Monday, July 14, 2014

Sermon from "Racism and the Legal System" and Holy Trinity, Lancaster, PA

Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ from my family, myself and my congregation, Holy Spirit, in the city of Reading. I am grateful for your hospitality and Pastor Mentzer’s gracious invitation to preach in this place, especially to be a part of speaking about the racism, and bias, in the legal system while also holding up the call of the gospel.

I serve in a city with a population with 65% Latino ethnicity, as well as a significant African American community, along with Caribbean Africans, and many multi ethnic people. Many kids and families are served by the Doves Nest, our afterschool program for as many as 80 kids three days a week each school year. Crafts, music, fitness, games and food. But most importantly, education. Education, I believe is the key to life.  All our kids fall below the poverty line, and 90% are people of color. Yet I have a hard time using those labels because to me they are just my neighbors.

But I’m not perfect in that, none of us are. Nor are the systems we create, and I sadly see firsthand the effects of racism and bias as I have worked with offenders and victims. There are immediate and broader victims in a society where insecurity runs high. The effect on our kids and families starts long before adulthood and lasts in ways that are profound. The neighborhood is also a vibrant historic district with many young couples moving in and renovating old Victorian houses, and events like garden tours take place. But there can be such a stark contrast between the world some of my neighbors and I live in, and the world many of my neighbors confront as a part of their normal.  

Lately, at the recommendation of the young adults in my house, I’ve been watching the series on Netflix called “Orange is the New Black.” It’s the story of Piper Chapman, a mid-30’s white WASP-y sort from New York whose life goal is to get upscale stores to sell her handmade soaps. But her past catches up and she’s arrested for once being the money runner for her drug cartel girlfriend.

She ends up in prison much to the shock and dismay of her fiancé, Larry. The series is based upon the 2010 memoir of a woman whose life the series chronicles across a 15 month stay in a federal minimum security prison where she discovers 2/3 of the population are African American or Latina, and where the inmates all look at her like someone who truly is befuddled by a world that has become their normal. Some are serving longer sentences for similar or lesser crimes, and their lives keep them stuck behind ever slamming doors.

One of them is a prisoner named Tasha Jefferson. Her nickname is “Taystee.” She becomes eligible for parole. Taystee is bright and funny and works as a prison librarian. On the day of her parole she’s hustled early in the morning out of the prison. The staff give her little time to say goodbye, shouting, “Let’s Go, Let’s Go!” But she gets to the open door and it’s like a dream.

It’s how I imagine the last part of our passage from Isaiah- you walk out of the door first thing in the morning and you’re immediately greeted by all of nature bursting into song, and the trees are clapping, almost grabbing you by the hand to say “Let’s Go!” There’s a whole world of life! She stops, closes her eyes and stretches out her arms and looks up with a smile and a deep joy as it seems like a whole new life really is possible. It’s like resurrection- leaving that prison as the door slams behind you. She’s going to get a job, and settle in and maybe go to school and be something!

But she gets to the apartment a friend arranged, and the friend is gone, and the other tenants don’t want her, and she struggles to find work, much less eat and pay fines and costs. And one by one the doors are slamming-this time in her face. She ends up shoplifting and back in prison. In prison she’s a librarian. Outside, she’s just another black woman with problems. And her consequences are, and always have been, graver than those of white girl, Piper. And it’s kind of predictable because the systems we have put in place to provide for health and welfare and orderly society though intended for good, are in some places, busted.

Those who feel this the most are the ones we call “minorities.” Yet where I live, clearly I am the minority.

Watching the show, I was reminded of my experiences as a young lawyer, like when 23 years ago, as a part time public defender, I was assigned a “simple” case-young man charged with possession of drugs with the intention of delivering to others- but for this young Latino, the circumstances of his arrest still shock me. He was a passenger in a car pulled over by police on a state highway in NW Lancaster County. Pulled over for driving BELOW the speed limit. Driving a little slow at dusk. Nothing else.

The officer testified that the reason he pulled the car over was there had been a bunch of robberies in the area. This slow driving car full of people looked suspicious because- they were Mexicans and “only white people live here. You can’t be too careful.” No traffic citations. They were all ordered out of the car, and since they might be dangerous, he did a pat down of all of them spread-eagled on the car. He found one marijuana joint- in my guy’s pocket. But since we have a war on drugs, he was charged with a higher offense. It took three months to get through the system that got him out of jail.

Don’t drive too fast, or too slow.

Last year, in the aftermath of the killing of Trayvon Martin, a NY Times columnist who is African American lamented that he used to tell his sons not to run down the street because they might draw suspicion. But Trayvon was walking- “What do I tell my boys now?” Don’t run? Don’t walk?

African American women speak of feeling vulnerable and worried for the men in their lives. Angela Glover Blackwell noted, “I want to be in the world wishing them the best, but I know that if I stand for them, I am not safe.” Speak up? Be quiet?

It’s like so many slamming doors. And for people of non-Caucasian ethnicities and races, even just walking out the door is different.

Too often, our systems perceive them as dangerous, aggressive, people to be watched.

When we reach the point where too fast and too slow are both bad, too loud and too quiet might mean trouble, there is a loss of life. The sin of racism and bias have corrupted the very things we rely upon to provide life for all of us.

This past week a young African American high school student came looking for community service to work off 2 citations. The first was for fighting, and he owns that he made bad choices and wants to move in a different way. The second was for leaving school to attend his court hearing without the right paper. Stopped on the street, when perhaps another might not have been, while attending to what he needed to. And given a new citation for not having the paper. Having talked to him I know he wants to go to college and his favorite artist is Louie Armstrong. And I wonder whether doors will open for him, or slam shut.

So imagine after each set of statistics, another door slams.

Statistically, 1 in 17 white men face the likelihood of imprisonment. For blacks 1 in 3 and Latinos 1-6.

The “War on Drugs” has sentenced many- 2/3 are persons of color according to the Sentencing Project.

While heroin is a drug with white victims and a problem to be solved, crack is a drug violation by blacks and Latinos.  

While 17% of the population are African American youth, 31% of arrested youth are African American and a slightly lower but growing number are Latino.

As troubling as statistics are among males, among women the statistics are just as skewed.

In 2010, of the 500,000 placed young women, 67% were African American or Latina. And often girls are placed for offenses of lower levels than boys, so called Status offenses, such as loitering, curfew violation, disorderly conduct. Young women have fewer rehabilitative resources and are more likely to be re-arrested for running away or truancy, things for whom adults would not even be charged, and with no one asking why they run.

In our education system, 32-40% of suspensions and expulsions, 27% of all law enforcement referrals and 31% of all school based arrests, involve black students. And so, the very education promised to kids evades them. Out of school suspensions under Zero Tolerance policies shunt kids off the path to well-being and into for-pay corporate run Alternative Schools. And later into corporate run prisons- mass incarceration is big money in this country.

For those who needing residential placement for behavioral juvenile offenses, local kids are sent far away rather than treated close by. Not because of risk, but insurance. Place a youth 5 hours from family and the ability of the family to help with any plan, or successfully reintegrate suffers dramatically.

The goal of protecting children has pushed many away, out of schools, and support systems into what is now commonly known as the “School to Prison pipeline.” This pattern fails to provide vocation or real support. With limited mental health assistance and a 50% decline in federal funding of juvenile facilities in the last 10 years, the doors just keep slamming.

But perhaps the most chilling statistic is that of the out of school suspension rate for preschoolers. Yes, preschoolers. Almost half of all out of school suspensions for pre-K and Kindergarten were black students. For infractions as small as wearing the wrong socks. Students of color are suspended or expelled at a rate 3 times higher than their peers.

The later in life costs are profound- 49% of all black men enter the job market with a record and 44% of Latinos. Yet 60% of youth detained are there for offenses not deemed a threat to society.

And while the rates of offending are higher for people of color, so are the rates of victimization. And yet, it often to fails to make the news- with people saying that crimes where they are victims are just “between them.” There is a shockingly disparate treatment of victims, where often it feels that the victim is on trial. Remember we don’t call it the George Zimmerman case, but the Trayvon case. Last year, two blocks from my house, a teenage boy had his throat slit as he was on the way to play basketball at the playground. His death barely made the newspaper, being overwhelmed by some big news about Taylor Swift who’s originally from the Reading area. A 14 year old bled out on the street and died, and it took days for any information about his family or situation to even surface. And initial comments ranged from whether it involved drugs, or the fact he was Latino must mean he was in a gang. A JROTC student with a good academic record on his way to teach kids basketball, murdered by a man who got away was hardly of note. In a place where some people used to call our afterschool program “Future Felons of America.” Victims are victimized.

And often notices of important stages in cases are communicated to victims of color at a substantially lower percentage-from hearing dates, and plea bargains to release dates. There are so many slamming doors- including ones people feel they need to hide behind. How desolate. And if you do get out from behind them- you find- Schools don’t want you, employers don’t either, and you just don’t fit. No wonder the rates for re-offending or self help is so high.

Years ago I was taught not to hammer people so hard with the law they are too tired to hear the gospel. But today maybe we should feel that tiredness others feel. The system is broken in profound places. And I wonder in the year just past the 50th Anniversary of that great “I Have A Dream” speech- if we have a dream as God’s people, where do we find it?

The gospel breaks in to open the doors that racism and bias slam.

Eugene Peterson’s translation of Romans in the Message Bible is masterful. “With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, those who enter into Christ’s “being here for us” no longer have to live under a continuous low lying dark cloud. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing us from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death. In Jesus, God personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity- in order to set it right once and for all.”

“The law code, weakened as it always was, by fractured human nature, could never have done that. The law has always ended up being used as a Band Aid on sin instead of the deep healing of it…And now what the law asked for but couldn’t deliver is accomplished- as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us.” Instead of redoubling our efforts. More prisons and more regulations are not the answer.

Simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in you.

In the face of slamming doors you here at Trinity, have already embraced the Spirit with your mission to Break Down Barriers and Build Community- your commitment to criminal justice system participants, the homeless, and to schools is already established and provides the gospel in the lives of so many. You already stand with our sisters and brothers in the African American community in scholarships, assistance at Crispus Attucks and Arbor Mix and honoring the legacy of Dr. King.  You provide positive outlets through Shop with a Cop, and the Bike repair ministry. Doors are being  opened-Thanks be to God!

But yet… I dare to come to open another door-for you to ponder with the Spirit. To begin to address the effects of zero tolerance and the school to prison pipeline before the doors are all slammed shut for students of color. It’s called Youth Court and is a part of an initiative of the Pennsylvania Bar Association and Project PEACE. Youth Court is a student run alternative to the juvenile justice and school disciplinary process. Students are trained by lawyers and professionals to perform all court functions (judge, bailiff, jurors, etc.).  Positive peer pressure helps offenders reflect on their behavior, recognize that actions have consequences, and accept responsibility, and to gain skills to cope with their environment.  Without these resources, and the openness to other ways of interacting, students fall behind, and schools and courts become trapped in a wilderness cycle. Across the state many places have begun and seen the promise fulfilled of another path.

Youth court participation improves life outcomes for these youth and helps educate the next generation of social justice leaders. Participants report its transformative impact in ways they will use the rest of their lives. One student profiled credits his encounter with youth court as being pivotal in changing direction and achieving a 3.9 average.

Offenders get to tell their story to their peers and view youth courts as more fair. They experience restorative justice, and instead of being suspended they stay in school, and are less likely to re-offend.[1]  They become engaged and empowered and many former offenders become leaders. They all gain knowledge and a positive attitude towards the legal system and themselves. They see the value of collaborating to restore community and in being vulnerable to the life and experience of each other.

What a wonderful alternative! For the sake of the gospel I encourage you to support efforts to engage this resource here in Lancaster. It’s not only an opportunity, but I believe it is a moral imperative of the gospel.


Just imagine those doors opening! And the cheering and rejoicing as what seemed like hopeless wilderness is reborn. And the best part is that it’s not just wilderness reborn for an offender- but for all of us. We are all in the wilderness in need of restoring our vision and living.  

Where we stop seeing labels and start seeing people, and continue to work as those with the Spirit of Christ we blow open the doors of the kingdom for all God’s children.

And we can cease laboring under systems that fail to bring life. We can stop reaching for Band Aids and start the deep healing process.

And you know, we might have to work harder to pull open some doors than others, but we actually get a great job as God’s people-being door openers.  We get to be God’s door openers- being those who work with and then who cheer on the ones whose wilderness and desolation can end when we work together in Christ.

We get to open the door to resurrection!

Eugene Peterson writes-“This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike question, ‘What’s next, Papa?’”

May you embrace that Spirit and keep being God’s door openers!


[1] (Urban Institute, 2002; Hamilton Fish, 2008)
Other resources include Pennsylvania Bar Association resources, Tufts University, La Raza, Bill Moyers, ALCU, NAACP. Links to Youth Court can be found through

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