I began my pastoral ministry, as a youth minister, at the Elim Central Church, Clapham Park, South London. As a new minister in the area, I began a mapping exercise by walking up and down the streets. It was then I came upon a foreboding edifice named Her Majesty’s Prison Brixton. I was greeted by a sense of surprise and dread as I heard in a loud thick West Indian accent an expletive shouted through the barred window of a black maria van whizzing pass.
Forty years later, I had the opportunity to address a congregation of 400 plus black men in a prison in the South of England during Black History Month. I was reminded of the anger in that man’s voice. This visible representation of the British Justice System and the inadequacies of the Black community (including the Black Church) brought tears to my eyes. The New York Times headline ‘‘The injustice of the Moment is not an Aberration‘ fit the bill.
The reality is that people of minority ethnicities made up 27% of the prison population compared with 14% in the general population. No matter how you look at these figures and related statistics there is something definitely wrong with the equation.
Having spent several years as a pastor in the Black Community in Battersea, Clapham, Croydon, and Tottenham I have come to fully realise the demoralising and stunting impact upon so many black men in prison on the Black Community. The loss of social capital, economic capital, and community cohesion is debilitating.
Jesus the Christ, that man of sorrows, that man of colour, pinned to a tree in Golgotha took time to tell John his disciple to care for his mother. Who is caring for the loved ones with missing fathers, husbands, boyfriends, uncles, and brothers?
As I address these issues with young Black females in counselling sessions they also speak of the lack of black male suitors and potential life partners. Yes, it is true, the church is predominately female but this visible observation requires greater analysis. There is a need for us to ask and answer the question, ‘Adam Where Art Thou?’ We have a responsibility to locate our men and move them from harm’s way and bring them into the Lord’s Way called Shalom. This is why I was so excited about the webinar sponsored by National Churches Leaders Forum held on November 6, 2021, and its theme – `Prison, Police, and The Black Community: Over-Represented – Under-Protected’
The economic impact of black men in the British Prison system is not only a loss of income, it is directly linked to the impoverishment of the Black Community. This is reflected in the weakness of Black purchasing power and our inability to build community wealth and community resilience. There is a knock on effect on the quality of food our Sunday School children eat, the numbers of persons at the church altar seeking healing, and the standard of the houses the church members read their bibles in.
As we affirm that ‘the family that prayers together stays together’, our male relatives come out of prison to find that their family life is eroded, their minds and spirits are shattered, and their employability almost non-existent. They then become despondent and disillusioned. Their connections with the general community is weakened so they return to the criminal fraternity which welcomes then with opened arms. They pass by the place whereas children they sang ‘tell me the stories of Jesus’ and the church doors are closed
According to recent reports, 44% of prisons in England and Wales were classified as crowded, prison violence is at an all-time high and mental illness affects minority ethnic prisoners more than the white majority group. So, I wrestle with the biblical text that tells me ‘the Spirit of the Lord is upon … to set the prisoner free’. It seems we spirit-filled people have to be more intentional about strengthening the resolve of the youth, de-populating the prisons, and empowering ex-offenders.
I bow my head in prayer and meditation for wisdom, guidance, and courage to come against these principalities and spiritual wickedness in exalted places that govern through unjust and dehumanising systems. The anger of that Black man forty years ago helps me to understand why so many are incensed with God, their community, and their churches. God help Us!
Rev. Ronald A. Nathan was the pastor of the Ransom AME Zion Church, Battersea, London from 2016-2020. He sits on the board of the National Church Leaders Forum.
Written by: Ronald A. Nathan