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Lessons in Civil Disobedience

After arrests for trying to disrupt executions by the state, two divinity students turned to a new model for prison ministry.

“You ought to have to go to jail as part of seminary education,” was the first thing that crossed the mind of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove on the fall day in 2005 when he was released on bond after 24 hours in jail.

Wilson-HartgroveHis crime was officially termed civil disobedience, but Wilson-Hartgrove D’06 prefers to describe what he was doing at the time of his arrest: “I was taking direct action to block the doors of the (state) prison so the required witnesses couldn’t enter.” Without those witnesses, the state could not carry out the scheduled executions.

He and a fellow protester were handcuffed and transported to jail, where bond was set at $5,000 each. That was more than Sarah Jobe D’06 and other activists could raise, so she and fellow residents of Rutba House, an intentional Christian community near Duke’s East Campus, left their friends in jail until the following day.

Months earlier, Jobe had been among those arrested at a previous protest, but that night she and the others had been luckly. They were charged and released on their own recognizance.

These experiences raised unnerving questions for the Duke Divinity School students about theological education, specifically about whether it was preparing them to be the church in the world.

“I realized that in sharing a cell for a mere 24 hours I got a heck of an education about the criminal justice system’s impact on people’s lives,” says Wilson-Hartgrove, who breaks into a smile as he recalls the response of a cellmate.

“When I told the guy why I was in jail, he laughed and turned around to the whole cell block and said real loud, ‘Hey, you m-----------s, this guy is here trying to stop those m-----------s from killing one of us m------------s!’”

A guard had handed Wilson-Hartgrove a rolled up bed mat and told him to find a place on the floor. The cellblock beds were all taken, and he and his companion brought to 40 the number of men on the floor.

“When the guards called out ‘Count!’ we had to put our mats on the floor like in kindergarten so heads could be counted,” he explains. But this was not kindergarten. Wilson-Hartgrove describes it as “a little window into a big social problem.”

As the men began to talk with Wilson-Hartgrove, he realized that his cellmates had known each other for years. One put it bluntly: “We’ve all known each other all our lives, man, same ZIP code and everything. I mean, the train that stops at death row starts right here in the county jail.”

Wilson-Hartgrove walked out of jail the next day with a head full of questions, among them, “What is going on that the criminalization of this population has so increased in such a short period of time?” and,  “As followers of Christ, shouldn’t we and others think seriously about the social conditions affecting the lives of our incarcerated brothers and sisters?”

His night in the county jail reminded him, says Wilson-Hartgrove, that “Jesus promised to meet us in the prisons, so that is one of the places we ought to be reading and reflecting on Scripture together.” He wanted to go back to that cellblock, and to take others with him. His determination became the seed for Project TURN, a partnership between Chaplaincy Services of the North Carolina Department of Corrections and the students and faculty of Duke Divinity School.

Together he and Jobe, who currently serves as director of the program, approached faculty members at the Divinity School to ask for advice, including Bishop (Ret.) Kenneth Carder, who teachers the course, “Restorative Justice, Prison Ministry, and the Church.” 

Jobe believed Project TURN could provide an opportunity for people to expand, and even readjust, their notions of prison ministry. A prison classroom could become a learning environment where every participant’s humanity—prisoners, Duke students, and faculty—was filtered through the light of Christ, reassuring them that all are made in God’s image.

“I hope people from outside [the prison] will allow themselves to see and expect mutuality in this ministry,” says Jobe. “It is not about going in and giving to incarcerated people, but about being invited into their space to experience what they have to teach and offer us. We have a common humanity that can be reaffirmed through such concrete experiences as reading Scripture and literature together, and discussing issues of faith and life across the table from one another.”

JobeShe and Wilson-Hartgrove spent a year developing their vision, and an