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National Council of Churches Toolkit

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The “Starter Kit for Teaching and Learning on Mass Incarceration” (Starter Kit) is designed to be an educational resource toolbox for teaching and learning. The objective is to place in conversation facts about incarceration in the United States and values and teachings of Christian communities for teaching and learning. The Christian life involves making visible God’s continuing action in the world. Materials and exercises in this resource aim to nurture and encourage reflection and action on mass incarceration and the Church’s mission to become salt, light, and leaven in the world.

The Starter Kit is organized in two parts. Part 1 presents a background paper on mass incarceration prepared for the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC). The purpose of the document was to assist the NCC in its discernment of priorities for the organization. It is offered to teachers and learners to share with them some of the rationale for the NCC Governing Board’s choice of mass incarceration as one of the NCC’s foci.

Accompanying the rationale are facts about mass incarceration in the United States today. We are thankful to Nicole D. Porter and The Sentencing Project of Washington, D.C who provided facts and substantiating evidence regarding the operations and implications of prisons and prisoners in the U.S. Presented across five articles, learners are introduced to trends, decisive factors, informed and misguided practices that become the prescription for mass incarceration. Together, these two units provide a platform of insights for a moral response and common witness.

Part 2 of the “Starter Kit for Teaching and Learning on Mass Incarceration” is a range of resources for educating across ministry settings, including worship, study groups, in seminaries and other forums of higher education, and beyond the walls, but not the boundaries, of the Church.

Rev. Marilyn B. Kendrix of the United Church of Christ provides a series of outlines for bringing the concern of mass incarceration before God in the context of worshiping communities. Prayer and praise form as well as inform worshipers into a particular and peculiar community, a people of God. From Advent to Ordinary Times, leaders and learners have opportunity to use materials in the Starter Kit to inform the communal, spiritual practice of worship. Resources for special occasions, the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Black History Month are also included for bringing the daily concerns of life – concerns for justice and equality, redemption and hope – into the worship of God. Rev. Kendrix is also a contributor to the book, The Justice Imperative: How Hyper-Incarceration Has Hijacked the American Dream by Brian E. Moran (2014); website:

Rev. Eric M. Cain of Alliance of Baptists packs a lot of information and ideas for teaching and learning in small-group contexts into a very small space—two pages. Organized around a three- pronged teaching-learning approach of “read, see, and do,” the tools are an excellent set of resources to engage learners visually and viscerally in small-group settings. We are appreciative of the work Public Broadcasting Services and Religion and Ethics Newsweekly have done as we draw on seven videos they produced to connect learners to various issues of mass incarceration. Again, both reflections on reading the texts and watching the videos are offered in hopes of motivating learners to become participants in God’s mission in society today.

Three documents are presented for use in seminaries or other contexts of higher education. Rev. Dr. Cristian De La Rosa presents a syllabus for a course entitled “Contextual Interfaith Advocacy Work on Mass Incarceration.” De La Rosa, on the faculty of Boston University School of Theology, developed the course as a travel seminar. The curriculum is shaped around students’ attendance and participation at the NCC’s Christian Unity Gathering. They learn from and interview religious and public leaders and community organizers about their interfaith advocacy work on mass incarceration. Learners attend plenary sessions and working groups to both learn from and participate with church educators in discovery and exploration, understanding, and analysis of alternative ministry initiatives geared toward altering the present trends and practices that maintain mass incarceration in the U.S.

Rev. Dr. Joseph V. Crockett, Associate General Secretary of NCC for Education CT, presents a reflection for teachers on “Framing: An Educational Strategy.” Crockett lists several assumptions embedded in the work of framing as an educational strategy. He asserts that the importance of framing, how an experience is typified or a situation is defined, cannot be understated or overemphasized. Biblical references and questions are also provided in hopes that the framing of mass incarceration in terms of “difference” may provide a pathway for learners to connect with and engage in reflection and action on the injustices and inequities related to Blacks’ and Latinos’ disproportionate imprisonment in the U.S.

Dr. Michael Reid Trice of Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry and graduate student Corey Passons have developed and share a bibliographic resource on incarceration in the United States. While not an exhaustive list, it is more than a sufficient start to initiate deeper reading and exploration of mass incarceration in the U.S. An important dimension of this work is its capture and presentation of ecclesial work and resources on the topic of mass incarceration. While Christian adherents may differ in naming the causes and consequences of mass incarceration, the sheer breadth of representatives—from the Orthodox Church in America to the National Association of Evangelicals—demonstrates that attention of the NCC on the topic is warranted. The bibliography is not offered so learners become satisfied because they have read about mass incarceration, but to inform, encourage, and equip a critical consciousness for individual and collective moral and ethical action.

Two programs of teaching and learning about mass incarceration take the religious learning beyond church settings into society. Rev. Janet L. Wolf and the CDF Freedom Schools® program is an evidence-based educational work developed and implemented by the Children’s Defense Fund, based in Washington, D.C. Through a five-component teaching-learning curriculum, the CDF Freedom Schools® program documents the making of a difference in the lives of learners both in terms of prevention, as a factor in the deterrence to imprisonment, and as an intervention, through their work with people who are part of the prison population. We are thankful to the Children’s Defense Fund for permission to share their work with teachers and learners and with members and friends of the NCC faith communities.

The final unit of our “Starter Kit for Teaching and Learning on Mass Incarceration” provides a rare occasion for inmates to engage faith community members as learners. As documented by Columbia University independent researchers, The New York Theological Seminary’s Masters of Professional Studies Program at Sing Sing Correctional Facility is an educational model of transformative education. Here, we who enjoy various degrees of freedom outside of prison walls are called to consider and to more fully embody the freedom Jesus Christ makes possible: We are challenged to employ our freedom in Christ for the work of reconciliation with the “other.” A clear outcome of this educational exchange is that inmates become teachers and those who live beyond the bars and chains of correctional facilities become learners. The experience reminds the Church that any and every humanly devised and manufactured division the Church accepts results in the Church’s failure to be the Church of Jesus Christ. Stated differently, as the Church seeks unity in Christ, divisions imposed by systems of justice and injustice are scandalous if and when they permit Christian adherents to separate God’s creation into isolated camps of “us” and “them.” As students translate their lived experience into content for the Church’s curriculum on mass incarceration, they challenge members of the religious educational enterprise to reread the classic writings of John Dewey’s Experience and Education and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Together the CDF Freedom Schools® program and the New York Theological Seminary’s ministry at Sing Sing prompt teachers, learners, and educational leaders to learn the values and teach the beliefs of faith communities far beyond sanctuaries and church classrooms.

Materials presented in the “Starter Kit for Teaching and Learning on Mass Incarceration” can be used like a carpenter makes use of a toolbox. Depending on the information and skill levels of teachers and learners, the intent and context for teaching and learning, information and ideas from one part or section of the resource can easily be combined with resources from another part of the Starter Kit for building tailor-made curricular experiences. For example, information from The Sentencing Project fact sheets can be incorporated in a presentation, lecture, or sermon in a rather straightforward manner. Perhaps, in the design of a short-course on the topic of mass incarceration as either part of the classroom experience or as homework (preparation) learners might be assigned to view a video segment and note their reflections for discussion. Maybe the video on Freedom Schools, from Eric Cain’s section on “read, see, and do” for small-group settings can be paired with discussion of Freedom Schools in the section on teaching and learning “Beyond Church Walls.” Or, learners might use questions asked in one of the videos to investigate the topic in their community and to use the findings for planning either a special worship experience or service project. The possibilities are numerous.

The contributors to this resource hope that a “Starter Kit for Teaching and Learning on Mass Incarceration,” equips, encourages, and inspires you to reflection and action related to mass incarceration and the ministries of religious education, as together we join in the mission of God.