Jul 14, 2014

A Human Face of God: A Profile of a "Circles of Support" Volunteer

The little things often make the biggest difference in peoples’ circumstances. Volunteers from the Interfaith Center of New York serve breakfast during parole hearings every Thursday. “Wow! You guys make a horrible situation better,” said one of several young people whom Rev. Lobie Redhawk has touched as a volunteer at the Harlem Community Justice Center. It’s amazing how much of a difference a friendly face and delicious breakfast can make to individuals returning from incarceration as they await their parole hearings. Little thing. Big difference.

While Rev. Redhawk is an associate minister at the Interfaith Temple, she does not confine her ministry to a single location. “That’s the whole point of my calling—to be available,” Rev. Redhawk informed me. She not only makes herself available every other Thursday to serve breakfast during parole hearings, but she also makes herself available to engage in cordial conversation to those whom she serves.

Reentry reform is a matter of securing human rights, according to Rev. Redhawk who feels that society has yet to embrace the “overarching reality” that human rights are the basis of society. In fact, human rights issues are what led her to interfaith ministry in the first place. “I’ve always been aware of social inequities and human rights abuses,” said Rev. Redhawk.  “Our spirituality is the linchpin of our humanity. When we recognize that humanity is our uniting religion, maybe then we’ll realize what human rights are all about.” 

Rev. Redhawk has witnessed human rights abuses of the justice system by watching the impersonal ways in which her neighbor, who was “arrested for the silliness that happened in the building,” was treated. By the time the of the young woman’s sentencing, she had already been in jail longer than her sentence, and the sentencing itself revealed a plethora of additional issues. Rev. Redhawk reports having watched a court
officer sexually harass her neighbor in plain view of the court. “At that point, it was clear that this was all orchestrated to keep her there,” said Redhawk, who eventually brought her neighbor home after hours of dealing with impatient and incompetent court and jail staff.

Having seen the ways in which prison abuses continue to traumatize her neighbor who is now back home, Rev. Lobie strives to do whatever she can to assist and encourage other justice involved individuals. In addition to service breakfast to returning citizens on Thursday mornings, she also serves as the primary United Nations representative for the Gray Panthers, a national non-government social justice advocacy group. 

“The chaplain’s responsibility is always to be the human face of God. An all-inclusive, loving person makes all the difference,” said Rev. Redhawk, who is setting a remarkable example of the power of faith in reentry reform. But what more could religious communities do to welcome formerly incarcerated citizens back into the community? Rev. Lobie Redhawk believes, “Houses of worship need to open their doors, open their hearts and share their resources. There’s always more work to be done.”

 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 forthcoming 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.