For four hours on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, over 120 people from across the Nashville community and representing at least 12 area churches gathered at the headquarters of the United Methodist Publishing House to view the documentary 13th: From Slave to Criminal in One Amendment and engage in open and honest discussion in small groups around the issues of racism and its impact on mass incarceration in the United States.
The 100 minute documentary, directed by Ava DuVernay who also directed Selma, highlights a rarely discussed clause in the 13th amendment to the United States Constitution that banned slavery except for punishment of crime for which one has been duly convicted. The film provides historical context for the explosion in the number of people incarcerated in the United States. For example:
- The United States now imprisons more people per 100,000 than any other country in the world and African Americans make up a statistically disproportionate number of those incarcerated.
- It is estimated that 1 in 3 African American males will spend some time incarcerated in their lifetime and the film highlights the prejudicial narratives and structures which have contributed to these inequities.
It is an issue of importance to faith communities like the United Methodist Church whose social principles highlight the promotion of restorative justice that respects the full humanity of individuals rather than just focusing on retribution and punishment without redemption. As McKendree UMC lead pastor Stephen Handy put it, “The gathering for 13th offered a few moments of immersion for people to hear the real stories from real people about the insidious and indignant behavior of the criminal justice system.”
Before the film screening, participants were given historical context and background on the 13th amendment and issues of racial justice framed in the film by Joshua Crutchfield, a Ph.D. student in history at MTSU and a local community activist.
He was followed by a powerful testimony from Terrancè Akins who poignantly shared the personal impact of inflexible sentencing guidelines and the for profit prison conditions had on him during his 17 year stay in prison beginning with a conviction at 17 years old.
After a viewing of the 100 minute film, Rev. Karasheila Jackson led the groups into a spiritually meditative transition and invitation to open and honest conversation around tables of six individuals. Participants were invited to intentionally gather in diverse groups for an hour of conversation to share experiences, reactions, and to wrestle with how our Christian faith calls us to act in light of this knowledge.
Samantha Paulin and Stephen Handy closed the event by inviting the gathering into a large circle for a prayerful meditation on the presence of the beloved community and a sending forth to act faithfully out of this shared experience.
In reflecting on the importance of the event as a catalyst for people of faith, Rev. Handy stated, “People of justice must rise up and speak and then act with a profound sense and anticipation of God’s love and divine presence moving to break down the structures, systems and voices of injustice so that we can build circles of reconciliation, hope, and unity!” The collaborative team plans for this event to be a starting point that leads to future faithful actions that reach beyond racial, class, age, and denominational lines to express God’s restorative justice in our midst.
McKendree reached out and worked in partnership with Downtown Presbyterian Church, First Baptist Church Capitol Hill, First Lutheran Church, Hamilton UMC, Arlington UMC, Belmont UMC, and the Fisk University Wesley Foundation to plan and implement this event. The United Methodist Publishing House was also a crucial partner in providing the physical space for the event.