Bishop John E. Stowe of the Diocese of Lexington, Ky., said the struggle for justice has to be an integral part of living out the faith.
Bishop Stowe delivered a keynote address on May 6, day one of a two-day virtual conference hosted by the Kentucky Criminal Justice Forum.
“The struggle for justice has got to be integral to our living of the faith,” said Bishop Stowe. “And if we follow the example of Jesus and we take his teachings seriously, then we have to be concerned about those whose access to justice is limited or cut off altogether.”
The KCJF, led by Deacon Keith McKenzie of St. Augustine Church in Louisville, is a grassroots ministry working toward criminal justice reform at the state and local level. It organizes panel discussions that bring together state and local legislators, individuals who work in the criminal justice system, individuals who’ve been incarcerated and family members of incarcerated people. Together they discuss issues such as re-entering society, diversion programs and sentencing reform.
Among those who gathered virtually May 6 was Julius Johnson, a man who shared that he was first arrested more than two decades ago when he was 18 years old. He was addicted to drugs, joined a gang and lived “in and out of incarceration,” he said. While serving one of his prison sentences, he decided he wanted to change so he could be present for his children, he said.
He now serves the needy and individuals caught in the justice system through his work with Lexington Rescue Mission.
Speaking directly to Johnson, Bishop Stowe thanked him for his “wonderful testimony.”
“I was a little sad to hear you describe yourself as a felon because that’s not how God would describe you and that’s not how we want to see you described after this session today,” said Bishop Stowe. “We would describe you as a success story and I think you gave yourself the most important title as a father and as a son of God.”
Johnson’s young daughter accompanied him during the virtual conference.
Bishop Stowe said Johnson’s story of reform is “everything we hope for.”
The bishop called his listeners’ attention to the story of the Blessed Virgin Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. In her greeting to Elizabeth, Mary said, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior for he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness. … His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him. … He has shown might with his arm. … He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.”
In this greeting, Mary is anticipating the Gospel message of her son, Jesus, who said, “ ‘The last will be first and the first will be last,’ ” said Bishop Stowe.
Those in the criminal justice system are often thought of as the “very last and the very least,” he said. “Too often out of sight means out of mind. Too often they are treated as a problem for society that has to be hidden and covered up and even worse, sometimes the source of profit for those who would make money from their misfortune, their struggles and even their illnesses.”
Bishop Stowe told his 50 or so listeners that Mary can see clearly what God is up to when he “turns things upside down” and when he “turns things inside out.” He said he is grateful for the voices of those across the Commonwealth who are working for that kind of transformation, “where the lowly has a place at the table, where the lowly and those who are excluded from society have a voice and where their needs are met and where they are treated with the full human dignity that is theirs as sons and daughters of God.”
Bishop Stowe shared with his listeners that further in the Gospel of Luke, in the fourth chapter, Jesus proclaims he has come to, among other things, set prisoners free.
“Let’s focus on that one about letting prisoners go free because it recognizes that our liberty, our freedom is an essential part of our dignity as children of God and when that is taken away … although we don’t lose our human dignity, it is denigrated,” said Bishop Stowe.
He added, if society has a legitimate reason to incarcerate an individual, then “it must be temporary and it must be aimed at the reconciliation and restoration of that person and it should be to build that person up and to transform them to be a full member of this community and society once again.”
To learn more about Kentucky Criminal Justice Forum, visit https://www.kentuckycjf.org/.