Chalice Overy: Helping bail black women out of jail is the work of the Spirit

Southerners on New Ground (SONG) celebrated its campaign to bail out black women from the Durham, N.C., jail in August 2017. Photo courtesy of SONG

When she was asked to help bail women out of a local detention center, a minister was at first surprised. But, she writes, she shouldn’t have been.

I entered the jail with three of my colleagues. While my ministry had taken me behind bars before, this time was different. This time I was going to get somebody out!

As the women emerged behind the glass, I and three other ministers met with seven women, one at a time. We introduced ourselves and asked, “Do you want to be bailed out of jail?” Their shock and disbelief turned to tears of joy as we assured them the offer was real.

Soon these women would be reunited with their children and families -- and I was overjoyed to play a small role in making that happen. Ministry can be mundane at times, but this was one of the exciting things it affords me the occasional opportunity to do.

It all started with an email just a couple of weeks before, when I was contacted by Southerners On New Ground (SONG). The organization is part of a national effort to dismantle the cash bail system, which requires people who are arrested to pay for their freedom while they wait for their cases to be resolved.

In their work toward changing this system, SONG has been making freedom a reality through bailout campaigns. They raise money, identify women with relatively low bonds, connect them with the resources they will need once released and purchase their freedom.

In mid-February, organizations in Memphis, Los Angeles, Alabama and Dallas will begin coordinating a month of bailouts in observance of Black History Month and International Women’s Month.

I was invited to be a part of the Black August bailout -- the second bailout effort for SONG’s Durham, N.C., chapter. In May, the regional Black Mamas Bail Out Action raised nearly $200,000 and freed 64 women in time for Mother’s Day, 14 of them in my city. Nine more women were released in Durham in the August bailout.

Yet this invitation was quite unexpected. For starters, I didn’t know this kind of thing happened -- concerted efforts to bail people out of jail, and black women in particular.

And while eager to participate, I was shocked that I would be asked. SONG defines itself as “a regional Queer Liberation organization made up of people of color, immigrants, undocumented people, people with disabilities, working class and rural and small town, LGBTQ people in the South.”

It exists for the very people who have been pushed out of many churches, and I was surprised that they’d reach out to a pastor. (I consider myself an ally now, but there was a time when I would have turned them down or even taken it as an opportunity to call them to repentance.)

But it turned out that we clergy are particularly useful in this effort because we can visit anyone in the jail without preapproval. And they needed people to visit the women two days before the scheduled bailout and get their consent to be released.

I concluded that my presence was completely utilitarian, but that did nothing to curb my enthusiasm. This preacher was eager to proclaim “liberty to the captives,” and I was certain they would be even more excited to hear the news.

I had never considered how much an arrest could alter a person’s life. This was driven home to me the day we visited the women in jail.

I met with a mother who tried desperately to convey her gratitude through tears of disappointment.

At first she thought she would be released on the day of our visit; her boyfriend’s new job started the next day, and she wanted to be home in time to care for their daughter. The wait meant that he might lose the job their family so desperately needed.

For many people, losing a job can have downstream impacts like losing a car, housing and sometimes even custody of one’s own children.

But those who cannot post bail spend weeks or months in jail awaiting trial -- people, keep in mind, who are innocent until proven guilty. Their charges can be minor, things like disorderly conduct, traffic violations or failing to appear in court. And after that long wait, they might be acquitted or have their cases dismissed.

The reality of this inequity put a damper on the excitement I had initially felt at the invitation.

Thankfully, it wasn’t the last invitation I would receive. After my colleagues and I finished our assignment at the jail, I expected little more than a “thank you,” but SONG invited us to join them at a celebration later that week.

I received the warmest welcome when I arrived and was introduced to everyone as Pastor Chalice. I ate, laughed and mingled with the other attendees, and then I was approached with a special request: “Would you mind giving the invocation?” “Sure,” I said, waiting for further instructions, but there were none.

This was all so strange to me. I mean, SONG is not a Christian organization or even an explicitly religious one. I understood why they invited me to assist at the jail, but now they were asking me to pray -- at a party. And they hadn’t even given me a directive to “keep it general.”

I pray all the time, but this time, I didn’t even know where to begin. I guess I was surprised that such a liberal group would want anything to do with religion, and Christianity in particular. I mean, I love Jesus, but in practice, throughout history, Christianity has been used to marginalize and oppress the most vulnerable among us.

Finally, I approached one of the organizers in an attempt to get an idea of what they were hoping for. She said, “We just want to bring in the Spirit!”

I offered a brief invocation, but I suspect that the Spirit was already there. It’s a shame I hadn’t recognized it from the beginning.

Especially when I consider what Jesus says about the Spirit’s role in liberation: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives …, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18 NRSV).

They didn’t need me to bring in the Spirit, but I was grateful to be invited to share in the Spirit’s work. And when I consider Jesus’ words, I am challenged to not wait for another invitation.