"Somebody just asked me if I wanted to bail black women out of jail," I relayed to a friend in disbelief. For starters, I didn’t know this kind of thing happened -- concerted efforts to bail people out of jail, and black women in particular. The invitation came from Southerners On New Ground (SONG) an organization working hard to dismantle the cash bail system. While they tackle policy, SONG is getting people out of cages now through their bailout campaigns.
The invitation to participate in the bailouts also came as a surprise because SONG defines itself as “a regional Queer Liberation organization made up of people of color, immigrants, undocumented people, people with disabilities, working class and rural and small town, LGBTQ people in the South.” At the time, I served a traditional black Baptist church, and therefore represented a structure that often marginalized the very people that SONG centers. Inviting me seemed a little risky on their part. I later discovered that clergy were particularly helpful because of the special access we’re given to the jail and that SONG preferred to use other black women to conduct these visits, so there I was.
My exchanges with the women in the Durham (NC) County Detention Facility brought me face to face with the inequities of the system. The majority of the women I visited had a diagnosed mental illness. They needed treatment and community support, not jail. And had they been able to scrape up a couple hundred dollars (in most cases), they would not have had to sit in jail awaiting trial for charges that were often dismissed. While it was rewarding to bring news of their release, it was painful to grapple with the reasons they were there to begin with.
Nevertheless, people were getting out of cages, and that was cause for celebration! SONG throws a Homecoming Party after each bailout effort so the women returning to the community and the volunteers can celebrate freedom together. It was at the party that I received a second surprising invitation: “Would you mind giving the invocation?”
“Sure,” I replied, awaiting further instructions. I was expecting parameters to avoid being offensive or an appeal for pluralism, but there was only this simple invitation.
It left me unusually disoriented. I had concluded that the invitation to conduct jail visits was completely utilitarian. But now they were asking a Christian minister to pray...at a party. I pray all the time, but this time, I didn’t even know where to begin. After a few minutes of internal deliberation, I approached one of the organizers in an attempt to get an idea of what they were trying to accomplish with this invocation. She said, “We just want to bring in the Spirit!”
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because she has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. She has sent me to proclaim release to the captives …, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18 NRSV).
I offered a brief invocation, but when I consider the words of Jesus, I know that the Spirit was already there! Liberation is the Spirit’s work, and I was grateful to be invited to share in it.
Chalice Overy is the Associate Pastor at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC. She enjoys preaching, physical activity and doing theology from the margins on her blog, Prostitutes & Tax Collectors.