On Tuesday March 15th, Transform Minnesota hosted a day-long conference entitled, “Compassion & Conviction” with Justin Giboney, an attorney, faith leader and the president of the AND Campaign. The conference was centered around ‘engaging in the work of justice, while simultaneously upholding the value of absolute truth,’ thus the name “Compassion and Conviction. Throughout the day there were expansive discussions on holistic approaches to the pro-life movement and restorative justice in the American correctional system. Our Executive Director Tierre Webster had the opportunity to join a facilitated panel discussion as well. Tierre was joined by Brooke Hempell of Barna Research and Heather Rice Minus of Prison Fellowship.

The conference was held at the beautiful River City Church in downtown Minneapolis and the day started off with a wonderful opening session led by Justin Giboney who spoke on the necessity of holding the Gospel above political partisanship and holding both truth and love in a balanced tension. Giboney drew from the framework of the And Campaign to remind us of engaging complex issues not from political orthodoxy but rather from our shared biblical ethos. He warned of the danger of separating truth from love and vice-versa while speaking prophetically into the dangers of subsuming Christianity to progressivism or conservatism. Instead of being captivated by the myth of political progress or the culture wars, we must divest ourselves from “opposition centered politics” and choose imagination over cynicism. Instead of being subject to the false binary between truth and love, Giboney recalled the biblical mandate to be mature peacemakers in all circumstances in the public square. Furthermore, he urged the Church to be adherents to not just the moral order of the bible, but the call to justice and standards of societal responsibility. Giboney graciously highlighted the values of preserving God’s absolute truth and moral order, while also exhorting us to remain attentive to the call of Scripture to be agents of justice, obedience and self-denial, to challenge injustice as Amos and the prophets did.

Building off of these ideas, Giboney explored the contrast between the Gospel and the secular. Here the emphasis was not individual sovereignty, but God’s sovereignty. And while in our culture and nation, human dignity is scarce, it is Christ who provides us with the most absolute model for social, spiritual and personal renewal. For it is God who liberates the oppressed and calls them to self-denial so that they do not become an oppressor themselves. Giboney offered a profound statement on this matter, saying that;

emancipation from the will of God always involves a service to some form of bondage. Modernity has created a clone of the gospel, which is a fancy, empty shell.

Ultimately, Justin Giboney encouraged the Church to be a people serving the tenets of God and not man. The ideas and political systems of humanity, are in the final assessment, as flawed and broken as their progenitors and all too often becomes idols, which distract us from God’s moral vision for life and the Kingdom ethics of justice, mercy and restoration. These twin truths should embolden us to preserve God’s truth while also engaging in the pressing issues of our time.  As the prophet Isaiah wrote, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”

After Justin Giboney opened the day up with his incredible monologue, plenary speaker Cherilyn Holloway (Founder of the organization “Pro-Black, Pro-Life“) provided a thoughtful examination of what it means to be holistically pro-life as an African-American woman. The was followed by an excellent panel discussion which included Cherilyn, Justin and Amanda Salmon of New Life Family Services (another subsidiary of Transform MN). Cherilyn Holloway drew much needed attention to racial disparities in abortion and the importance of contemplating racial justice and abortion through a whole life approach (“Womb to Tomb”). She challenged white evangelicals to be wary of appropriating African-American Christians for the confirmation of their own approaches and to acknowledge that the black community has had a long and rich pro-life tradition that simply looks different than the larger, predominantly white and conservative pro-life movement.

One of the more striking elements of this conversation was the data on abortion and racial disparities:

  • 60% of abortion clinics have been placed in neighborhoods of color.
  • 70% of women who have abortions are living are below the poverty line.

If Christians are serious about the pro-life ethic, we need to grasp the socio-economic and historical aspects that created the problem in the first place.

During the second half of the day, our Executive Director Tierre Webster joined a facilitated panel that delved further into the important facets of incarceration reform, corrections and reentry. Carl Nelson, president of Transform MN, engaged the panel with a myriad of questions concerning prison reform, racial disparities in incarceration and preventative strategies for at-risk individuals.

Tierre had the space to share about the tri-fold service model of Damascus Way Reentry Center (Employment Pathways, Housing Opportunities and Community Connections) and the essential value and role of each piece in facilitating the successful reentry of an individual back into their community. Tierre brought attention to the research which validates that even one healthy personal relationship or community connection between an incarcerated individual and and someone else dramatically reduces the likelihood of recidivism.

Tierre addressed some of the problem-areas for men who enter a program like Damascus Way:

  • Culture shock when exiting prison (technology changes fast and many men have been in prison for years. The ability to navigate smart phones, apps, the internet and other amenities that are often necessary for life outside of prison is stymied for those who have not been equipped with these essentials skills).
  • Maintaining the sense of optimism they often exit prison with, which can quickly become deflated when they began to face challenging barriers to person and spiritual success.
  • Difficulty acquiring employment (felonies and criminal backgrounds are often a deterrent to many employers)
  • Housing difficulties (once again it is challenging for individuals to obtain apartments or loans for property purchases).
  • Transactional interactions with staff and others when exiting prison.
  • Absence of familial or other healthy community relationships.

Tierre also had an opportunity to speak into an issue he is particularly passionate about, which is fatherhood. He brought up the profound absence that incarceration creates for a father’s children and trauma that this creates which in turn substantially increases familial cycles of incarceration. 92% of imprisoned individuals are fathers and close to 3 million children have a father who is in prison. This is roughly 1 in 28 children. Tierre concluded by advocating for pursuing pathways that assist imprisoned fathers in maintaining family relationships between children and parents during a father’s incarceration.

Pastors, Church leaders and believers from around Minnesota participated in this conference and we were extremely grateful that Damascus Way was invited to take part in the important conversations around justice, engaging with our faith in the public square and necessity of balancing compassion with conviction. We’d like to thank Transform Minnesota for inviting Tierre to speak on one of the panels and for the other guests for all the wisdom they shared with us and the higher standards they entreated us to abide by.