to community kitchens and food pantries and connecting them with services.

A major challenge to expanding these efforts is the lack of resources available. Andrew Horrocks of Heavenly Rest pointed out the dearth of large grant makers who focus on the issue. Small organizations are often working hand to mouth, which makes it hard for parishes to find strong partners.

Kim Cross, Executive Director of the Nyack Center and member of Grace Church, Nyack echoed that sentiment. She noted that there is a “very small window to really lift people” once they are out of jail or prison and that effective work requires high contact, and thus expensive, social work.

Susan Lassen, Executive Director of the JC Flowers Foundation acknowledged that while these types of ministries are “hard to scale…every parish can love and cherish four or five incarcerated families. That’s how we scale it.”

Peter Keller, a member of Episcopal Charities’ Board of Directors, moved the discussion “upstream,” to focus on why people are incarcerated. He pointed out that education is much cheaper than incarceration. Susan Ferrer, Associate for Mission at St. James’ Church in Manhattan agreed, and acknowledged the importance of “finding a partner working on upstream issues.” She also urged that “all the ministries [in a church] talk to each other. Homelessness and hunger are not disconnected from prison.”

Another challenge raised was getting congregations comfortable with working on criminal justice ministries. Father Owen C. Thompson, Rector of Grace Church, Nyack asked, “How do we break down the barriers so that people aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty?”

The importance of working ecumenically was stressed, and Dr. Hans Hallundbaek, Coordinator of the Hudson River Presbytery’s Prison Partnership, who works closely with St. Matthew’s, Bedford, noted that once Presbyterian parishes began getting involved in criminal justice ministry by bringing art to currently incarcerated individuals, “we helped the prisoners, but we helped the church more.” Parishioners became re-energized by the ministries and the church community grew closer.

Other programs within the Diocese have also found their criminal justice ministries have brought in volunteers from outside the congregation, and The Rev. Chloe Breyer, of St. Philip’s in Harlem, noted that having a criminal justice ministry meant parishioners become more aware of the structural issues at play and more likely to become advocates. The Rev. Frank Morales, Priest in Charge at All Souls, Harlem particularly stressed the importance of advocacy work. “We have to change the system,” he said, and also engage people coming out of prison and jail. Parishes should “not see them as victims but fellow activists…these are the people who know best what it’s like.”

The Rev. Dr. Mary Foulke, Rector of St. Mary’s, Harlem followed up on this by speaking about the potential power of “if all the churches here worked on one campaign.” The Rev. Jennifer Reddall, Rector of Church of the Epiphany in Manhattan expressed support for this idea by saying that, in her own congregation, “having a really clear group advocacy to attach into would be so useful. We’ve done enough education people are interested and inspired. They want to be engaged.”

It was clear everyone at the table wants to be engaged. Next steps will include a roundtable with formerly incarcerated individuals and the agencies that serve them to learn where they see the greatest need for resources. Episcopal Charities thanks all the participants of our first Criminal Justice Roundtable, and we look forward to continuing to encourage and support transformative criminal justice ministries across the Diocese. And if your parish is also engaged in prison ministry, we want to hear from you! Please contact Leeanna Varga, Director of Programs, at lvarga@dioceseny.org.

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