Washington, D.C.

Approximately 200 Presbyterians gathered recently at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church on a bright, sunny day in the nation’s capital to worship, listen and learn from one another at the 5th annual Compassion, Peace and Justice Training Day. The event featured numerous workshops as well as witness testimony from a diverse group of leaders, advocates and participants. It preceded the 2015 national Ecumenical Advocacy Days, also held in Washington.

Sara Lisherness, director of CPJ ministry, shared her thoughts on the challenges ahead for the church in the area of advocacy. “In this season of resurrection, life is possible,” says Lisherness. “We are the largest prison system in the world and have more people incarcerated here than any other country. Mass incarceration is one of the most critical issues facing this nation and the world, and I feel a growing energy across the church to address this issue. Our presence matters in our efforts to inspire, connect and equip people in this important work.”  

Three keynote speakers spoke to their unique experiences:

The Rev. Alonzo Johnson, a mission associate in the Presbyterian Mission Agency Peacemaking Program, delivered a rousing sermon about the mental and physical “lockdown” that the fear of violence puts us in. Johnson, who has experience in prison ministry, urged the church not to become paralyzed by fear like the disciples. “Resurrection shows us that Christ cannot be locked down because of His sacrifice, and we can’t either," he said. "Jesus entered the locked doors of fear forgiving sins. Let go of fear.”

Gail Tyree, director of Community Partnership with Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region, spoke about the role and relevancy of the church in the work of mass incarceration. Tyree called the church to engage the issue. “Right now we need voices in the church to stand up and begin to reinvigorate the fight against mass incarceration," she said. "We have to be engaged, creative and inclusive, and use technology and social media to organize and educate our young people to advocate for this issue.” Tyree is a founding member and serves on the board of the Presbyterian Health, Education and Welfare Association Criminal Justice Network.

Eric LeCompte, executive director of Jubilee USA Network, an alliance of faith communities and partners that focus on debt relief and fair trade policies on behalf of the world’s poorest countries, stated that debt is the reason we have inequality in the world. “One out of five people in the world live in poverty, and less than 100 people have more wealth than 3.5 billion people," he said. "As Christians we have a word for that: sin.” On a positive note, LeCompte announced that the World Bank was committing to a $650 million grant and loan package for Ebola-stricken African countries Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.

Participants spent the rest of the day in breakout, small-group workshop sessions for witness and education. Among the topics considered were justice for human trafficking victims, grassroots responses to the mass incarceration crisis, practical examples of church engagement in active prison ministry, reforming drug policy, water privatization and clean water access, the sanctuary movement and resources for addressing racism.

Maggie Wood, a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) from San Antonio, Texas, felt the day-long event was definitely worth her time. “I learned about different things involving advocacy within the Presbyterian Church," she said. "And being a staunch Presbyterian I wanted to grow my mind and my network as far as advocacy. I’d encourage people to attend and see the human kindness in a faith community that can really affect positive change in the world.”

The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church’s rich history of advocating for social justice issues offered a fitting location for this year’s theme: Breaking the Chains: Mass Incarceration and Systems of Exploitation. The Rev. Alice Rose Tewell, associate pastor, kicked off the morning with a brief overview and history about the church. An urban church whose roots trace back to 1803, it welcomed President Abraham Lincoln and his family on the first Sunday following his inauguration in March 1861, as well as President Eisenhower in 1954. The Rev. Martin Luther King graced its pulpit during the Civil Rights struggles and preached against the escalation of the Vietnam War.

The Presbyterian Washington Office of Public Witness hosts the Compassion, Peace and Justice Training Day every year in partnership with other Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries. If you’re interested in attending next year’s event, save the date for April 15, 2016, email the ministry at ga_washington_office@pcusa.org or sign up to receive updates and alerts from the Office of Public Witness when information becomes available.