(Jan. 6, 2020) – Two Seattle-area Covenant churches will join together for two days this weekend to watch the newly released movie “Just Mercy” and discuss issues related to mass incarceration.
Members of Radiant Covenant Church in Renton and Cedarcreek Covenant Church in Maple Valley will watch the movie at a theater on Friday night. Then, on Saturday evening, Dominique Gilliard, ECC director of racial righteousness and reconciliation, will lead the congregations in a discussion at Radiant’s offices. He will teach an adult Sunday school class and preach at Cedarcreek on Sunday.
The movie is based on the 2015 nonfiction bestseller of the same name by Bryan Stevenson, which tells the story of Walter McMillian, an African American who was wrongfully convicted of murder after being framed by a sheriff and district attorney and was incarcerated on death row for six years until Stevenson argued successfully to overturn the conviction. The book has been widely hailed as a masterful legal thriller that exposes widespread abuses in the justice system but offers hope for change.
The film opened with a limited release on Christmas day and will be widely released on Friday.
Radiant is a six-year-old church plant with an average attendance of about 110 people. It is roughly 40 percent African and African American, 45 percent Anglo, and 15 percent Asian and Asian American, according to senior pastor Michael Thomas. Renton is a suburb of 102,000 people located located 11 miles southeast of Seattle’s city center.
Cedarcreek, formed in 2000, averages around 100 attenders each Sunday. They are 75 percent Anglo, with the rest being African American, Asian, and Latino, according to pastor Rebecca Worl, pastor of discipleship. Maple Valley is primarily a commuter community of 27,000 people incorporated in 1997 and located southeast of Renton.
Leaders at both churches began planning the weekend after they saw a post from Gilliard in a Facebook group for Covenant ministers in which he suggested various ways congregations could engage with the movie.
They were quick to seize on the suggestion to watch and discuss the film with another church. Thomas and Worl said it was natural to bring their congregations together even though they have not previously participated in any joint activities.
“As a part of Radiant’s ethos of intentional Christ-centered reconciliation, justice, and advocacy, film and faith dialogues have been a part of our rhythm since we began,” Thomas said. “We often say at Radiant that if Jesus’s work on the cross was powerful enough to reconcile broken humanity back to a perfect God, then surely his work on the cross was also powerful enough to help us reconcile with one another.”
Cedarcreek’s desire to view the movie grew out of its monthly DELVE group discussions that focus on controversial issues such as immigration, guns, and the environment. “Our evening’s discussion on incarceration was by far the most passionate and most engaging dialogue of DELVE,” Worl said.
“When this opportunity presented itself, we thought it would give us a great chance to go further and listen and learn more from our brothers and sisters at Radiant,” she added.
Thomas and Worl said they hope the event will lead to further discussion and connections that could include participating in the Covenant’s newly revised Invitation to Racial Righteousness journey.
Gilliard suggested other possible ways churches can engage with “Just Mercy”:
- Several churches could join together to ask a local movie theater about the possibility of hosting a private viewing. Renting out the space also could provide the option of holding a discussion panel afterward that could include local leaders, law enforcement, nonprofits, prison ministries, and community organizations involved with incarceration issues such as helping people who have been incarcerated to re-enter society or breaking the “school-to-prison pipeline” that exists in some communities. (Radiant and Cedarcreek aren’t having a private viewing, but Worl said the theater is small, and members have bought up most of the tickets.)
- Engage in conversations about mass incarceration in the nation and your local context. Congregations could follow up by having small groups read “Just Mercy,” which also has an adapted version for youth, or Gilliard’s book “Rethinking Incarceration,” which was named the InterVarsity 2018 book of the year in the general category. Curriculum for both books is curated in multiple places online. A free video-based curriculum for Gilliard’s book can be downloaded here.
- Send leaders on one of the two Sankofa journeys scheduled for 2020.
- Participate in “Locked in Solidarity,” the Christian Community Development Association’s National Week of Prayer, Awareness, and Advocacy aimed at ending mass incarceration. Registrants will receive a toolkit with the latest statistics around incarceration, sample agendas, and sermon notes for preaching. The event is held the second week of February.
- Watch and discuss the award-winning Netflix docuseries “When They See Us” in small groups.
- Watch a video about North Park Theological Seminary’s School of Restorative Arts program at Stateville Correctional Center.