By Jessica Brodie and Dr. Anthony Hodge
FLORENCE—They’ve seen the statistics, seen the toll it’s taken on families—young men with so much promise making poor choices and then winding up behind bars. Now, one United Methodist church is doing its part to fight back.
On Aug. 16-17, Cumberland United Methodist Church, in collaboration with community partners, hosted Anti-Incarceration Weekend, two days filled with honest discussion about real consequences when people choose the wrong path.
Event organizer Dr. Anthony Hodge, pastor of Cumberland, said he envisioned the community coming together to get to know each other and rallying around younger males by forging collaborative and ongoing nurturing relationships.
Johnny Davis, who was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole prior to his sentenced being commuted by President Barack Obama, served as keynote speaker for Friday’s gathering. Davis served 15 ½ years in prison before his release, and he has seen firsthand the devastating cost of what happens when young men get locked up. Now he wants to do all he can to help prevent young people from getting caught up in the criminal justice system.
“I am an advocate for anti-incarceration because I consider it to be a calling for me at this stage in my life,” Davis said. “Personally, I’ve encountered young people who have turned their lives around.”
The weekend not only fostered relationships among attendees but also lifted up ways the community can help prevent incarceration among its young men, such as helping them finish high school so they can make positive, intelligent choices.
Florence District Superintendent the Rev. Terry Fleming said this conversation is vital.
“In our increasingly polarized national culture, it is imperative that we have honest conversations about our willingness to ‘throw away’ a significant portion of our population,” Fleming said. “When we allow a child to drop out of high school, we knowingly increase the chance that that child will become incarcerated.”
As Davis shared Friday, once he was locked up and face-to-face with his future, he couldn’t blame anyone else for his poor choices. Instead of placing blame on others, he said, he came to a “point of reckoning” and decided he would choose to live the rest of his life making better choices and trying to help as many persons as God would allow him to.
“Incarceration hurts our families,” Davis ended his presentation on Friday by stating. “When our children get locked up, we get locked up as well. We must fight to protect them. We must help them make better decisions in life.”
On Saturday, a panel discussion featured a number of men to further talk about incarceration and its effect on the community, as well as what the community can do to help keep its young men from being locked up. Participants included Davis along with Kaynnera Capers, attorney Lindward C. Edwards II, Brian Pigatt II and Lester Young Jr. The Rev. Norman Gamble served as moderator. In addition to a discussion, a lengthy question-answer session was held.
Acknowledging the benefit of having several entities come together, Hodge said it is important for faith communities to participate in this issue and encouraged ongoing dialogue and action regarding anti-incarceration.
Hodge said the dialogue continues, and the church and other event collaborators are working to help align young males with community partners who can help them make strong choices for their well-being and future.