Racism

From Prison to the Pulpit: A Powerful Story of Hope

Rev. Darren Ferguson at The Summit 2014. Photo by Brandon Hook/Sojourners

Rev. Darren Ferguson at The Summit 2014. Photo by Brandon Hook/Sojourners

I want to introduce you to Rev. Darren Ferguson, a pastor who first found his faith while in prison for attempted murder. Rev. Ferguson spent 9 years in federal prison, first at Rikers Island and then at Sing Sing in New York, where Darren and I met. I had agreed to an invitation to discuss my book, The Soul of Politics, which the inmates had been reading. When I inquired about when the prisoners wanted me to come to Sing Sing, the answer came back from a young brother: “Well, we’re free most nights. We’re kind of a captive audience here.”
 
One night, I spent several hours with 50 of those men in a room deep inside the bowels of that tough prison. We had rigorous discussion about the book and how faith must be applied to the fundamental issues of injustice in our time. I will never forget the comment of one of those young inmates. “Reverend, almost all of us in this prison are from about four or five neighborhoods in New York City. It’s like a train that begins in your neighborhood. You get on when you are 9 or 10 years old, and the train ends up here — at Sing Sing.” I remember the testimony and promise of a young prisoner that night who then told me, “But I have been converted, and when I get out of here, I am going to go back to those neighborhoods and stop that train.”
 
Two years later, I was again in New York to speak at a big town meeting on overcoming poverty. And there, up front, was that same young man I had met on that unforgettable night at Sing Sing: Darren Ferguson. He was now back home trying to stop that train. Darren has become an ally, partner, brother, and dear friend. And I want you to hear his whole story. It’s one of mass incarceration and the broken criminal justice system, but it’s also a story of hope — and it has the power to inform and change.
 

Were You There?

THE GRAINY, STUTTERING surveillance footage shows police milling about, offering no medical assistance to the 12-year-old boy, Tamir Rice, one of them has just shot. They only spring into action when the boy’s older sister runs into the frame toward her brother. An officer tackles the girl, knocking her back in the snow, then cuffs her and puts her in the patrol car, only a few feet from her dead or dying brother.

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The Cost of Discipleship

BORDERED BY strip malls, chain restaurants, and drug stores, four-lane Hillsboro Pike in Nashville, Tenn., carries cars from the Vanderbilt University area out to suburban neighborhoods. Every afternoon, thousands of drivers heading home from the city crest a ridge and pass a long, red-brick church.

That church, Calvary United Methodist, is where I was confirmed, participated in youth group, and sang in the choir. In the archives room off the education wing, a visitor can open a filing cabinet drawer, flip past photos of youth group retreats and church league basketball games, and find a manila folder labeled “Rev. Dr. Sam Dodson, 1958-1965.”

The folder is thin, but its contents are weighty. A letter to the local Methodist bishop from the church’s board explains that Dodson cannot adequately minister to his congregation while participating in political activities and suggests he be demoted to assistant pastor. A newspaper clipping from 1965 announces that Rev. Dodson and his family will be moving to Athens, Greece, where he will head St. Andrew’s American Church. I recognize some of the names signed to letters calling for Dodson’s demotion—an usher who pressed strawberry candies into my palm whenever I asked, a woman who looked me in the eye when I was 11 and told me I would be a leader in the church someday.

During the months and years immediately after the relative success of the 1960 sit-ins and before the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed Congress, a wide range of activist groups and individuals in Nashville sought to desegregate restaurants, movie theaters, churches, schools, and recreational facilities, many in predominantly white areas of town. “The ‘Whites Only’ signs were down, but we had not yet seen the white mind behind those signs,” remembered Kwame Leo Lillard, a college student in Nashville in the early ’60s who participated in Freedom Rides to the Deep South to desegregate interstate buses.

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When Florida Police Used Mug Shots of Black Men as Target Practice, Clergy Responded with #UseMeInstead

National Guard Sgt. Valerie Deant found mugshots of black men, including one of her brother, riddled with bullet holes at a police range in south Florida last month. After outraged critics drew attention to the police department, clergy across the country began to post photos of their own faces with the hashtag #UseMeInstead. The Washington Post explains why the hashtag began:

The effort was “motivated by our service to Christ and his call to love our neighbors,” Gonnerman told The Post.

“We initially started thinking if a whole lot of us, in our clergy collar and worship attire, sent our photos to them, it would make a really powerful statement,” Rev. Kris Totzke, a pastor in Texas, told The Post. “Then, it really snowballed, and we got people all over the country and of all different faiths.” … 

“It’s such a desensitization thing, that if you start aiming at young black men, and told to put a bullet in them, you become desensitized,” Gonnerman said. “Maybe, to change the picture, it’s you know what, dare ya, shoot a clergy person.”

A Future in Prison

albund / Shutterstock.com

albund / Shutterstock.com

The Bureau of Prisons contacted me today, assigning me a prison number and a new address: for the next 90 days, beginning tomorrow, I’ll live at FMC Lexington, in the satellite prison camp for women, adjacent to Lexington’s federal medical center for men. Very early tomorrow morning, Buddy Bell, Cassandra Dixon, and Paco and Silver, two house guests whom we first met in protests on South Korea’s Jeju Island, will travel with me to Kentucky and deliver me to the satellite women’s prison outside the Federal Medical Center for men.

In December 2014, Judge Matt Whitworth sentenced me to three months in federal prison after Georgia Walker and I had attempted to deliver a loaf of bread and a letter to the commander of Whiteman Air Force base, asking him to stop his troops from piloting lethal drone flights over Afghanistan from within the base. Judge Whitworth allowed me more than a month to surrender myself to prison; but whether you are a soldier or a civilian, a target or an unlucky bystander, you can’t surrender to a drone.

When I was imprisoned at Lexington prison in 1988, after a federal magistrate in Missouri sentenced me to one year for planting corn on nuclear missile silo sites, other women prisoners playfully nicknamed me “Missiles.” One of my sisters reliably made me laugh today, texting me to ask if I thought the women this time would call me “Drones.”

It’s good to laugh and feel camaraderie before heading into prison. For someone like me, very nearly saturated in “white privilege” through much of this arrest, trial, and sentencing process, 90 percent (or more) of my experience will likely depend on attitude.

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