Motivated by compassion for people in prison
Lamae Oberton, member of Freedom Church in Philadelphia, came to a Martin Luther King Jr. Service Day event in Philadelphia to honor her brother, who is in prison.
Mass incarceration was the focus of the event, sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) East Coast and Kingdom Builders Network (KBN). Participants packed 560 care kits for incarcerated men and women and listened to a panel of experts talk about medical and mental health issues in Philadelphia prisons.
“I really find a passion in my heart to give to those who are struggling,” said Oberton. “It’s important to me to be here because when I see these people [volunteering], I think of my brother.”
ChiChi Oguekwe, Philadelphia program coordinator for MCC East Coast and coordinator of the seventh annual event, said, “There are so many individuals and families who are impacted by incarceration. This is an opportunity to remind them that we have hope for them and that we care about them.”
Janice Barbour, member of Christian Stronghold Baptist Church in Philadelphia, said that she was looking online for opportunities to serve locally and prayed for God to lead her to the right MLK (Martin Luther King Jr.) event.
“I have a difficult time with this whole prison industrial complex, from the point of being a victim of crime to being related to people who have been incarcerated. It’s just so multifaceted, and I struggle with how to really be useful in it. … so, I think that’s why God directed me here.”
MCC shares Barbour’s concern about mass incarceration in the U.S. -- the substantial rise in incarceration rates since the late 1960s. The U.S. is home to 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners. Nationwide, more than 2 million people are contained in U.S. prisons and jails – an increase of 500% over the last 40 years, according to the Sentencing Project.
Philadelphia event panelists spoke about the need for medical and mental health justice in Philadelphia prisons, where they described the difficulty of long lockdowns and barriers to accessing hygiene items, showers, books and the law library due to short-staffing. They said conditions are unsanitary and unsafe, especially for those with documented health conditions and disabilities.
They also presented tangible solutions, including encouraging churches to nurture the leadership skills of formerly incarcerated people who are returning home. They urged individuals to educate themselves, vote in elections and do their research on candidates. They also called for an end to cash bail, funding for community groups and requirements for law enforcement officers to live within the same communities they police.
In Philadelphia and in other U.S. locations, MCC walks with communities who have been targeted by the mass incarceration system, working toward healing, justice and restoration. MCC also provides care for those in prison and those returning to society by providing kits with basic clothing and hygiene supplies. This is part of MCC’s mission to share God’s love and compassion for all in the name of Christ.
In Elkhart, Indiana, MCC’s Great Lakes region partners with the Center for Community Justice by providing coaching and mentorship to men and women who are currently or formerly incarcerated. MCC Great Lakes also partners with other organizations in Elkhart, Chicago, Ill. and Lexington, Ky. to support people affected by incarceration.
In Kansas, MCC’s Central States region partners with Working Men of Christ by providing returning citizen care kits and Offender Victim Ministries by providing prisoner care kits. These kits help meet the basic needs of those who are incarcerated or returning to their communities.
“Going through the [prison] system, it often feels as if you’re going through it alone, and so this is a really special day for me,” says Jeffrey Abramowitz. He was incarcerated in a federal prison for five years and now serves as the chief executive officer of the Petey Greene Program, an educational program that helps people inside and outside prison to reach their academic and professional goals. Joining with others to pack the women’s prison care kits impacted Abramowitz the most.
He said, “Just seeing those little things [like feminine products] on the table really struck home because those are the things that can make a difference in somebody’s life that you may never see.”
Several youth groups from Mosaic Mennonite Conference congregations attended this year’s event. For Andrew Zetts, associate pastor at Salford Mennonite Church, in Harleysville, Pennsylvania, this was his second year in a row attending with youth from his congregation.
“As a suburban congregation it’s really easy for us to lose sight of those in need,” Zetts said. “[We’re] trying to pierce that bubble for a lot of our youth who have only grown up in a certain context, to try to get them to see a bigger picture of the world and also to see the church in action.”
For Esther Hong, an MCC International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP) participant from Cambodia, a sense of community and belonging was a valuable part of the event. She attends Plains Mennonite Church, Lansdale, Pennsylvania, with her host family.
She said, “I’ve always been interested in doing [community building and peacebuilding] ministry, and so it’s amazing to be part of this event. Being part of this event felt like home – coming together and doing something with your community.”
Jay Bergen, pastor of Germantown Mennonite Church, highlighted the importance of the community gathering for the event.
“Scripture commands us to remember those who are incarcerated as if we are chained to them (Hebrews 13:3). It’s too easy for those of us who have not been incarcerated, or not had family members who are incarcerated, to feel like the justice system is something ‘out there.’ In reality, it fundamentally shapes our society. We are called to be followers of the Prince of Peace and act for peace in situations of violence.”
What can I do?
Wondering how you can address the issue of mass incarceration? Explore ideas for action now and resources to learn more.
Make care kits for currently or formerly incarcerated people
- MCC East Coast prison care kits, mcc.org/EC-prison-care-kits See option at bottom of this web page to donate cash for kits.
- MCC Central States prisoner care kits, mcc.org/CS-prisoner-care-kits
- MCC Central States returning citizen care kits, mcc.org/CS-returning-citizen-kits
Invite MCC staff to facilitate “You Got Booked!” a mass incarceration learning tool developed by MCC U.S. by emailing email@example.com.
Learn more about MCC’s justice and equity work, mcc.org/what-we-do/initiatives/justice-equity
Sign up for MCC’s Peace & Justice Journal and engage with MCC’s advocacy offices by visiting mcc.org/advocacy.
Watch recordings of MCC’s four-part “Beyond incarceration webinar series.”
Give cash for kits
Every donation makes a difference.