Reporter's notebook: Prison ministry

For the last several months, I’ve been eyeballs-deep in research on the United States' criminal justice system. I've been reading books, scouring through legislation and talking to as many Catholic sisters as I can who have ministries dealing with inmates or men and women formerly incarcerated.

This research has involved a lot of sitting at my desk, tethered either to my phone or my computer — but last week, I was on the move. I went to Jefferson City, Missouri, to trail representatives from Empower Missouri as they lobbied for parole board reform, and I also observed a prayer vigil for mass incarceration that took place just two miles from the Global Sisters Report office.

I wasn’t sure what to expect at the prayer vigil. Though local, the Kansas City event was part of a national movement organized by the Christian Community Development Association, which has done this vigil annually since 2013, although I'd never been aware of the event. I also wasn't entirely sure who would attend the Kansas City vigil, and I didn't know what everyone would be doing for an hour. I mean, I knew they would be praying, but I wasn't 100 percent on the logistics. Who would pray and how?

As it turns out, it was a fairly diverse event. Black, white and Latino clergy presided over different parts of the service, with a black Baptist church choir providing the music.

It was also an emotionally charged event.

A good portion of the evening was spent detailing the effect mass incarceration has on minorities — particularly black families. According to the pastors who presented that night, one in three black men in the United States will go to prison in their lifetime. Vigil attendees were invited to pray aloud, and voices quivered as people prayed for racial reconciliation and for divine guidance. At one point, one of the choir members began sobbing, heaving in her chair with her face in her hands.

I wondered why the woman was crying. Did she know someone in prison? Had someone she loved been hurt by someone in prison? Had she been in prison, or was she just a deeply empathetic person? I didn't ask because I knew I wouldn't use the information in the story I'm working on, but her tears did help me refocus the way I was thinking about it.

As a journalist, it's easy to focus on the shocking statistics or vignettes that vividly show what you're trying to explain. But I think it's important that we never lose sight of people, of the individual lives that — while not always flashy and overtly newsworthy — are suffering real loss or experiencing real joy in the issues that we cover. That's a lot for one journalist to carry on her shoulders, but I find that journalists are served well when they report and write with this in mind. And I hope and pray that I will be able to do justice to the personal stories that I've been entrusted with as I write this piece.

Also I hope you all appreciate the story — not only because I've been working hard on it, but also because I almost died (not really, but kind of) in the backwoods of central Missouri to get some of this reporting done. And I'd like to think that if I'm going to jeopardize my life for story that it's at least a good one. Values, you know.

[Dawn Araujo-Hawkins is Global Sisters Report staff writer, based in Kansas City, Missouri. Follow her on Twitter @dawn_cherie]