$47,000 … and change

By Bob Hulteen

Indulge me a proud dad moment, if you will. My older daughter Korla Masters (who is getting ready to do her seminary internship in St. Paul this fall) related a story from last week, as we drove up to the Twin Cities from St. Louis this weekend.

Last week, the Presbyterian Church (USA), gathered for its biennial General Assembly in St. Louis. As the ELCA does at its triennial Churchwide Assembly, voting members review budgets, vote on resolutions, elect leaders, and worship. Increasingly, PC(USA) assemblies have also begun to feature some sort of public action related to the community in which they were meeting.

Well, knowing for four years that they were meeting in St. Louis, the leadership of the PC(USA) were aware they needed to acknowledge the local leadership of communities that had responded to the killing of Michael Brown and the events that followed in Ferguson. As often is true, national leaders have ideas about what it needed for a particular community.

The youth delegation at the PC(USA) General Assembly lead a march from the convention hall to the St. Louis jail to set free the captives of a cash bail system that they say preys on vulnerable people.

But, in this instance, the local Presbyterian leadership said, “No. That’s not how it can work here. Action needs to be led by local people and be for the benefit of the local community, because we don’t get to leave after a week.”

And Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, Stated Clerk of the PC(USA), and other significant Presbyterian leaders responded affirmatively. And so the issue was selected: Cash bail.

“The Spirit moved powerfully in the streets on my adopted home on Tuesday.”

Many people in jail in St. Louis are there only because they cannot afford to pay the “cash bail.” Remember, these are folks who have not yet been found guilty of any crime and should be, in theory, presumed innocent until proven otherwise.

But, because they are poor, they are incarcerated. Thus, the cycle of devolution begins. People who are already vulnerable to the whims of the economy and the state are further criminalized, a result that benefits no one (except, perhaps, the private prison industry – but that’s a blog for another day). [And, by the way, Hennepin and Ramsey courts both also use a cash bail system, though possibly not to the extent of some other communities.]

 

EVENTUALLY, LOCAL LEADERS in the St. Louis #cashbail movement were invited in. They determined a march from the convention center to the jail would be supportive of the movement’s ongoing efforts. The PC(USA) leadership determined that the offering from opening worship would go toward bailing out people from jail. These are people who might have had expired license plate tabs, but didn’t have sufficient funds to bail themselves out (or decided that the few dollars they did have should go for food for their kids).

But, there was no way of knowing how many folks would participate. Even the morning of the march, the most hopeful organizers (including Korla) thought there might be as many as 200 people marching in the streets.

Imagine the power of seeing more than 1,000 Presbyterians flowing out of the convention center headed to the jail with $47,000 to set free the captives. They marched with “Isaiah vision.” After a disciplined demonstration at the jail, they marched back to the convention center, knowing they could not leave anyone behind (especially activists vulnerable to being “selected” for arrest by police for planning such a powerful event).

Presbyterians marchers stand outside St. Louis jail. Photos: Korla Masters

“Imagine the power of seeing more than 1,000 Presbyterians flowing out of the convention center headed to the jail with $47,000 to set free the captives.”

“I am excited by the way that these Presbyterians put their bodies in the streets and proclaimed the gospel,” Korla reflected as we drove. “Congregations and presbyteries sent money with their commissioners; individual commissioners dug deep into their pockets and gave; folks donated online. And, in the end, we get to read Luke 4 and not just talk about it, but be about it. I am still overwhelmed by how it all came together. The Spirit moved powerfully in the streets on my adopted home on Tuesday.”

One can almost fell the dungeon shaking and the chains falling off.

Next year the ELCA meets in assembly in Milwaukee. Might we enter into that setting, humbly seeking leadership from our congregations there, to meet the real needs of the most vulnerable people in Milwaukee, not just as an act of charity, but as an act of justice? Might we confront the principalities and powers and shine light into chaotic places in a way that change systems and structures for the good of all (except maybe the private prison industry – but that’s for later)?

“This is personal for me, because I have been awaiting trial for almost two years [for being arrested while walking back to the car following a public action in response to the death of Philando Castile], but I was let go without bail,” Korla offered. “In the last two years, I’ve finished my MDiv and my Lutheran Year, prepared for internship, dug deep into my neighborhood and congregation, and gone about my everyday life in the world. If I’d been held on bail I couldn’t afford, I would have missed all of that.

“Cash bail steals not just money, it steals life from people.”

UPDATE: After the initial worship collection, the donation app remained open for a short time and $7,000 were raised.