The People Deserve Better: An Open Letter to the Pastors who met with Trump about Prison Reform

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(The following letter is addressed to Bishop Dale Bronner, Pastor Kelvin Cobaris, Pastor Wilfredo De Jesus, Pastor Philip Goudeaux, Pastor Jon Gray, Pastor Michael Freeman,Bishop Darrell Hines, Pastor Harry Jackson, Pastor Julian Lowe, Pastor Van Moody, Pastor Sharon Nesbitt, Pastor Jon Ponder, Pastor Benny Perez, Pastor Darrell Scott, Pastor Kyle Searcy, Pastor Paula White and Pastor Marvin Winans)

Dear Pastors,

I write you this letter in response to your recent gathering at the White House with President Donald J. Trump.  As a fellow pastor and faith leader I’m compelled to share my concerns about your gathering with the Trump administration because I truly believe we’re at a critical moral moment in history.  The three moral evils of racism, militarism and poverty seem to have found allies in some of our nation’s highest offices and for this cause we need ministry rooted in courage, love, truth and justice more than ever.  It is also for this cause that I publicly express my concerns about your gathering with the intention of hopefully inciting greater dialogue about how churches might have a more effective public witness in these crucial and trying times.        

It has been reported that your gathering with the President was purposed to “address the administration’s prison reform efforts.”  On the surface this seems like a noble and worthwhile endeavor.  And I’m quite sure most of you agreed to attend with the thinking that this would be an opportunity to be a positive link between the communities that you serve and the current presidential administration.  However, in the aftermath of your meeting I hope you are coming to realize how misguided it was for you to use your pastoral influence in this way.

To be clear, my issue is not so much that you attended the meeting.  The notion that not talking to elected officials that we disagree with is somehow punishment for them is not wise.  So my issue is not about you having a seat at the table.  Rather my concern is the faint and feeble policy agenda and moral posture you displayed while at the table.       

We are currently in the midst of a moral crisis in our country and such a time beckons serious moral thought leaders to rise up and speak truth to power and be just examples of courage and conscience.  Unfortunately this was not what I read in the transcript of your gathering with the President. 

Instead of being the truth-telling social prophets that your communities needed, you allowed yourselves to be turned into mere political props in Trump’s hall of power.  Instead of being distinguished by your moral demands and theological convictions, you allowed yourself to be demeaned by your uncritical deference to presidential power.  Though I'm certain this was not your intention, this was nonetheless the result. 

From where I sit there are two primary issues that really disturbed me about your gathering. Firstly, I take issue with the premise of the meeting being about prison reform.  I’m sure this was the carrot that drew most of you to the table.  Certainly, criminal justice reform (which includes prison reforms measures) is an important social issue of our time.  And it’s commendable that the Trump administration is pursuing the proposed legislation around providing jobs for formally incarcerated persons.  However, given the actions of Trump’s justice department, I must surmise that sadly the administration’s prison reform efforts are self-defeating at best and disingenuous at worst. 

The fact is Trump’s justice department under the leadership of Jeff Sessions has done more to promote prisons than it has done to reform them.   For example consider the following actions taken by the Justice department under the Trump administration:    

-Ordered federal prosecutors to charge aggressively as possible in every case they pursue   

-Ramped up support for marijuana prosecutions in states where sale and use are legal

-Pulled back support of investigations of police abuse and misconduct

-Resumed use of private prison contracting

-Stopped commutations of low level drug offensives  

-Opposed recidivism –reduction programs intended to lower the return rate of incarceration 

-Ramping up federal support for arrest and detainment of undocumented immigrants

Any honest assessment of these draconian actions can only conclude that this administration has a pro-prison agenda and all this talk of prison reform is simply political window dressing.    

Given these facts I'm trying to understand how you were able to sit at that table and heap praise upon Trump for prison reform when his justice department is doing the most to keep prisons vibrant and populated with black and brown people?  Were you aware of these actions before you attended the meeting?  Or was this an unfortunate case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing? I sincerely want to know and understand.  

The other issue I take issue with is the use of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s words as justification for your being at the table.  I believe it was Jon Gray in his opening prayer that said, “Dr. King said we cannot influence a table that we are not seated at.” 

As I’ve said many times, King is often quoted but rarely studied. 

The truth is Rev. Martin Luther King visited the White House numerous times over the course of three presidencies to discuss issues of concern.  But it is worth noting that Martin King Jr. was not in the business of abiding presidential invitations that didn’t include candid and meaningful policy discussion.

I would advise you to look at MLK’s 1957 meeting at the White House with the Eisenhower administration.  In advance of the meeting King and fellow ministers developed a nine point agenda to advocate during their White House visit.  The purpose of the agenda was to convey to President Eisenhower’s administration their dissatisfaction with the violent conditions that blacks endured in the south and to share the disappointment that Blacks felt because of Eisenhower’s failure to more aggressively support civil rights.  If this weren’t enough they held a press conference after the meeting to share their proposed agenda and announced a campaign to register African American voters in an effort to put pressure on the Eisenhower administration. 

If only someone from among your gathering would have had this type of moral courage and strategic imagination.  Your people would have been so much better served by you being there. 

I recognize that some of you will find the thoughts contained in this letter offensive and quickly dismiss them as not worthy of your time.  That’s fine.  But my hope is that you will be moved to engage in an important conversation about what constitutes an effective Christian public witness on prison reform and the criminal justice policies of the Trump administration.  I’m here for it and I know there are many others who would benefit from it as well. 

So I’ll end this open letter with an invitation for each you to write back or make a statement.  Or if nothing else, consider in your time of personal reflection how your people might have been better served had you chosen to be a voice of truth and justice and not a tool of political expediency.    

Peace & Power,

Billy Michael Honor