Barry McNamara  |   Published March 22, 2016

D.C. trip

Students examined issue of mass incarceration on spring break trip
  • Posing with a statue of Christ outside The Church of the Saviour are, clockwise from bottom right, the Rev. Dr. Teri Ott, Angela Baumann, Cynthia Kamurigi, Diana Rubi, Katie Jenkins, Dorian Jones and Sophie Slocum.
The six Monmouth College students who accompanied the Rev. Dr. Teri Ott to Washington, D.C., during spring break came from a variety of majors, and have a diverse set of professional goals. But they could all agree on two things: they now have a much clearer understanding of the issue of mass incarceration in the United States, and they couldn’t have afforded the March 5-10 trip without the support of the College’s Lux Center for Church and Religious Leadership and generous donors.

“This was a fully-funded trip of the Lux Center,” said Ott, who serves as Monmouth’s chaplain. “Originally, I was only going to take five students because we flew, but so many great students applied for the trip I decided to take six.”

Accompanying Ott were juniors Angela Baumann of Dubuque, Iowa, and Dorian Jones of Chicago and sophomores Katie Jenkins of Mason City, Cynthia Kamurigi of South Africa, Diana Rubi of Peoria and Sophie Slocum of Marengo.

To prepare for the trip, Ott and the students read Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

“In addition to studying mass incarceration, the trip also allowed us to participate in the ministry of The Church of the Saviour that serves a population of ex-felons,” said Ott. “Our trip included conversations with ex-felons, observation of a jobs training program for ex-felons (called Jubilee Jobs), getting to know the creative ministry of The Church of the Saviour and appointments to discuss this issue with aides from the offices of Illinois legislators Dick Durbin and Cheri Bustos.”

“In the meeting with Sen. Durbin’s representative, he mentioned how the support and lobbying from faith based organizations has really been a key contribution in helping to confront the issue and this has encouraged me as a Christian woman to actually do something or get my church involved in doing something,” said Kamurigi.

Added Jones, “We were able to talk to representatives about a bill that’s in the process of being passed called ‘The Sentencing Reform Act.’ It calls for inmates to not get punished so harshly for minor offenses.”

Ott has a connection at The Church of the Saviour, and other connections led to a special tour of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church – located just a few blocks from the White House – arranged by college trustee John Courson ’64, and advocacy training on the issue of mass incarceration by the PCUSA Office of Public Witness, arranged by its director, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, who spoke at the College on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

“I was impressed with how an intentional church community works, and the sacrifices that people make for the common good,” said Slocum. “Also, to go and be politically active opens up a lot of opportunities to advocate. I want to work as an occupational therapist, working with children with special needs, and this showed me how to advocate, which will definitely help me later.”

“The importance of community arose again and again,” said Baumann. “It’s harder for those incarcerated to re-enter without a community.”

Ott said one of her favorite moments was at a meeting with a roomful of people needing jobs.

“They weren’t sure who they could trust,” said Ott. “But Terry Flood (executive director of Jubilee Jobs), spoke about them each having a ‘core of goodness,’ and that today is a new day. You could feel the air in the room change after she said that.”

Ott was also impressed by the scope of The Church of the Saviour, which had buildings scattered throughout an eight-block area of the city. Included in their setup were a coffeehouse, a homeless shelter, a housing project and a hospice, as well as the church itself.

“At Jubilee Jobs, we met a Nigerian man who had a college degree, but whose lower economic status led to criminal activity,” said Rubi, who added that the issue of mass incarceration has personally affected her in her community. ”It’s important to see that people who are incarcerated or who’ve been incarcerated still have knowledge. They’re human. They’re people. They have hearts, minds and passions.”

Rubi, who’s on a pre-law track at Monmouth, said the experience “opened up a lot of doors” for a topic she is even more passionate about – immigration reform.

The group also took a special tour of the Holocaust Museum, with Jenkins noting, “One voice speaking up could have made such a difference. We have that voice, and it’s inspiring to know we can make a difference. It made me want to ask, ‘What can I do?’”
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