By Jennifer Rogers
When volunteers enter a jail or prison, we are privileged to have relational encounters with our brothers and sisters from all manner of life circumstances. We are presented with an opportunity to pause, listen, and reflect. Matthew 25:34-40 calls us to visit those in prison and to see Christ himself in those we visit. 1 John 4:19-21 adds that we love our brothers and sisters because Christ first loved us, and Genesis 1:26-27 provides the larger context that we are all made equally in God’s image.
So far, those are not controversial statements. But when the subject of race or racism come up, some people bristle at the notion that race has anything to do with jails and prisons.
Three years ago, I participated in a Christian training for prison volunteers, and during a break, an older white woman said very matter-of-factly that racism is a thing of the past. “I heard it on the radio,” she said, with the same confidence – specifically, an AM news program with a guest from the Heritage Foundation. I was amazed that a woman who had spent more than 20 years regularly volunteering inside a prison could believe racism is a “thing of the past.”
But recently, it happened again. In a training seminar with Christian jail and prison volunteers, the facilitators raised the issue of systemic racism in the criminal justice system. Two white male participants immediately objected that race and racism should not be part of our training. One said we should be color-blind in our volunteering inside the walls. The other said we live in a post-racial culture, and all this “race talk” only makes things worse.
Many volunteers I have met believe that people are in prison because they did something bad, plain and simple. They believe Christians should bring love to incarcerated folks, and their commitment to prison ministry is authentic and kind. However, they have very little grasp that systemic racism has anything to do with arrest rates, charges brought, bond amounts, conviction rates, or sentencing. I see a disconnect between their Christian ideal to minister to these folks on one hand, and their awareness (or their willingness to become aware) of the systemic inequities that contributed to a prisoner’s incarceration in the first place.
As Auxiliary Bishop Fernand Cheri of New Orleans recently said in a pastoral letter following George Floyd’s murder last year, we as Christians must face evil head-on, and that includes the sin of racism. As a Black youth growing up in New Orleans in a Catholic family, Bishop Cheri experienced racism in every aspect of his life, including his years in seminary and even today. He has never been shy about sharing his frustration and heartbrokenness that the Church must treat racism as fervently as it does any other pro-life issue if we are to be authentic in our Christian voices for the dignity of all human life.
Bishop Cheri specifically eschews the word “color-blind.” The problem with being “color-blind” (and worse, acting as if that proclamation gives us some kind of gold star) is that we are essentially saying to someone, “I do not see the wholeness of you, and the wholeness of the beauty God gave you in God’s image.”
That might not be how most white volunteers mean it. But it matters how the words are experienced, too, and we must dig deeper than superficial platitudes if we want to be the Christians we say we are.
White volunteers are so accustomed to having race not matter in their daily lives that they assume it does not impact others either. But that projection does not make it fact. If we as Christians genuinely care about the experiences of those we encounter in prison, we would take the time to learn these truths from the people who experience them. For those who do not get the chance to hear these stories first-hand, there are any number of wonderful authors available – Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, Isabel Wilkerson, and Heather McGhee, just to name a few.
However, it can be just as damaging for a white volunteer to preach about racism to people who live with it every day and who do not need a well-meaning white person to tell them what they already know. This is where the expression white-centering comes from, when we as white people make our anti-racism efforts still about us.
The balance is to pause, to listen, and to reflect, just like we would with any relationship we care about. There does not have to be anything magic or different about white people’s encounters with people of color. We are, after all, equally God’s children made in his image. But that is different from being “color-blind.”
Our role as Christian volunteers inside prison may be color-neutral, in so far as we do not treat anyone differently on the basis of skin color. But that is not the same as saying we are “blind” to someone’s suffering and oppression, or to their fullness and gifts.
Our jails and prisons do not reflect racial equity or justice. And white volunteers have to be honest with themselves that our Christian ideal has fallen short. We can carry the hope that Christ delivered us all from sin, while also knowing that achieving the kingdom of God on earth is a difficult and unending task. By pausing, listening, and reflecting, perhaps we can together be a better messenger for God’s grace.
Jennifer Rogers is a volunteer member of NACC working toward her chaplaincy certification after completing her Master’s in Pastoral Studies at Loyola University New Orleans in 2020.