Compassion for people in prison

In Philadelphia, volunteers pack MCC prison care kits, learn about mass incarceration

Lamae Oberton attended MCC’s Martin Luther King Jr. Service Day event at Germantown Mennonite Church in Philadelphia in honor of her brother, who is incarcerated. — Laura Pauls-Thomas/MCC Lamae Oberton attended MCC’s Martin Luther King Jr. Service Day event at Germantown Mennonite Church in Philadelphia in honor of her brother, who is incarcerated. — Laura Pauls-Thomas/MCC

Lamae Oberton, a member of Freedom Church in Philadelphia, came to a Martin Luther King Jr. Service Day event in Philadelphia to honor her brother, who is in prison.

Mass incarceration was the focus of the event, sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee East Coast and Kingdom Builders Network. Participants packed 560 care kits for incarcerated men and women and listened to a panel of experts talk about medical and mental health issues in Philadelphia prisons.

“I really find a passion in my heart to give to those who are struggling,” said Oberton. “It’s important to me to be here because when I see these people [volunteering], I think of my brother.”

ChiChi Oguekwe, Philadelphia program coordinator for MCC East Coast and coordinator of the seventh annual event, said, “There are so many individuals and families who are impacted by incarceration. This is an opportunity to remind them that we have hope for them and that we care about them.”

Janice Barbour, a member of Christian Stronghold Baptist Church in Philadelphia, was looking for opportunities to serve locally and prayed for God to lead her to the right Martin Luther King Day event.

“I have a difficult time with this whole prison industrial complex, from the point of being a victim of crime to being related to people who have been incarcerated,” she said. “I think that’s why God directed me here.”

MCC shares Barbour’s concern about mass incarceration in the U.S. — the substantial rise in incarceration rates since the late 1960s. The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners. Nationwide, more than 2 million people are held in U.S. prisons and jails — an increase of 500% over the past 40 years, according to the Sentencing Project.

In Philadelphia and other locations, MCC walks with communities targeted by the mass incarceration system, working toward healing, justice and restoration. MCC provides care for those in prison and those returning to society by providing kits with basic clothing and hygiene supplies.

In Elkhart, Ind., MCC’s Great Lakes region, in partnership with the Center for Community Justice, provides coaching and mentorship to men and women who are or were incarcerated. MCC Great Lakes also partners with other organizations in Elkhart, Chicago and Lexington, Ky., to support people affected by incarceration.

In Kansas, MCC’s Central States region partners with Working Men of Christ by providing returning-citizen- care kits and Offender Victim Ministries by providing prisoner-care kits.

“Going through the [prison] system, it often feels as if you’re going through it alone, and so this is a really special day for me,” said Jeffrey ­Abramowitz. He was incarcerated for five years and now serves as the chief executive officer of the Petey Greene Program, an educational program that helps people inside and outside prison reach their academic and professional goals.

Several youth groups from Mosaic Mennonite Conference attended the event. For Andrew Zetts, associate pastor at Salford Mennonite Church in Harleysville, Pa., this was his second year attending with youth from his congregation.

“As a suburban congregation, it’s really easy for us to lose sight of those in need,” Zetts said. “[We’re] trying to pierce that bubble for a lot of our youth who have only grown up in a certain context, to try to get them to see a bigger picture of the world and also to see the church in action.”

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