Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite Church USA are partnering in a new webinar series, Beyond incarceration: A hard look at dismantling the prison system and building healthy communities. In today’s episode, ~ing Podcast host, Ben Wideman, is joined by Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz, MCUSA Denominational Minister for Peace and Justice, and Daniela Lázaro-Manalo, Racial Equity Education and Advocacy Coordinator for MCC, to learn more about the ways this webinar series can help our faith communities to actively understand and work against these complex systems of confinement.
You can learn more about this series by visiting this website to hear recordings of past webinars, and sign up for future webinars.
Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz, Daniela Lázaro-Manalo, Ben Wideman
Ben Wideman 00:00
It’s season three of ~ing Podcast, a production of MennoMedia’s Leader Magazine. What does it mean to authentically follow Jesus?
Daniela Lázaro-Manalo 00:09
Proclaimed by uncovering the history of why prisons were developed, highlighting racial disparities, and calling up the way concepts of otherness have determined who’s in prison and who’s considered human.
Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz 00:20
And I think taking that hard look at it. It’s been so significant before we can start talking about what do healthy communities look like how to raise people of faith. Imagine that biblical vision for justice that I think we are called to.
Ben Wideman 00:34
Join us as we talk with people of faith who are creatively thinking, growing, and being… People who are reimagining and exploring what it means to enrich faith in a complex world. Our conversation begins now. Join us as we journey together. Hello again, friends. Welcome to ~ing Podcast. I’m really excited today to have two guests with me here on this episode. I’m here with Dani Lázaro-Manalo. She is the racial equity Education and Advocacy Coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee here in the United States. And with Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz who is the denominational minister for peace and justice with Mennonite Church USA. Thank you so much for being here with us friends.
Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz 01:20
Thanks for having us. Yeah,
Daniela Lázaro-Manalo 01:22
Ben Wideman 01:24
This conversation began because of a new webinar series called Beyond Incarceration. This webinar series has already started… two sessions into it. But when I learned about this, I thought, boy, this would make a really interesting kind of feature piece here for ~ing Podcast and reached out and got put in touch with the two of you. I’m wondering, besides your titles, could you introduce yourselves? For the folks who don’t know you? How do you describe yourself these days?
Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz 01:54
By way of introduction, I would say that I think it’s important for me to acknowledge, you know, where, where I’m physically located in Lancaster County. It’s on the land of the indigenous people of the Susquehanna and Lenape. And so I think that’s just important just to acknowledge that and, and acknowledge the violence in our history. As I talk about that, particularly as we talk about the topic we’re discussing today, as well. I would also say in terms of my work, I’m with Mennonite Church USA have only been in this position position since May. So some days, I still feel like, I’m really trying to figure out what it is that I’m doing. Most days I love it. So there’s that piece, I also this week became grandma for the fourth time. And so that’s a really significant part of life as well, right now enjoying that, the birth of the new granddaughter. So that’s just a little bit about me.
Ben Wideman 03:00
Daniela Lázaro-Manalo 03:01
I’m in Los Angeles, California. And let’s see, I’ve been with MCC since fall of 2021. So I was told when I started, it would be a couple of years before I would really get my footing. So in many ways, I still feel new. But I have been doing my position is externally focused on constituent education on anti racism and decolonial work. And then yeah, I mean, I live here in LA. I’m really connected to my community, which is predominantly Latinx. And live here with my toddler, my partner. And I have a baby on the way. So six months along. And so it’s been it’s been good times.
Ben Wideman 03:52
Good. We got some new life on our today. That’s exciting. Well, this is somewhat of a unique endeavor with a Mennonite Central Committee… a mission agency collaborating with the denomination, Mennonite Church USA. Can you tell me just a little bit about how this project took shape?
Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz 04:15
Well, I can just say that prior to coming to work for MC USA, I did work for Mennonite Central Committee for about 25 years. And so a lot of my work was also in peace and justice. And I did a lot of restorative justice work. And as part of that mass incarceration was actually probably an area of passion when I was doing my work with MCC. And I think coming to work at MC USA and having this also be part of my portfolio made it an easy decision to kind of reach out to my MCC colleagues who have a mass incarceration working group. And so just having conversations with them on a monthly basis to say, you know, what are some ways that we can collaborate to ensure that we’re making sure we’re providing that education to our constituents? So, yeah, it’s it’s been great to reconnect and work with them.
Yeah, and I mean, on our end, so we do have this mass incarceration network. And we had just the network consists of MCC staff across all of our regions in the US that work on some level on issues of mass incarceration via through partnerships, education. And, yeah, and other services. And so we had actually just finished doing almost like a year long visioning process for what this network was hoping to, to do moving forward. And it was just around that time that Lorraine had stepped into her new role. And we invited her to be in that space with us. And, you know, as we started talking, we said, well, this is we had the visioning process had actually been centered around these themes of proclaim, intervene and create. And then that’s in conversation, we were like, well, what is what does a webinar series look like? And how do we invite other organizations and partners and just experts in the field that we want to learn from ourselves or that we’ve been observing or that we’ve been working alongside? And, and creating that space in a way that’s more accessible I think, too, for the faith community. Because we do… We have done a lot of learning tours in the past, that they require a little bit more time more of a time commitment. And so yeah, coming up with it in this platform, has been really exciting. And to partner with Lorraine has been incredible. And even just within MCC department, across all of our regions, has been really meaningful.
Ben Wideman 06:47
I worked as a campus minister at Penn State here in State College and the director of the Cultural Center on campus used to say, “it’s really hard to convince students who come from privilege, who’ve never experienced injustice, to care about justice causes.” And my hunch is that with incarceration, you probably face some of that, too. If someone has never experienced how the incarceration system works, had a friend or family member go through that. I’m guessing a lot of the time, we often don’t even think about it. And in fact, here in Centre County, we’ve got a large state penitentiary, as well as our county jail really close to us. But it’s tucked away over a hill so that we don’t really ever have to think about it. And I’m curious, how did you get drawn into this very important work, given that kind of reality, that circumstance that we deal with that kind of being hidden away from primary focus?
Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz 07:43
I can go way back when I did my master’s degree in social work, one of the things that I decided to do, because I was also working for MCC at the time, was I did some restorative justice work in prison. And so honestly, could just, it was, I think, if you ever go into a jail or prison, it’s pretty obvious about who’s there. And if you talk to people about their experience, you see the harm and the violence that happens. And the loss of humanity that those who are incarcerated often feel because of how our prison system is actually set up. Yeah. Not to mention the injustice is of spur somehow they got there. And so I think, when I did my master’s, one of the things that I tried to think about was, how do we, how do we help people be more in touch with what does it look like for someone who is impacted by incarceration? And sometimes it’s hard, as you said, when that it’s over the hill and tucked away, or they haven’t experienced it with someone a loved one or friend, then how does it impact them? And so one of the things, I actually worked with Howard there to talk about how, how this impacts children. And so we know that 3 million, 3 million children on a daily basis have an incarcerated loved one. And so when you think about it from the Children’s perspective, so I did interviews with children on incarcerated mothers, and then Howard’s there did photographs for that. And so at MCC actually, we had an exhibit that was a traveling exhibit that talked about the impacts of incarceration, just on the children who have done nothing, but are suffering the trauma of what it means for them to have a loved one who is incarcerated. And in this case, this was talking about mothers for my master’s degree, we we broaden that For the exhibit, and then actually turn that into a book called What will happen to me that was published a number of years ago. So I think that was just one way you know, so I feel like that’s just something that’s been a passion because we continue to see the injustice. We know that the US incarcerate more people than any other country in the world. And so I feel like we have to be asking questions about how that happens. And I always feel like I put it in a plug for Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, because it talks about that history of incarceration, simply replacing slavery that, you know, we had to us. And so I feel like that’s there are places where we need to start providing the education and people just being alerted to in terms of what’s going on within our legal criminal justice system.
Daniela Lázaro-Manalo 10:37
I’m originally born in Trujillo, Peru, and I grew up in Los Angeles undocumented for many years. So in a lot of ways, the reality of detention centers was always kind of looming over my family’s head for a long time, until we were able to find a pathway to citizenship. And just being really aware of the way punitive structures were kind of set up in society, for myself, through the education system, seeing friends getting pushed out and just being put on track to in that school to prison pipeline. And so I think that I maybe didn’t have the right language, or the lens for it for a while, but I was aware of it. So then when I, when I went to college, and I started pursuing ethnic studies and doing some more learning, and just trying to situate myself in society and, and navigating to worlds and just through that diaspora, I grew really passionate about it very quickly, because it clicked for me, it clicked for me, for a lot of the realities that I experienced, and I saw a lot of loved ones experienced growing up. And so it just, it always made sense. And then, and then through my own, like spiritual and faith journey, and just being active within the community and how we support each other. A lot of times with our work in the church is where we’re just trying to survive, right? And so we’re just in the state of like, how do we survive? Or so so is or isn’t in a detention center or so and so has this on their record… And how do we obtain bail money… Or, you know, how do we do these things? And so just through a lot of that organizing and find finding ways to care for each other through that, I became a really passionate about it. And, and just quickly came to realize, like, this is what faith looks like in practice, right? Like this is this is the practical application of that work. So that was kind of my my journey to it.
Ben Wideman 12:46
What’s… Once you’re touched by it, once you’ve experienced it, and just some small way, I feel like it transforms you, in the same way that someone who’s experienced cancer in themselves or in a loved one, suddenly, this whole community opens up and you realize just the magnitude of of how many people are carrying this as well. I’m really intrigued as, as we got going here today, I said there are… this is a webinar series broken into different parts, we’ve already had two of them, and there are still two to come. But you’ve you’ve broken them up into these four parts. And you’ve given each one a word, the first one was titled, “Proclaim” the second, “Intervene,” and then the two that are still to come “Create” and “Practice.” And I’m curious if you could talk just a little bit about how you’ve set these up… how you’ve defined these four unique sessions.
In the webinars outlined to four… But initially, it was just three sort of themes of the Proclaim, Intervene, and Create. And when we, when we drafted, when we were vision boarding, we were like, “Let’s go nonlinear,” we’re not going to you know, try and, and do this in a, in a very traditional, a Western, you know, kind of a way. And so, it looks like this… If you were to look at it, it looks like this map with just like a lot of bubbles and, and things in there. And so we wound up outlining, proclaim, intervene and create. And while in the webinar series, they are kind of outlined in obviously in a series in a numerical order, and then we have practice, on the vision document, it’s actually in a circle, knowing that we arrive at this work through many different pathways, right? And sometimes it’s it’s we we arrive at this work and at the point of intervention or are we are learning about it and we’re in this proclaim stage or we’re been in it and sick of it and we’re like we’re in the Create stage. And so just knowing that folks engage in different ways, but the proclaim, conceptually being us proclaiming that there is harm in the criminal legal system right. And we do we proclaim by uncovering the history of white prisons were developed, highlighting its racial despairities, and calling out the ways concepts of “otherness” have determined who is imprisoned and who’s considered human. And also, as a part of that, proclaim that Anabaptist.. our Anabaptist theology calls for nonviolent and restorative ways of addressing that harm. And when we… so when we were dreaming up that first webinar series, it was very much a conversation of like, who, who have we seen doing this work in our communities that could, that could come and share with us and teach us how to lay that foundation and how that work happens. And that’s how our connection with North… North Park Seminary happened. And that was the invitation with our first speakers. That came, they came on board with us, and then was intervene. We did intervention as as a way of disrupting the criminal legal system by advocating either for reform or abolition based on the local context of our partners, but supporting individuals that are caught up in the system, and their family members as well. And so and then through that process, just centering a commitment to those who are harmed, and interrupting those cycles of violence that are plaguing the mass incarceration system. And so based on that, there was another conversation. And that’s where we invited Teiahsha Bankhead and Hassan who came and shared a lot about their work with their partner organizations. And this is more of a panel format. And it’s just, I mean, the learnings that we’ve had… And the discussions that have been had in those spaces have just been so meaningful and transformative. And just so real, I think, too, I think a lot of times, conceptually, the work in mass incarceration is either sometimes it’s idealized or, or I don’t know. But to have folks that have been in it and have been doing that work. And just speaking truth into, these are the barriers that we face. These are the realities and actually the challenges that we have. And then also seeing, seeing that hope. Hassan, during the last webinar said that “I’m a hope fiend,” you know, and it just stays with you. And he’s like, “I’m addicted to hope, and I keep pursuing it.” And so being able to hold both and and, and knowing what it looks like to step into this work, is powerful.
Ben Wideman 17:28
I think that’s a good segue into my next curiosity. And that’s how has it been going so far? It sounds exciting. Dani. What have you… what have you discovered? What have you gleaned from these first two webinars that have taken place?
Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz 17:43
I would say, apart from the need to have practice, runs so that we can deal with the technology issues. Actually. On our side, there’s there’s been so many, we’ve been so many involved that we just, yeah, just figuring all of that out. But it’s gone really well. And I think, you know, in terms of, you know, how it’s been so far as I feel like those that we’ve invited have just really helped us to take that hard look at. You know, the current legal criminal system is a racist, violent system. We know that. But and I think taking that hard look at it has been so significant before we can start talking about what do healthy communities look like? How do we as people of faith, imagine that biblical vision for justice that I think we are called to? And I think that’s what they provided with us. For us. I think that that hard look has been really helpful in just having that clear understanding. And then yes, to have Teiahsha and Hassan talk about the hope and the work that they’re doing, and how, how that looks for people who have been previously incarcerated and are and to work with returning citizens. I think that’s been a really, it has been helpful to hear and really a sign of hope for us as we’ve listened to them. And for those involved in the webinars.
Ben Wideman 19:15
Has there been any pushback, or, have people said, you know, this isn’t the space that we should be talking about this sorts of thing. The church should not be involved in incarceration, or have people generally been on board and understood that this is important to take on?
Daniela Lázaro-Manalo 19:30
I would say the response has been overwhelmingly positive. We do have one of the things that I love about these webinars series is we do allow, at the end, 30 minutes for question and answers, answers from the speakers. And so it’s really a space where participants get to come in with those questions and like, what about this or this is my back? No, we’ve had questions from folks that are saying I’ve typically worked with sex offenders and I don’t have a hard time seeing what that looks like. What does Lidice reconciliation and restorative justice look like in that space? And them asking those questions and and I think there’s an openness to have that conversation, right. And ultimately, the response being we’re talking about, were alternative ways to address the harms that are being that are happening in society, right, as a faith community, we have to be prophetic in the ways that we think about, is this really the best that we can do this? Is the best that we can come up with? Or… Or do we see the kingdom of God unfolding in new and different unexpected ways that that care for how they respond to harm? Which is why I’m really excited about the next webinar, which will be create, which really focuses on like, what are some of these… Where are these alternative systems happening? Right, and how are they… And how are they unfolding in our society? And how are people responding to different forms of interruption, that that look and think outside of what we know, and what we think has to be? But yes, I think having that space for the question and answer, we do send out evaluations afterwards, as well, because we are aware that there’s different triggers for people and people come with many different experiences. And and the hope is that, that the voice those things, because I think that enriches the conversation. I mean, those are those are really where we need to be talking about those difficult feelings and coming up with solutions together. Yeah,
Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz 21:36
I think one of the hopeful things for me and doing these webinars is that the idea was let’s do these webinars. And then we also have this learning tour component to it. When the webinars are complete that within each of MCC’s four regions, there will be a learning tour and in one case two. And I think… so I’ve been involved in these learning tours that happened previously, when I was with MCC. And I remember thinking, you know, I think when we started the learning tours, part of it was people came not having an understanding of what the legal system, what we meant, what the historical implications were, and how it was playing out, currently. And I think by providing these webinars, it provides people who want to do the learning toward this kind of background information that I think has been so incredible to hear from people on the ground, doing the work hearing from a theological perspective that they can hopefully listen to before engaging in an actual learning Tour, where they’re hearing and seeing what it’s like, either for someone returning to our communities, or even going into a prison or a jail, I think that’s where for me, the hope of that really puts some some feet to it, you know, they can see it, they can experience it in a very different way. So I think that both end has been really hopeful sign that. For those who’ve engaged they’ve engaged fully and been asking great questions.
Ben Wideman 23:04
Well, friends, if like me, you are sitting here wishing you had attended webinar one and two, don’t fret, there is a recording online, on MCC’s website where you can view the first and second Beyond Incarceration webinar, and you can mark your calendar for the third and the fourth one coming up on March 7, and March 21. Lorraine, Dani, thank you so much for taking the time to be here to share just a little glimpse into this very important work being done, to remind us again, to to care for those who are in need to care for those who are incarcerated and to be working at reimagining what a better alternative might be. Thank you so much for taking the time.
Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz 23:50
Daniela Lázaro-Manalo 23:51
Thank you so much, Ben
Ben Wideman 23:57
Next week on in podcast, we’ll be sitting down with Melanie Springer Mach. She’s the author of a brand new book called finding our way forward, when the children we love become adults.
When my kids first transition to adulthood, I hold on to that fear and I parented them through my fear for them and for what they were experiencing in the world. And then there I had something happened to me. And it was an epiphany of a kind where I recognized that I had to let go of my fears, and just love them.
Ben Wideman 24:34
As always we’d like to thank our guests and all who support ~ing Podcast. Thank you for joining us on the journey. If you enjoyed the show, please leave us a review in your favorite podcasting app. And if you have something to share, send us a message at [email protected] or by leaving us a voicemail. ~ing Podcast is hosted by Reverend Allison Maus and Reverend Dr. Dennis Edwards. And produced by me, Ben Wideman. Views and opinions expressed on ~ing Podcast are those of our hosts and guests and may not represent that of Leader Magazine or MennoMedia. ~ing Podcast is a production of MennoMedia, a nonprofit publisher that creates thoughtful Anabaptist resources to enrich faith in a complex world. To find out more, visit us online at MennoMedia.org.