Conquering Adversity - Herron Gaston '14 MDIV

Today's post comes from Herron Gaston '14 MDiv.  You can read his earlier post here.

Conquering Adversity 

by Herron Gaston, '14 Master of Divinity

I am taking the lead among students at Yale to create space to talk about race and to meet the needs of those who have been subject to the prison industrial complex.  This phrase refers to the rapid expansion of the US inmate population, which has quintupled to from 300,000 to well over 2 million in the last three decades. In 2010, I was directly confronted by this reality when I was wrongly accused of a felony in a case that I am unequivocally convinced was racially and politically motivated.

As an African-American from the Deep South, I have good reason to believe this. The fact that blacks make up less than 13 percent of the national population but constitute approximately 44 percent of prison population makes it clear that racial prejudice is alive and rampant in the criminal justice system—from arrests, to prosecutions, to incarcerations. 

I have not only experienced the penal system from the side of the accused, but also served the Florida Department of Corrections as a legislative analyst and Gubernatorial Fellow working in the area of re-entry. There I sought to reduce recidivism and assist released prisoners in realizing their own potential. Increasingly aware that a disproportionate amount of those incarcerated are African-Americans, and convinced that I needed to respond to the dilemma in more local and direct way than the Department was capable of, I combined my skills in community organization with deep involvement in black religious life to create Churches United Against Incarceration. Made up of variety of churches—from mainline to non-denominational—this Tallahassee organization helped released prisoners integrate back into society.

After returning to YDS after my incarceration experience, I have been on a journey to narrate my own story. One course in particular, ‘Jesus and Paul on Poverty and Economic Justice,’ helped me articulate my experience within a Biblical framework while addressing the problems of race and the prison industrial complex. During this course I encountered Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.  This book addresses the racism of mass incarceration and became the centerpiece of YDS’s All School Conference in the spring of 2013, when our YDS community used this book to confront this issue and fuel lectures and intentional discussions.

With this momentum, I am continuing my story with two new projects set to take place later this year.

For the first undertaking, I am working in collaboration with Julie Kelsey, Assistant Dean for Pastoral Initiatives, to continue the YDS discussion about race. In my humble opinion, we don’t speak enough about race in the classroom—some people because of discomfort, others because they lack the language for it. People can’t afford to leave this place with caricatures and stereotypes. And the conversation about incarceration can’t be had until we learn to speak about race.

In Eucharistic fashion, I plan to work with Julie Kelsey by setting aside lunch times to create an intimate, interracial space for small groups of YDS students and faculty to be vulnerable and honest about race. The program will be launched in this coming semester under either the name ‘Making Space To Talk About Race’ or ‘Bringing Race To The Table.’

My other project, House of Hope, is taking shape in my home state of Florida. Beginning with one house, my goal is to eventually establish a network of 5-bedroom homes that serves as a midway point for men getting out of prison, serving probation, and re-integrating into their communities. I am in the midst of building coalitions with small businesses and religious communities so that the men living at these houses will receive occupational, entrepreneurial, and spiritual support during their stay.

I see the House of Hope as stage beyond the hopelessness of crucifixion, transitioning into the new life of resurrection; a liberation theology, so that when people see a crucified Jesus, they identify the crosses they have borne, and then see the potential for redemption, a vision echoed when they look in the mirror.

Following graduation from YDS next spring, I will attend law school at Georgetown University.  My ministry is to be civically engaged in the most impactful way possible. For the time being, that engagement means continuing the conversation about race and giving the individuals, families, and communities most impacted by mass incarceration a reason to hope.