Commentary: Walking with Pope Francis
By Rev. Maidstone Mulenga
I am taking a walk with Pope Francis on Social Justice.
What would you do if you found out if Jesus did not have a place to lay his head? What would you do if you discover Jesus sleeping on a bench on the streets? Those are some of the questions Pope Francis will hope to address when he walks the streets of Washington DC.
In highlighting the social justice issues, Pope Francis has challenged Christians through the world and – Washington, D.C., in particular – to walk with him to bring Christ’s love, mercy and hope to others, especially those on the margins of society.
A few weeks ago I stood with Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. to highlight the need for Christians, whether Catholic or United Methodist, to take up tangible ways to help others. I made a pledge of our commitment to Walk with Pope Francis in our ministry to care for people affected by the criminal justice system and crime.
As most Methodists known, prison ministry was a key part of John Wesley and the early Methodists as they believed that God’s face was imprinted on each human being whether they were in prison or not. Wesley visited people in prison and provided spiritual guidance, food, and clothing to them. For example in 1759, Wesley visited a prison near Bristol that housed French prisoners of the Seven Years War. Wesley was so moved by the need to improve the appalling prison conditions that he began to raise funds to buy linen and wool cloth to make into clothes for the prisoners. Wesley also convinced the city authorities to send mattresses and blankets for the prisoners. Wesley believed that Christians could not have authentic personal holiness without social holiness.
Today the United Methodist Church trains and prepares congregations to create Healing Communities that welcome formerly incarcerated people and families of the incarcerated to our churches. We run treatment facilities for people suffering from addiction because incarceration cannot cure it. United Methodist clergy preach in prisons, counsel those seeking redemption and restoration and help men, women and children in their transition to a new life after incarceration. In the Baltimore-Washington Conference, the Conference Criminal Justice and Mercy Ministry Team has trained more than 60 people in 2015. Our efforts center around Isaiah 58:12, “You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”
And our commitment to walk with Pope Francis should include advocacy. It is time to stand together as the faith community to call for a change in harsh mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses. We need to help secure federal funding for programs to help people leaving incarceration. We stand united in urging Congress, the White House and state legislatures to bring an end to mass incarceration that has led to fracturing of families and permanently disabling of those with criminal records.
As Methodists we call for restorative rather than retributive justice. Indeed as the Book of Resolution reminds us: “Restorative justice practices should be utilized within the community as a first response to any criminal behavior. Justice can only prevail when there is healing of the victim, repentance of the offender, and forgiveness and reconciliation are shared throughout the community.” (p. 645)
It is especially enlightening that Pope Francis will visit a prison in Philadelphia to see firsthand the experiences of people impacted by our criminal justice. We indeed need to feel ashamed that there are more young black men heading to prison than heading to school.
Therefore as Pope Francis arrives in the US, we join our voices in reminding our brothers and sisters lost in the criminal justice system that they are not forgotten by the church. They are loved and valued children of God and we are committed to Walking with Pope Francis to spread the message of our shared beliefs.
Just as Pope Francis will sit down on a bench that features a sculpture of Jesus as a homeless person sleeping on a bench, we ought to be reminded that we must take care of those less fortunate than ours. Our call is indeed to remember that if we take care of one of the least of these brothers and sisters of Jesus, we are doing it for Jesus.
Yes Catholics and Methodists may not agree on some issues but we all agree that when we see any of God’s children in prison or sick or hungry, we must come together and take care of them. That is why I am taking this walk with Pope Francis. During a private meeting, Bishop Marcus Matthews will present Pope Francis with his personalized copy of the 2012 Book of Discipline (thanks to the United Methodist Publishing House). The bookmark will be on our Social Principles, which remind us Methodists that we are called—not by church law—but by our God to prayerfully and thoughtfully speak to human issues and put our faith in practice in a diverse and ever changing contemporary world from a sound biblical and theological foundation.
Rev. Maidstone Mulenga serves as Assistant to the Bishop in the Baltimore-Washington Conference. In addition, as director of Connectional Ministries, Rev. Mulenga is the steward of the vision of the Baltimore-Washington Conference and provides leadership to 34 distinct ministry and mission teams, each of which serves in different ways to be the voice, hands and heart of God in the region and beyond. In addition, he oversees the resourcing of the conference’s 640 churches, four campus ministries, and three camping and retreat facilities.