Several years ago, I (James H. Costen JR) decided to take on the task of determining the readiness of the Black Church to claim or reclaim previously-incarcerated citizens and assist in their successful processes of community reentry. In my research, and to my surprise, I found that my father and Dr. Gayraud Wilmore, tugged at the Black Church with these issues in the mid 1980s. At that time, the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC), a seminary in Atlanta, GA, held their third Research and the Black Church Conference. This conference, and two subsequent conferences, were dedicated “to define the causes, scope, and nature” of incarceration trends, to uncover the effects on the Black community, to publish their findings, and to attempt to put an end to patterns of “depopulating” the Black community of young men. Several Black Church scholars were engaged, and a series of documenting Journals have been published since.
At dinner before an AMAZING Marcus Miller concert, Yvette Assem introduced me to Beverly Wallace. At some point in one of our many discussions, Yvette asked me to talk about my research. After some discussion on the readiness of the Black Church to facilitate successful community reentry for our citizens removed by incarceration, Beverly asked, “So, what do you think about the Costen Institute at the ITC to fully inform and engage seminarians around the perils of mass incarceration?” Like a deer caught in headlights, I stared blankly and awkwardly stuttered my response, “Iounno.” A few months later, the three of us met at the 10th Annual Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference in Dallas, TX. Wide eyed and pumped, I KNEW that the Institute must be. I am so thankful to God for Yvette and Beverly, their vision, their encouragement, and strength.
On April 14th, and April 15th 2013, with Dr. Beverly Wallace at the helm, the ITC hosted a Complicated Freedom Conference designed to revisit issues of mass incarceration and processes of community reentry. The conference involved various impactful presentations of lectures, music, spoken word, and a panel discussion to question the roles of the community, the academy, and the church in restoring those who have paid their debt to society by incarceration. Those involved with these various creative presentations were students of the ITC’s Samuel DeWitt Proctor course, Dr. C.T. Vivian (issues of love and reconciliation in ministry), Ms. Eloise Daniel (challenges of reentry from the perspective of a returning citizen), and I presented my proposed above-mentioned study.
**Note about Ms. Eloise Daniel: Eloise lived a brutal life, colored by violence, racism, abuse, addiction, and abandonment. Twenty-seven years in prison created a barrier between her and her children, which she struggled to breach, but could not. But against the odds, Eloise reinvented herself, obtained a college degree, and fashioned a life of productivity and service to others facing the obstacles she’d had to overcome. She is inspiring and very instrumental in the naming of the Institute. Please purchase and READ her amazing book, “Amongst the Ruins!”
Engaging community stakeholders, seminarians, undergraduates, clergy, returning citizens, and the academy, the James H. Costen SR Institute for Complicated Freedoms (JCICF) has been formed to take the spiritual lead in moving the Black American community in the direction of social organization and turning around current debilitating social justice trends.