Reflections by Rev. Paul Beedle, Janaé McCoy (Transitioning Age Youth Coordinator at CASA New Orleans), and Jodie Manale
It seems like a lifetime ago that the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly was held in New Orleans, so much has happened since then. Yet it was only four years ago that we began a journey of learning, organizing, public witness and direct service, to move our criminal justice system toward restorative justice, rather than merely continue on its established methods of punitive vengeance.
At that General Assembly, defense attorney Bryan Stevenson, author of the book Just Mercy, gave the Ware Lecture, the keynote speech of the annual Assembly. That same night, James Curran and Tim Byrne, members of the UUA’s Information Technology staff, were robbed and beaten on Bienville Street. James suffered a broken nose. Tim suffered brain injury and was hospitalized here.
The next morning, at the beginning of the GA Sunday Worship, UUA President the Rev. Susan Frederick- Gray, told us what had happened. “Throughout the General Assembly,” she said, “we reflected on the narratives and wider systems of oppression that perpetuate both systemic and personal violence. This week, those reflections became personal and proximate.” She recalled Bryan Stevenson’s remarks the night before that “simply punishing the broken – walking away from them or hiding them from sight – only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.” Susan invited us to hold the attackers “with the universal love” we also hold for our injured friends.
Members of all three New Orleans congregations answered her call. Over the next eleven months, some 30 of us – 5 ministers and 25 laypeople – showed up at court for each stage of the trial process for the four young black men who attacked James and Tim: 21-year-old DeJuan Paul, 18-year-olds Nicholas Pogozelski and Joshua Simmons, and 20-year-old Rashaad Piper. At bond hearings, competency hearings, and other court appearances, we made ourselves respectfully visible and communicated nondisruptively to the prosecuting and defending attorneys who we were and why we were there, giving them copies of Susan Frederick-Gray’s pastoral message about the attack.
At the same time, we stayed in touch with those in Boston who were helping James and Tim, standing by to help them pursue a restorative approach if they decided they wanted to pursue that. Though they did not want to come back to New Orleans to testify, they did decide that they wanted us to advocate on their behalf for a restorative justice approach for themselves their attackers. And they sent letters to the court to put that on record.
We also got acquainted with Troi Bechet, founder of the Center for Restorative Approaches here in New Orleans, and together we met with then-District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro – a group of about a dozen of us, with Troi and also DeJuan’s mother – to advocate for a restorative instead of punitive approach to the case. But punitive approaches are so ingrained in our justice system that what Cannizzaro heard us asking for was more lenient sentences for them. Indeed, even the UU World, reporting on our work in August of 2018, misrepresented us as seeking lenient sentences. That’s not what restorative justice is about.
Restorative justice aims not to lock up offenders for a shorter period of time, but to rehabilitate them through reconciliation with their victims and the community at large. It emphasizes accountability, making amends, and transforming lives by repairing the harm caused by crime, where possible through face to face meetings called “healing circles.” Instead of separating, isolating, and then dumping offenders out of prison, restorative justice allows those most impacted by conflict or wrongdoing to come to understand what happened from each others’ perspectives, and to develop solutions together for justice and well-being, with offenders committing to not ever again inflict such harm on another. They have an opportunity to admit guilt, say why they did what they did, and have a chance to express remorse. And the victims have a chance to tell them what harm was done to them and the effect it had on them and their families. If the offendors do all of this and agree to what the victims want, a restitution agreement is drawn up and presented to the court; instead of imposing prison sentences beyond what has already been served, the court orders that the agreement be carried out.
So our first learning was about just how far we have to go to reach that restorative ideal: a long, long way.
All of this public witness and organizing activity happened in the first of three stages on our journey of learning. In the second and third stages, we shifted, from organizing and public witness activity, to service.
Let me digress just a moment to say a little more about approaches to social justice work. The UUA’s Social Justice Empowerment Program Handbook* describes five different approaches to social justice work: Service, where we work to meet the needs of persons in distress; Education, where we work to educate people about the importance of a social issue; Witness, where we endeavor to make public by word or deed our convictions regarding a particular issue; Advocacy, where we work through the legislative process to impact public policy; and Organizing, where we participate in the process by which decisions are made in places of power. The UUA Handbook suggests that a balanced congregational social justice ministry offers “a variety of ways to be involved,” and suggests these five approaches as a gauge for creating and measuring a successful balance. It also suggests that all of these approaches “should include an orientation [toward] healing divisions, dismantling institutional oppression, and acting with accountability.”
So that’s my frame of reference for saying we shifted from public witness and organizing – making our convictions about restorative justice known publicly by word and deed, and participating in the decision processes in places of power – to service, trying to meet the needs of these four young men when they were sent to prison.
We quickly lost contact with three of the four. Though in the beginning we donated to each of their commissary accounts (prisoners have to buy personal hygiene products and other necessities while in prison, and their families, or others outside the prison, provide the funds by donating to their account), and we ordered them all reading material (prisons allow prisoners packages sent by mail-order businesses), Rashaad Piper was the only one of the four we were able to maintain consistent contact with and to visit in prison. Reflecting on this work early last year, we observed that this was the loneliest work we had done.
If the second stage was the loneliest, the third stage of our journey of learning was the most chaotic: assisting Rashaad with the difficult process of re-entry to society after being in prison – a process further complicated by the pandemic. As we did in the first stage, we sought out community partners to help us with this work, and I think the MVP of our team giving direct help to Rashaad has been Janaé McCoy, Transitioning Age Youth Coordinator at CASA New Orleans (CASA stands for “Court Appointed Special Advocates,” a nonprofit agency that primarily assists children in foster care, including helping those who age out of that system with their transition to adult life). And at this point I’ll turn it over to Janaé to talk about her work and how it is spiritually meaningful to her, and what has come to the fore for her while working with Rashaad. And after Janaé has spoken, Jodie Manale, who has taken the lead role in organizing our Restorative Justice ministry, will offer some reflections.
[Janaé expressed gratitude for our steadfast support of her work with Rashaad, which has been over and above her average case load of about 21 cases at any given time. She said the spiritual rewards of her work lie in the opportunities to make a difference in young people’s lives.]
What I Have Learned Over This Long, 4-year Journey
First, Janae’ McCoy, you are my friend and Shero! You and I have commiserated over the phone so many times after being the targets of Rashaad’s rageathons. Janae’ has gone way above and beyond the call of duty to help Rashaad. Thank you so much!
I am very grateful to everyone on “Rashaad’s Support Team” for hanging in through this chaotic last several months with Rashaad, which is not over but likely on pause. It has been hard, messy, and non-linear, but we continue to show up and hope for healing.
We did some amazingly effective community organizing in the early days, and I want to lift up Jolanda Walter, Leslie Runnels, former member Laurence Roberts, Rev. Deanna Vandiver when she was at CELSJR, Rev. Darcy Roake at CCUU, Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger, Rev. Elizabeth Nguyen at UUA, and UUA President Rev. Dr. Susan Frederick-Gray for their early leadership. Rev. Paul and Caitlin Shroyer- Ladeira have gone the distance with me, for which I am very grateful.
My biggest takeaway from this last 4 years is that restorative justice is hard, messy, and non-linear, but we keep “showing up” and hope for healing.
It was impossible to implement in a criminal justice system like the one in Orleans Parish under the former DA that rejected it as a viable alternative to incarceration. But I will always remember the DA admitting that, “We all have failed these young men!”
· Troi Bechet, Jen Pagan and trained volunteers with the Center for Restorative Approaches have been facilitating restorative circles to resolve conflict in the schools for years now. Their work is slowing down the school to prison pipeline and producing long lasting, positive results. Troi and Jen have been incredibly generous to educate us and work with us pro-bono to facilitate the restorative process in this case. I have learned a lot from them, and their work gives us hope.
At this point, I’d like to acknowledge that the concept and process of restorative justice came from the native American practice of “healing circles.”
It takes more than 2 to tango! For it to be a real healing circle, it needs the participation of the victim and the offender as well as community members who have been impacted and/or who have the resources to help the offender live up to his/her/their responsibility to make amends. I have great respect and admiration for Tim and James for coming to support all of us advocating for the use of restorative justice in their case, and Tim becoming willing to participate in a healing circle by video. Tim stays in touch with me and has continued to send financial support to Rashaad and DeJuan, which I think is amazing! Tim wanted to come down and meet with the 4 young men last year, but the pandemic squashed that. And 2 of the guys had been released and we didn’t know how to find them.
DeJuan Paul would have highly likely agreed to participate in restorative justice if it had become an option as his public defender was the only one who told his client about it because he had the most serious charges against him and was facing the longest prison sentence. Rashaad learned about it from us little by little over time while at Elayn Hunt Correctional Institute and agreed to participate in a restorative process while at Hunt and again recently.
Rashaad and “Rashaad’s Support Team” including Rev. Paul, Caitlin Shroyer-Ladeira, and me; Quin Bates – Rashaad’s former CASA advocate; and Joy Bruce and Janaé McCoy with CASA New Orleans participated in our first restorative circle a few weeks ago, facilitated by Jen Pagan. Tim was not involved, and Rashaad is not on good terms with any family members, so it was just us. It was great to all be together in person for the first time. We had been Zooming, texting and talking by phone. We did some heartfelt sharing, Rashaad identified some needs and goals, and we set some boundaries in both directions. But Tim and James’s voices were missing, and in a few short weeks it all fell apart, again.
I have come to feel affection for Rashaad, after writing to him, visiting him, and talking to him by phone for so long. I believed he had promise for learning a trade and becoming a stable adult. He seemed to have some spiritual moorings but I’m not so sure now. I am sadly at the point where I think we need to detach with love because he doesn’t want to be helped and/or he is not willing or able to help himself. His “support team” has worked tirelessly this past year, and I think we are all feeling discouraged.
Some current reasons for hope are:
· The wide-open DA’s race last Fall resulted in the emergence of a group of partners in the city who focused on much-needed improvements to our criminal justice system including the use of RJ. Partners included retired Chief Judge Calvin Johnson, the Center for Restorative Approaches, St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church’s Center for Faith + Action, the Carrollton Avenue Network, and a local branch of the Vera Institute for Justice who are committed to holding the new DA’s feet to the fire to expand diversion programs for the convicted including use of the RJ process. I think Rev. Paul went to some of the meetings, but we just haven’t had the bandwidth to go beyond direct service to Rashaad this past year. And RJ is being successfully implemented in New York City and some other jurisdictions around the country. These things give us hope.
Thank you, Jodie and Janaé.
In closing, I would lift up how important partnerships have been in this ministry. You have heard us mention many individuals and organizations without whom we would not have learned as much as we have or achieved as much. With the help of partners, we made a significant impression on people working in our local criminal justice system just by showing up and reaching out. And we made a difference by showing up consistently to provide material and moral support to Rashaad, and connecting him to people and resources that could help him get back on his feet.
Relationships are everything in social justice ministry. Among the learnings from our 15-year experience with the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal, a ministry founded jointly and supported by the three New Orleans UU congregations, was that the glowing coal that kept its light shining was our consistency and accountability in showing up for each other and for its more than 30 community partner organizations. The Center’s staff, and many of us, got to know those partners and their stories and their work, and we learned how to show up when our presence would help them achieve their goals. Sometimes showing up involved helping with tasks, but more often it was just about showing up – making white support and common interest visible – as we did in court during the first stage of our work on behalf of restorative justice.
And that showing up rested in relationships of trust and commitment. It was because we were directly affected, and because we were already a community of trust and accountability, that Unitarian Universalists were able to organize and show up as effectively as we did in 2017. And it was because we reached out and cultivated new relationships of trust and accountability that we have been able to take this ministry as far as we have.
Now, as we pause to reflect, we would do well to join with our neighbors who are working on restorative justice within a wider framework of criminal justice reform. There are two organizations in particular that are working in different ways in this area that I think would be good partners for us as we discern our next steps. The St. Charles Center for Faith and Action** has developed a network of partners in criminal justice reform, and has had an excellent issue education ministry about it during the pandemic. And Together New Orleans*** has done excellent issue education events as well as effective organizing for a more engaged democracy. Both of these organizations form communities of trust and accountability with whom we would benefit from having closer, more committed ties.
So I encourage you to check those organizations out, if you haven’t already, and consider making friends with some of the folks who are involved with them. As we pause to reflect, let us continue to reach out and to learn. Amen.
* UUA Social Justice Empowerment Handbook
** St. Charles Center for Faith + Action
*** Together New Orleans