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The 225th General Assembly’s “Hands and Feet” program continues to address the injustice of cash bail

Even from a recording studio, the “Hands and Feet” program encouraged the 225th General Assembly to act on behalf of the poor and those targeted by unjust systems.

Louisville, Kentucky — “How do we get some energy in a General Assembly?” This is the question J. Herbert Nelson was asking in 2016 when he was first elected stated clerk.

In an Outlook interview, Nelson described the thinking behind “Hands and Feet.”

“We come in, we have these meetings, we fight with each other, people leave the church, and then we find ourselves arguing all the way back to the next assembly,” he said. “So we started things like ‘Hands and Feet’ where we get out of the arena. We spend some time in the city and educating people about the contextual realities of that city — what the people might be struggling with. The first opportunity to do that was in St. Louis. We learned some valuable lessons there.”

The first “Hands and Feet” campaign at the 223rd General Assembly in St. Louis (2018) focused on the cash bail system where people accused of crimes are detained unless they can post bail. This leaves people who cannot afford bail locked up until their trial. In St. Louis, Presbyterians collected over $40,000 to hand over to organizations working to pay the bail of those who could not afford it. Assembly participants “left the arena,” says Nelson, to march to the St. Louis detention center, partner with community members protesting the unjust bail system, and hand over the collected funds.

Shameka Parrish-Wright, director of The Bail Project, speaks to GA225 via video. Screenshot by Gregg Brekke.

With necessary COVID protocols in place, the 225th General Assembly’s “Hands and Feet” program stayed in the studio but called on Presbyterians to actively seek ways to address injustices in their communities. The pre-recorded program began with Shameka Parrish-Wright, director of The Bail Project in Louisville, sharing her story of being arrested as an 18-year-old single mother trying to defend herself in a violent altercation with her partner. She was incarcerated and bail was posted at $1,000 — $1,000 she did not have. Later, Parrish-Wright was instrumental in developing Bail Project sites in Louisville, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio.

“I wish had [The Bail Project] at 18,” she said. “I wish I had this resource and support. I could have went to college, had my daughter, fought my case and do everything I needed to do.”

Carrie Cole, operations manager for The Bail Project in Louisville, reported that since 2018 they have posted bail for over 3,800 people in Louisville.

“The hardest decision every day, on the ground in operations, is who are we going to spend that money on,” Cole said. “We get so many more referrals than we actually post bail for.”

Cole described the process The Bail Project goes through as “very intentional.” They look at the person’s prior court history, if they have struggled to get back to court, and if they are facing any crisis for which they can provide support.

“We go to the jails and interview them face-to-face, asking them about their housing plan, about their transportation plan back to court, to get a well-rounded view of what their current situation is and make a plan for a supportive release,” Cole continued.

The Bail Project also serves as a connector to other resources in Louisville. “We are very resource-rich in Louisville,” she said, “but often things can be very siloed … We want to be a connector so people can be as successful as they can on the outside.”

Parrish-Wright described “most” of their cases as successful. The Bail Project’s website states, “On average, our clients return to 90% of their court dates without having a financial obligation to us or the courts, laying waste to the myth that money is what makes people come back.” The few situations that are not successful, like two high-profile cases in Louisville, have led to controversy in the Kentucky General Assembly. Parrish-Wright referred people to The Bail Project’s website to read their data, learn more about the project and understand the full context of the cash bail system.

Members of Central Florida Presbytery Cheryl Carson, Erika Rembert Smith, Nancy Graham Ogne, Dawn Neff and Laura Viau speak about their experience with “Hands and Feet” in St. Louis. Screenshot by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

During the “Hands and Feet” video, members of Central Florida Presbytery reflected on their experience at the General Assembly in St. Louis and how they heard the call to “get outside and sweat.” This stoked a “fire in the belly” to continue the work against cash bail in their presbytery. Once home, the Presbyterian congregations of Central Florida agreed to raise funds for The Bail Project.

Nancy Graham Ogne, the organizing pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church in Lake Nona, described their “Steps for Change” fundraiser. Inspired by the phrase, “The journey of a 1,000 miles begins with a single step,” they started measuring steps on their fitness watches, trying to walk 1,000 miles together each week over the course of a month. They did this to raise awareness and funds.

“Our goal was to raise $1,000 for The Bail Project that year and we did, we surpassed it,” she said. At that point, they thought their project was done, but then The Bail Project came to Central Florida.

Dawn Neff, a ruling elder from Orlando Presbyterian Church, said, “Now we have Brenda Quiñonez from The Bail Project in our midst, and she is working to make this happen in Orange County … and they have hopes of going throughout the state of Florida.”

Erika Rembert Smith, pastor of Washington Shores Presbyterian Church, summed up what they had learned. “We shouldn’t give up,” she said. “God is working behind the scenes watering our seeds of faith.”

J. Herbert Nelson, the stated clerk; Jimmie Hawkins, director of the PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness in Washington D.C.; and Shannon Craigo-Snell, a professor of theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary have a conversation about cash bail. Screenshot by Gregg Brekke.

The remainder of the “Hands and Feet” presentation was a panel discussion between Nelson, the stated clerk; Jimmie Hawkins, director of the PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness in Washington D.C.; and Shannon Craigo-Snell, a professor of theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Craigo-Snell began with a theological framing, reminding viewers of Mary’s song to Elizabeth where we hear that Jesus is to proclaim liberation to the captives and then Jesus himself, reading from the scroll in the Temple, proclaimed liberation to the captives. Craigo-Snell also noted that our Reformed theology has always protested against the exploitation of marginalized people and sought to reform systems that harm poor persons.

“With the cash bail system, we are balancing the books of municipalities on the backs of poor people … we’re taking from those who have the least to pay for city governance,” said Craigo-Snell.

Hawkins spoke about the momentum that is growing across the country to end cash bail. “People are realizing the injustice of it,” Hawkins said. “I like how The Bail Project states it. They say, ‘freedom should be free,’ you shouldn’t have to pay to get out of jail.”

Hawkins recalled his experience at the 2018 march in St. Louis. He hung around afterward to witness the first person released from jail with the money the Presbyterians had collected — a young man who threw his arms around the people waiting for him in joy. Hawkins described the detention center in St. Louis, and the holding place they have next to it where people are moved who can’t afford bail and where they are put to work for the state.

“It’s a form of debtors prison,” Hawkins said.

The panelists discussed our nation’s history of “keeping people captive for profit” and the sin of slavery for which we must repent. Today’s for-profit prisons, mass incarceration, and the cash bail system were discussed as perpetuations of these sins.

Craigo-Snell called us to exercise hope. “Hope is a muscle, and we have to exercise it even when nothing about the circumstance would keep us optimistic … We witness to the fact that Jesus can do a new thing; that God can do a new thing; that the Holy Spirit is active among us. And we do that with our hands and our feet and our muscles.”