Life after serving time

3/20/13

Pastor seeks Christian principles in criminal justice

BLUFFTON, Ohio — Christians need to live their beliefs in order to change a criminal justice system that continues to punish offenders after they've served prison sentences.

Bringing that message to Bluffton University March 19 was a Mennonite pastor who also has personal experience with the system she hopes to see reformed.

Cyneatha Millsaps is lead pastor of Community Mennonite Church in Markham, Ill., and the mother of a man serving a seven-year term for his role as getaway-car driver in an attempted bank robbery. Likely to be released on parole before the final year of the sentence, he will be "thrust into second-class citizen status," with dim employment and economic prospects, "because he made one bad choice," she said. "He'll pay for that crime for the rest of his life."

"Mass incarceration is just too big" for most people to fully comprehend, Millsaps said, noting that American prisons are overcrowded, largely with poor inmates and people of color serving time on drug-related charges.

She was no exception, the pastor acknowledged, until after her cash-strapped son, Travis, then 21 and soon to be a father, agreed to help two friends rob a bank. The attempt ended quickly, with a bank guard shooting the two would-be robbers—one of whom died soon after—and her son then going into hiding, too scared to turn himself in, she recalled.

"All I could think about was my son could go to jail for the rest of his life," said Millsaps, Bluffton's Spiritual Life Week speaker. "I didn't prepare my child for that."

She and her husband eventually convinced Travis that he needed to talk to an attorney, but he wouldn't implicate his surviving friend. If he had, and considering that Travis had no prior criminal record, the lawyer said later that his plea-bargained sentence would probably have been only two or three years, she said. He went to jail exactly one month before the birth of his son, who is being raised by his mother and Millsaps' family.

"It wasn't just Travis who went to jail that day; he took us along for the ride with him," she said, citing the family's struggle to pay legal and child care expenses. Her extended family has also sent money and books to her son in prison, first in Virginia and now in Minnesota, she said.

In the court system, she added, she has become part of a "silent club"—mothers of criminals. "People don't talk about us," said Millsaps, who, in reaching out to other members, has learned their shared feeling of "life being snatched away from you" while no one helps.

Her church, however, was "awesome," she said, and with her son soon to join the ranks of former convicts rejoining society, she would like the wider church to better live up to its creed.

Christians believe that God redeemed them, "yet we don't offer redemption for others," Millsaps maintained, saying "there has to be a way for a second chance" for ex-convicts.

"We don't consider them equal to us anymore," she said. "But God said, 'Yes, you are.'" And those who have fared best after leaving prison have had Christian communities and other support systems behind them, she added.

"As Christians, we have been given the game plan," the pastor pointed out, asserting that the scriptural call for redemption and reconciliation "is part of who we are as Christ's followers."

But faith communities must offer that better way to a society that's willing to admit "we have to do better" and to work together, she said.

"The only way this system is going to change is if Christians step up and be exactly who we claim to be."

In addition to her pastoral duties, Millsaps is the multicultural liaison for the Illinois Mennonite Conference. She also founded Black American Princesses—a mentoring program for African-American females ages 13-19—and chairs the Christian ministry Young Life in Chicago's south suburbs. She holds a master of divinity degree from the Associated (now Anabaptist) Mennonite Biblical Seminary.

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