Aug 14, 2014

A Journey of Love: Circles of Support Volunteer Profiles

Service is not limited to one demographic or approach. Just ask Sha Ron Mason, a chaplain at Word Enlightenment Church of Jesus Christ, who has served nearly every aspect of the community. Chaplain Mason has worked with children for over fifteen years as the former Director of Recreation through City Parks and Recreation, and she currently supports formerly incarcerated individuals through the Faith and Family Circles of Support initiative. In addition to volunteering at the Harlem Community Justice Center, she also serves through her church’s Give Away Program and Problem Solving Committee—an offshoot of Word Enlightenment’s youth program.
Chaplain Mason has also taken unconventional routes to community advocacy and activism. “I used to perform at the Manhattan Center. I would sing and act in political plays,” she reflects with a reminiscent grin. “I’ve done a lot of things in my life…and it’s still not over.” Chaplain Mason’s past involvement in social and political theater gives only a little insight into her journey to supporting formerly incarcerated individuals. Having grown up in the Jim Crow South, she has witnessed firsthand the oftentimes racially biased abuses of the justice system.  Wherever there is an abuse of power, Chaplain Mason is sure to be in the public eye advocating for change, whether here in Harlem or across the boroughs of New York City.
Chaplain Mason also recognizes the importance of taking proactive approaches to justice system reform. This is why she takes time out of her schedule to serve breakfast to individuals on parole every Thursday. “So many of these young men come in here with their heads hanging down,” she tells me as she imitates this introversive demeanor. “If you can just bring a smile on someone’s face, that is a huge help.” Chaplain Mason has a way with getting these individuals to smile. Her secret? Building trust. “I like to get to know their stories on a one-on-one level,” she says, flashing a smile as she hands a cup of coffee to a young man. It is this personal interaction and genuine spirit that fosters trust between her and the formerly incarcerated individuals she passionately supports.
Chaplain Mason not only exemplifies the importance of involving faith communities in reentry service, but she also represents the importance of supporting families of justice-involved individuals. “Families need counseling as well. Many of them have been hurt and sometimes taken advantage of and harassed,” she explains. “One of the most painful things is going to the police to get a court order of protection to keep your child from harassing you,” Sha Ron recounts of her personal experience. “I didn’t even recognize my son. It hurt so bad to see him like that.”
But Chaplain Mason did not let this low point keep her down. Her response highlights the value of faith to individuals affected by incarceration.  “My faith [was] the only thing that got me through that, because God was the only one I could turn to,” she reflects. Though Chaplain Mason has actively supported returning citizens, she urges more faith communities to get involved by “journeying with them wherever they are.” Meeting people where they are is another crucial factor in establishing trust. “If you can get them to open up on one of their issues, you can get them to open up on most of their issues,” she insists. As her journey of service continues, Chaplain Mason reveals the heart of her secret to establishing trust—love.  “That’s what love is about,” she reveals, “when you can journey with someone.”

With a grant from the J.C Flowers Foundation, the Harlem Community Justice Center, the Interfaith Center of New York and the Network in the Prisons/ Network in the Community Programs (Network Program) have created a partnership with the goal of engaging family members and faith community volunteers to support men and women returning to Harlem from prison. The initiative is called The Family and Faith Reentry Circles of Support Program.
The series of profiles of volunteers, staff, and participants, of the Reentry Family and Faith Circles of Support program, are written by Monique Claiborne. Monique--an Opelousas, Louisiana native-- is a Politics major at Princeton University. Currently an intern at the Harlem Community Justice Center, Monique plans to continue working for systemic justice reform as an attorney in the near future.