Words Matter!

Aug 27, 2016

by Rev. Terry Schjang, New Beginnings Worshipping Community, Denver Women’s Correctional Facility, Denver, Colorado 

As I stood on the west steps of the capital building in Denver Tuesday morning, I felt a pain in my gut.  Even as press cameras were focused on the gathering of clergy of myriad faiths standing together, I could not fight back the tears welling up in my eyes.  They were the tears of our sisters and brothers--past and present--whose pain manifested in my belly knowing the language of legalized slavery still exists in Colorado’s constitution.

Currently, in the state of Colorado, Article 2 Section 26 states, “There shall never be in this state either slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”  Such language has existed from the time of the Emancipation Proclamation in Colorado and some other states.  Legal slavery is written into the constitution as permissible in the case of those who have been duly convicted.  How can this be?

It sits in my belly as disgusting that we live in a state, in a nation, that would ascribe to slavery under any circumstances,” said Jumoke Emery, a community organizer and advocate for the amendment. “No one is a slave, regardless of mistakes that you have made or crimes you have been convicted of.” 

It sits in my belly as well, Jumoke!

The language in the Colorado constitution reflects that of the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which allows for slavery and involuntary servitude as a punishment for those convicted of crimes.

I experience this as a double-whammy.  As a woman of color with light skin and green eyes, I’m often not seen for who I am.  I know the pain of invisibility and the ache that comes as people share freely in my presence, “Those people are too sensitive.  Words don’t matter.  They need to just get over it.”  As a pastor serving a congregation of incarcerated women, I witness the soreness of inmates who feel known by a number or conviction, not the soul that breathes within them.

Words matter!  They contribute to shame.  Shame can propagate unhealthy behavior.  It inhibits healthy growth and transformation.  

We who serve prison congregations strive to bring the light of Christ that offers mercy, forgiveness and the promise of new beginnings.  It is counter-intuitive to these to compound the already present shame in prison populations with the shame of this “exception for those who have been duly convicted.”

This November, Colorado voters will have an opportunity to change the language of Article 2 Section 26.  Amendment T’s position is “No Slavery, No Exceptions”.  The Department of Correction’s stance is that its work programs are not compulsory, thus it does not have a position on Amendment T.

Words matter.  Slave.  Felon.  1XXXXX7.  Beloved Child of God.  Names matter.  May we be conscious of our words and the language that governs us as we live out our calls to be little Christs to our neighbors, wherever they currently reside.


Category: healing

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