Last Spring, I was invited by Dr. Jenny McBride at McCormick Theological Seminary (MTS) to co-teach with her an “Intro to Theological Reflection” pilot course at Cook County Department of Corrections. We met with 10 students for 10 weeks at Division 10, engaging liberation thinkers and writers like Jurgen Moltmann, James Cone, Andrew Sung Park, Rowan Williams and of course Jenny’s scholarship in “Radical Discipleship, A Liturgical Politics of the Gospel”. At the end of the course, the students reflected on the 10-weeks, offering statements like “not only has my view of Jesus changed, but my worldview has radically changed.” We also quickly recognized that the course material we were offering was building upon and integrating with other courses students were or had taken from universities like Northwestern and DePaul while incarcerated. Collectively, the students asked us if we would continue to offer more courses on liberation theology. We, of course, said yes.
This fall, we offered the pilot course a second time. This time we altered the syllabus to include folks with the experience of incarceration to lead two classes. Benny Lee, founder of the National Alliance for the Empowerment of the Formerly Incarcerated – NAEFI taught a course on Martin Luther King’s Principles of Nonviolence. Yohance Lacour owner of Yohance Joseph Lacour, an eponymous line producing handmade sneakers, handbags and accessories and Aaron Smith owner of Escaping the Odds led the students in a discussion on their experience of incarceration and their commitment to faith, community, and social impact entrepreneurship. Every student referenced the profound impact that Benny Lee, Yohance and Aaron Smith had on them in general and in particular in shaping their final presentations. We are eternally grateful for their partnership, presence, and contribution to the course.
Last night,12-male students residing at Division 11 of Cook County Department of Corrections gave their final presentations on how they each planned to practice and cultivate their ongoing liberation based on James Cone’s four dimensions of liberation from “God of the Oppressed”. They were asked to integrate the course material with their unique particularity, social identities, and social locations to create their action plan.
While sharing a meal in a classroom at Cook County Jail, we (me, Jenny, and President David Crawford) had the privilege of listening to 12 men proclaim their plans and commitments to live into their identity as children of God, their plans to live in solidarity with marginalized communities, seeking liberation from various oppressions, their vision to start programs or businesses that cultivate beloved community and social transformation, and their vision of hope in the struggle towards the fulfillment of liberation. To recognize the students’ commitment and hard work, we concluded the class with a short convocation, distributing certificates of course completion and a copy of Jenny’s book Radical Discipleship. Plainly, we had an analogous graduation ceremony in a jail classroom with MTS President Crawford.
For the past year, I’ve had the privilege, as a system impacted mixed-black women in a graduate degree program, of participating in the co-creating of a theological community of learners at Cook County Jail with 22 incarcerated budding, curious, questioning, wrestling, and no doubt brilliant theologians and Dr. Jenny McBride.
While we rejoice in the humanity and flourishing of our students who reside at Cook County Jail, we lament that they are locked in cells in the first place. While we rejoice in the opportunity to teach liberation theology within the jail, we lament that we are teaching liberation theology in a jail classroom in the first place.
With our joys and laments, we lift up the voices, stories, and humanity of the students that we get to see and know at Cook County Department of Corrections. With our joys and laments, we anticipate, their release from incarceration. With our joys and laments, we press onward in anticipation of the second winter course on “Being Made in the Image of God” co-taught by Rev. Dr. Barbara Wilson, D.Min and myself.
With joy and lament, I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to work collaboratively as the MTS Project Director for Theological Studies at CCDOC with the leadership of President David Crawford, Jenny McBride, Nannette Banks, and many others both at McCormick Theological Seminary and within the community.
Onward we press on as co-laborers in concretizing the liberation message of the Good News:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4:18-19