Guest commentary by David Davis
In the hours after the brutal murders at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church, the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal tried to suggest that institutional racism in America is a thing of the past. The argument was about how much better things are on race now than 50 years ago when it took decades to find justice for the little girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing. I guess we are supposed to feel better about nine people being shot and killed in a church simply because they were black and because law enforcement caught the perpetrator the next day. It’s one thing to argue that America on race is better than 50 years ago. It is quite another to celebrate the end of institutional racism.
While others write about and work to expose the institutional racism of the nation’s criminal justice system, I offer testimony to one community’s unforgettable and ongoing relationship with those who have unbelievable stories to tell about the sinful realities of the justice system and the prison industrial complex. Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey, is something of a spiritual home for Centurion Ministries (CM). Based in Princeton, CM has worked for than 35 years to free wrongly imprisoned people. Over the decades 54 individuals have been released from prison after serving a combined total of 1,109 years for crimes they did not commit. As one might be able to guess, racial ethnic folks make up the significant and disproportionate percentage of the exonerees.
The CM family gathers in Princeton for celebrations and fundraising on a regular basis. The weekend gatherings include Sunday morning worship at Nassau Presbyterian Church and the telling of story after story in adult education and in fellowship hour. It is there that our congregation has heard from Willie Green freed after 25 years in prison. We have listened to the testimony of steadfast love from Thelma Lloyd who described what it was like to have her son Richard Miles serve 19 years for a crime she knew he didn’t commit. Over the years members of the congregation have come to know Ed Baker from Philadelphia (26 years) and Michael Austin (26 years) and Joyce Ann Brown (9 years) who died suddenly this summer in Texas. I led the burial service for Lou Mickens-Thomas last year. He was buried with full honors at a military cemetery outside of Philadelphia after being wrongly convicted, having served more than 45 years before being freed in 2011. These are just a few of the names, faces and relationships that are now etched in the hearts of a congregation that will never think about the criminal justice system, race and bias the same again.
Jim McCloskey retired this May after serving as the founder and executive director of CM for 35 years. He was lauded at the retirement celebration as the “father of the innocence movement.” As a member at Nassau Presbyterian Church for most of those years, our faith community has carried him in prayer and supported his work financially. The congregation has been inspired and awed by Jim’s work for decades. But it is in the sharing of his relationships with exonerees and their families that the congregation has been most impacted.
54 people. 1109 years. None of them impacting our congregation more than David Bryant. David came to worship for the first time one Sunday with CM staff members. He had just been released from prison the previous Thursday. At an April 2013 hearing, a judge reversed David’s conviction and unexpectedly ruled that David was free to go. Free after 38 years in prison for a crime that science now proves he did not commit. Days later he sat in the sanctuary for worship with our community of faith. As I welcomed him, shared the news about his release and walked down the aisle to greet him, David stood to embrace me with a hug tighter than I have ever experienced. Sobbing in my arms, all David could do was offer thanks to God. His prayer was loud enough for everyone to hear. No one in worship at Nassau Presbyterian Church will forget that Sunday morning.
Thanks to our sister congregation, the Witherspoon St. Presbyterian Church, David was offered a place to stay in Princeton. He took a room in the historic Paul Robeson House in town. He was offered a job at Princeton Theological Seminary. David was arrested when he was 18; with the help of CM and two congregations, David began to cobble a life together after 38 years in prison. He began speaking to church groups, college classes and youth groups about his experience. He joined folks for dinner, came to worship, built some friendships, went to work every day. About a year later the worst news came.
An appeals court reinstated David’s conviction. David had to go back to prison. Fifteen months after that Sunday morning worship service, our congregation gathered again in the sanctuary on the Lord’s Day. We surrounded David in prayer, shed lots of tears and said goodbye. David now sits in prison as CM continues to work through the judicial system in hopes of obtaining a second prison release. David rejoins the list of active cases listed on the board at CM.
In two congregations and on campus, people remain committed to pray for David. Different student groups at seminary have taken turns leading a weekly prayer meeting. Folks of all ages have been corresponding with David by mail – youth group members, college students, church members you would never expect. The letters from David are always full of gratitude and hope and faith. Gratitude for the few months he had to establish strong relationships. Hope that in the face of such despair and a broken justice system marred by institutional racism. Faith in a God who David believes will always be within even now in the 39th year.
The conversations around Princeton about institutional racism, mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex start with a face and a name: David Bryant.
About a month after David went back to prison, I stood in the pulpit and read a letter to the congregation – a letter from prison. It was gripping letter of faith, hope and strength; and it didn’t come from the apostle Paul.
DAVID A. DAVIS is pastor of Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey.