Seed Grant Promotes Growth in Social Justice Efforts in Virginia
By David Atwood and Sudie McGahuey
By God’s grace, the church’s 2021 grant has provided a focus and power for the Social Justice Ministry of Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill, Alexandria, Virginia. We have been able to better engage parishioners and to reach out to other local and state faith communities and organizations to learn about and promote improved prison conditions and reentry for citizens returning from incarceration. Our efforts have centered on four practices: learn, pray, advocate and support.
Learning for many of us started with a Sacred Ground circle, where we reflected on our nation’s complicated racial history. Advocacy came as we engaged with the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, an outreach partner that educates and lobbies for a variety of social justice issues with the state’s General Assembly. They provided a focus for actions, as did our relationship with Alleyne AME Zion, a neighboring African American church with a long history of criminal justice advocacy. Meetings with officials, including the local sheriff, prosecutor, public defender, and two groups that help former prisoners transition to stable lives deepened our knowledge.
We brought this learning back to the parish with prayers during church services for justice and mercy for those in our criminal justice system, both the incarcerated and law enforcement, complemented by the rector’s letter to the parish on why Jesus calls us to care for those behind bars. Two Sunday forum hours with formerly incarcerated people or prison reformers gave parishioners a firsthand view on prison conditions such as solitary confinement. They also awakened us to the challenges of reentry and keeping in contact with families. View the first forum here and the second forum here.
We showed two movies: “Just Mercy” after a book group study and “13th,” a film that explores the intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States, followed by a stimulating discussion led by the pastor of Alleyne AME Zion. It drew in people from other Alexandria faith communities and ended with barbecue and fellowship. Subsequent conversations with our new partners led to a joint voter registration drive with four other congregations.
Learning and prayer led to advocacy and support. Sharing the committee’s learning with the vestry led to their establishing overall principles to guide our advocacy as well as resolutions to support prison reform, particularly on the limitation of prolonged solitary confinement in state jails and prisons, in line with the policy of The Episcopal Church. The parish’s outreach budget reflects this support, quadrupling planned 2023 support to benefit inmates and their families compared with 2019-2020.
The grant’s final expenditure was renting a bus to take a dozen parishioners and three members of Alleyne AME Zion to the state Capitol for a day of education and lobbying our state delegates and senators on prolonged solitary confinement, sponsored by the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. Participants came back energized by what they had learned about social justice issues and the challenges of moving legislation through the legislature.
We look forward to another year of more learning, prayer, advocacy, and support of social justice following the way of our Savior.
Sudie McGahuey is a retired teacher and longtime member of Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill and a member of the social justice committee.
David Atwood is a retired foreign aid worker. He serves as vestry steward for social justice at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill and has served as a jail chaplain volunteer.