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Open Letter from the Executive Director

I Can Breathe – I Didn’t Know You Couldn’t
An open letter by Frank Zeidler, Jr., Executive Director

Have you looked up racism in the dictionary lately?  The people at Merriam-Webster recently reported it to be the number one lookup on their website in the last month.  Why is that?

The easy answer is that the term is all over the news right now.  But, in general, people only look up words for two reasons: either they want to be sure they are using the right word, or they simply don’t know what a particular word means.  Racism has been a part of the American lexicon since 1902, when Brigadier General Richard Henry Pratt decried the deleterious effects of segregating people by race or class.1  So how can people in 2020 not know what it means?

While racism affects many minority races, the conversation recently has focused on the relations between white-skinned people and people whose skin is brown, from the lightest shades to the darkest.  That is the conversation I am addressing here.

If you do not believe racism is systemic in America today, you have much work to do in educating yourself.
If you do not believe white privilege exists in America today, you have much work to do in educating yourself.
I believe both of those statements, yet I still have much work to do in educating myself.

When you ask a person of color, “is there racism in America?”, they might initially laugh – as if to say, “is that really a question?”  But that same person will then answer honestly, “Of course there is…how can you not see it?”  I know because I have had that conversation.  Three hours later, I could not believe how blind I have been to racism in this country.

Today, I cannot even fathom the pain and deep sadness felt by our brothers and sisters of color when what they see so clearly, and their life experiences, are diminished and even dismissed by most white people.  Yet it happens every day and white America, as a whole, continues to reject any responsibility for the current racial climate.

In my younger years, I had a job as a retail store manager, working for a single-owner business.  In one of my meetings with that owner, I complained about the way my store staff reacted to a policy I implemented.  His reply has stuck with me for 30 years now: “Do you know what they were upset about?  Then get past their choice of words or actions and address the real problem.”

What is happening in our society today is that people of color – our brothers and sisters – are crying out in desperation: Do you not see me?  Can you not hear me?  We cannot breathe!

And, much like 25-year-old-Frank Zeidler, white America continues to focus on the words they are choosing and the actions they’ve taken without even making a real attempt to hear what they are saying!
(No, I do not condone looting and if that is your takeaway, then you aren’t hearing me either.)

Unfortunately, the attitudes and the actions (or inactions) that follow are indeed systemic – they are ingrained in the very fiber of white America whether we choose to admit it or not.  Sure, we can point to societal advances like the abolition of slavery or the election of a person of color as President of the United States.  But those are entirely hollow arguments when we are really talking about the attitudes born of racialization and the subtle ways white America lives them out every day.

In a book entitled, “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America”, the author makes this point:

“… racial practices that reproduce racial division in the contemporary United States “(1) are increasingly covert, (2) are embedded in normal operations of institutions, (3) avoid direct racial terminology, and (4) are invisible to most Whites. [Racialization] understands that racism is not mere individual, overt prejudice, or the free-floating irrational driver of race problems, but the collective misuse of power that results in diminished life opportunities for some racial groups.  This framework understands that people need not intend their actions to contribute to racial division and inequality for their actions to do so.”

“I didn’t mean it like that.”  “I didn’t even know I did that.”  “That wasn’t my intention”.  Welcome to the wonderful world of systemic racism.  The challenge now is to mean it, to know it, and to intend it.  And I am talking to myself as well.

I have been married for 33 years to a wonderful, godly woman.  To my shame, it took me most of those years to understand and embrace a basic truth:  if it is important to her, it is important.  For far too many years (and occasionally even still today), I was dismissive when she would mention something that I was certain was of little consequence.  Sometimes I was right, sometimes I was wrong…but the fact is that my attitude conveyed to her that “you are using words but I am not hearing you because I don’t think it is important”.

Too often in public comment or private conversation, I hear that same attitude coming out of the mouths of white America when hearing people of color discussing racism.  Haven’t you heard it too?  “These are isolated incidents.  “Most police officers are good.”  “The real problem is….”  “Statistics say ……”  These are all versions of the same attitude I was guilty of at home for years.  And I cannot find a passage anywhere in my Bible that says we should dismiss the concerns of our brothers and sisters – created in God’s image – because we don’t think they are important or valid.

I did find this, however: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2)  Take that down whatever theological road you choose, accuse me of taking it out of context if you must, but the fact remains that being dismissive, defensive, or accusatory must be decried as an unacceptable response to any person of color pointing out the racism that is entrenched in daily life.

As a Christian, and a leader in a Christian missionary organization, the words of Jesus in John 10 resonate loudly to me: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.  I came that they may have life and have it abundantly”.  Our enemy wishes to divide – and it appears to be working.  But Jesus’ mandate to “love one another” fosters harmony, and that is the side I choose!  However, “I love you, brother” is not enough right now, so:

  • I denounce racially motivated police brutality.2
  • I denounce the devastating effects that “mass incarceration” has had on the family unit, and the community of people of color.
  • I equally denounce my peers, colleagues, or friends in the white community who say that racism and white privilege in America simply do not exist.

I believe the danger in times like this is to be all talk and no action.  I cannot change all of America; I am not the face of the entire white-skinned population…but I am the Director of a ministry that reaches predominantly people of color.  So, after my own attitudes and actions, that is where I must start.

The first step will be to create a forum designed to have courageous talks about race as it relates to our call to share the love of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ to our brothers and sisters behind bars. I do not know the outcome of that forum – and if I told you I know the end result, this entire piece would be for naught.  It will be real, and it will be uncomfortable, but I promise you it will be to the glory of God, and the furtherance of his Kingdom.

Serving Him gladly,

Frank Zeidler, Jr.
Executive Director
[email protected]

1 While Pratt denounced racism, his solution was no better.  Read more:   https://www.indianz.com/News/2016/08/16/first-use-of-racism-came-from-founder-of.asp
2 To be clear, I denounce all forms of police brutality; but this letter is specifically addressing the issue of racism, thus the identification of a specific form of police brutality.

 

A Warden, a Woman, and a Wake-up Call

by Ashley Couey, missionary-athlete and co-coach, Southeast Lady Saints

I want to share about our visit to Whitworth Women’s Facility this summer, and I have probably made this statement a few times over my seven years with the ministry, but this was, BY FAR, the most amazing prison visit of my life!

Being very transparent, I have been struggling personally with a few pretty big things this year. Normally I just push through times like this, but these challenges have left me feeling overwhelmed. So, to set the stage, that was the mindset at the beginning of the day. In addition, we normally have one of the Saints’ staff members or a pastor accompany us on each trip but due to an unusual set of circumstances, that did not happen on this trip.

On the way into the facility, my teammate, co-coach, and best friend Stacy and I saw the warden, an old friend from another GA women’s prison. It was good to catch up with her and share thoughts on the difference between the two facilities.

As we were talking to the warden, a woman being released that day came out with a bag and a smile on her face. Beaming, she looked at the warden and said, “I want to thank you so much for everything, particularly that you encouraged me to get my education. I never would have done that without you.” But it wasn’t enough that the warden had shown some interest…the fact is that the warden was the ONLY person to show some interest!

Her mom won’t take her back in – even temporarily – so the car waiting at the curb was to take her to a homeless shelter. These are the stories the public NEVER hears. The bad and the ugly get the headlines, but a simple act of genuine concern goes unnoticed…except to that woman.

Suffice it to say…my world may now be forever different as I look at it through this new lens. This ex-offender had real joy about her future, even though she walked out that door with nothing to her name and no one waiting for her to return.

Some moments just are life changing and this was one of them. I realize how much I complain when circumstances do not go my way. But #1…I know Jesus! I also have people who love me; I am clean, fed, have a place to call home; I have a great job and a litany of other things that are true blessings. She left with none of that! She was thrilled simply to be clean right then – and it was already hot, so that was temporary – yet her primary emotion was to be GRATEFUL. I cannot even tell you what it meant to encounter this woman and I think I have needed that for a while. Maybe you can relate…you catch yourself missing the blessings in your life because the focus is on what you don’t have or experience, instead of what you do have.

Please notice – our visit was just beginning! We played a great game of softball, and even though we won by a landslide the inmates were all smiles all morning. Then my friends, Jess and Ashley, shared the love of Jesus through their testimony and a Gospel message.

We also had the opportunity to personally spend time and pray for inmates one on one. Y’all, I had no idea but one of the inmates asked me to pray for her, so I prayed to Jesus for her and she THANKED me – then told me she was a professing Muslim. It was like being in a different universe…seriously!

Our team then had the rare privilege of eating lunch in their chow hall with the inmates’ softball team! I sat with my other best friend Julie and two inmates named Joanna and Jessica who had a kid the same age as one of mine (just another coincidence, I’m sure!). We had a great conversation about their lives and their hopes and their future AND JESUS!

Turns out that Jessica has a smart mouth (good thing my teammates aren’t commenting here!) and so her and I talked smack the entire afternoon game. She kept yelling “easy out!” when I would come up to bat, and I in turn thoroughly enjoyed telling her that I was so sorry I couldn’t deliver that easy out as I crossed the plate about five times that game. We won that game too…but the score didn’t matter.

The whole day was amazing. We shared the hope of Jesus, our own stories, and discussed how life does not have to be a repeat cycle. We played a lot of softball, talked a lot of trash (in good fun of course), and built some relationships that will not soon be forgotten.

“Your words, your time commitments, your finances, your emotional highs and lows, your relationships, and your spiritual habits together form a portrait of what is really valuable to you.” – Paul Jeon

A Wife’s Thoughts

by Tom Gibson, IL Saints Softball Coach and his wife, Kelly

Here at “Inside the Mind of Gibby,” we enjoy opening fan mail. There are often some nice notes encouraging us to keep telling the stories of sharing the Gospel in prison, as well as some less than nice notes from prison food service workers letting me know that they do not appreciate my criticism of prison food. But, one of the biggest requests we get, is to introduce my wife Kelly and hear her thoughts on the ministry.

Hello, Saints friends! I’m Kelly, chief editor and comedy guinea pig for “Inside the Mind of Gibby.” Even though I miss commas and can’t always tame the run-on sentences in his articles, Tom has asked me to contribute my thoughts on being the spouse of a Saints missionary athlete. While I’ve certainly not been a part of The Saints ministry as long as other spouses have, I would like to share some things that I’ve learned, things that have surprised me, and things that I would be ok NOT knowing about being married to a Saint…maybe.

While I’m not the one who is sharing the Good News in the yard, stretching a single into a double, or trusting my life to a questionable source of transportation, I have acquired some unique skills on The Saints home front. Does this stack of Spanish Gospels of John have 20 or only 19? I can tell by looking from across the room. Are the holes in the knees of Tom’s baseball pants fixable? Don’t look closely at my stitching, but you bet they are! Where are the batting gloves located at the local sporting goods store? I can even find them in Hawaii during football season.

In addition to skills, Saints spouses are almost guaranteed weekly and sometimes daily surprises. If you’re one who enjoys online shopping and who glows with the sight of packages delivered to your door, you will love being the spouse of a coach! Don’t be discouraged if the large UPS and FedEx boxes on your doorstep are filled with support envelopes and baseball pants, though. You may also be surprised to learn (from a husband who slides a lot) that you have all the tools to be a pedologist. My laundry room has soil samples from Georgia clay to Indiana topsoil. If you would like tips on removing said Georgia clay from light-colored baseball pants, contact Susan Zeidler for her secret weapon!

  • If it seems I’m making being a Saint spouse too good to be true, I’ll include some insider information to balance my thoughts:
  • If you have a husband who is happy to eat anything you cook, encourage him to not attend a crusade with Hugh Dwyer. Nothing you make will ever compare to the “fantastic eats” Hugh will find for the crusade teams.
  • I’m pretty sure overnight hotel stays on Saints crusades are pretty much the equivalent to a bunch of 5th graders having a sleepover.
  • If your spouse is a Saints coach, just resign yourself to the reality that you won’t have a meaningful conversation the day before a visit as his or her phone will be blowing up with texts and emails.

Washing baseball uniforms is a pain (whoever is talking Tom into sliding so much needs to knock it off!) The bus is frightening. The stories are entertaining. There is nothing quite as fun, however, as saying “My husband is going to prison this weekend!”

But I’m Too Bad…

by Tim Travis, Softball Missionary-Athlete from GA

I met Deatrick, an inmate at Madison Correctional Institution, Camp A (OH) on our crusade in August. This guy must have been the shot caller in this prison, because every man that came on the yard checked in with him. If an inmate sat on the bleachers unapproved, Deatrick told him to “get off my bench,” and they would. No questions, no argument.

After I gave my testimony and Jimmy shared the Gospel, I was walking around talking to the men and collecting response cards. When I got his card, I noticed he had “Tennessee” next to his name, but more importantly had checked the first option on the card to indicate salvation.

I asked Deatrick what part of Tennessee he was from. He said he was from Memphis and spent a couple years in the juvenile detention centers. After chatting a little bit, I got serious, looked at Deatrick, and said’ “did you really make this decision today?” Believe me I was not ready for the response.

He nodded his head and with tears in his eyes said that he had murdered five people and he couldn’t believe Jesus loved him. He was broken to the core and the Gospel demolished his strongholds. I told him that God absolutely loves him and that the blood of Christ had washed him clean. That it didn’t matter what he had done because the God who created him loved him so much the He sent His Son for him.

He was in awe that Christ still loved him even after everything he had done. He gave me the biggest hug I’ve ever had from an inmate! Deatrick got saved in that prison yard that day!

Even the hardest of the hard can be captured by the truth of Jesus Christ. There is no one too far gone that can’t be reached. After a bit of prayer and encouragement Deatrick went off that field justified, forgiven, and a brother in Christ.

South Carolina 2019

At the time of our first crusade to South Carolina in 2000, we played more than 20 softball games in one week, at 11 different facilities. The state couldn’t do enough for us – to the extent of housing the team in the DOC training academy and providing state vehicles to transport the team each day!

However, like everywhere else we travel, budgets, staffing, and ideology change over time and, more than any other state we visit, South Carolina has changed dramatically in the ensuing years. In September, The Saints team from Virginia conducted a 3-day weekend crusade to five SC prisons – and would have been hard pressed to extend the trip to a fourth day because only seven prisons were even available to host our team! Some prisons no longer have softball fields, some don’t have a Recreation Leader, and a couple that do have both are not inclined to invite outside teams in at this time!

As if that wasn’t enough, two days before we were to travel one of the five that did schedule the team found it necessary to cancel the visit! Fortunately, one of the prisons graciously filled that slot on short notice…but the cancellation reflects the fragile status of recreation in SC these days.

Rather than be dissuaded, our team rose to the occasion and prepared for the trip as they have many times before. The crowds were smaller than usual, but that just meant more quality time individually. The teams weren’t as good as usual, but that simply offered more opportunities to relax and joke around with the inmates. There was one constant – the Gospel is the same as it has always been and the Holy Spirit moved in those five prisons to bring 34 men to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ!

Please continue to pray for our DOC friends in South Carolina. The state recently appointed a new man to fill the vacant Chief of Recreation job and it is our hope that things may turn around in the future. And if not…we’ll still be back as long as they will have us!

Announcements

We must regretfully announce that the SPM softball season 2020 is officially cancelled.  After previously announcing the cancellation of many crusades – and the softball seasons for IL, NJ, and PA – this message serves to inform everyone that all softball events still pending are now also cancelled.

We have been in touch with the DOC Volunteer Coordinators on a weekly basis since early July, and more recently have received counsel from a high-ranking DOC official that nothing is likely to change until at least October, leading us to this painful decision.

Thank you all for your patience, as well as your passion. We do not know what the future holds, except to say that we anticipate being “back in business” in 2021 and every prison we talked to is anxiously awaiting the day we can return.  There may be new protocols in place by then, but there is no virus strong enough to stop the Gospel message from reaching those who need to hear it!

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