Ecumenical Advocacy Days: A Personal Perspective

By Bonnie Sestito

The 13th annual Ecumenical Advocacy Days (EAD) gathering has come and gone, but the work is not over. Approximately 1000 men and women of faith came together to explore “Breaking the Chains: Mass Incarceration and Systems of Exploitation.”

Placards at EAD

Placards at EAD

The U.S. makes up only five percent of the world’s population yet holds nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Still, “imprisonment” is a worldwide problem and takes various forms, as everywhere people around the world remain trapped in detention centers, prisons, factories and drug wars that bind and dehumanize individuals for political or economic profit. At EAD we confessed our personal and corporate failure to break the chains of poverty, racism, and greed institutionalized in our laws, economy and social behaviors that collude to perpetuate such human exploitation and strip civil and human rights.*

Human exploitation is the unethical, selfish use of human beings for the satisfaction of personal desires and/or profitable advantage. Plenaries, workshops, and films covered human trafficking including sex and labor, family detention for the undocumented, justice systems regarding the war on drugs, lack of education for girls, and more. My focus was on issues pertaining to women and girls.

EAD was intense and overwhelming. But at the end of the day, I found it very informative, educational and empowering. Statistics change. New information is shared and learned. Do you know that:

  • one in seven teenagers run away from home;
  • parents who are addicted to drugs sometimes “rent out” their children even as young as two months old for money to buy more drugs and pay bills;
  • boyfriends can be pimps;
  • one in ten men sitting in the church pews are buyers of commercial sex, but we are not talking about it; and
  • girls are married off as young as nine years old?

I took in as much information as my mind and emotions would allow. The injustices towards women and girls are far greater than the short list mentioned. Generally speaking, men create the demand; women and girls are the supply. Human exploitation will not change until we all take action. Get the facts. Promote awareness. Connect to a local task force, coalition, or service. Volunteer your professional skills. Buy fair trade products. Know who your representatives are. Write, email, or call them. They want to hear from their constituents.

After I returned home from EAD to digest what I heard and learned, I finally felt like I could do something. I could make a difference or at least I could try. I was given the tools to do a lobby visit. I understood that gathering toiletries for women in prison is thoughtful and generous, and purchasing jewelry or bath products made by survivors of trafficking is supportive and worthwhile.

EAD 2015 is over but the work is just beginning. As an individual, my goal is to move from charity to justice. As American Baptist women and girls, I can only image what could be accomplished if we banded together just as the women of 1931 raised over-and-above monetary gifts to enable the denomination to continue its crucial ministries during the Great Depression. What could we accomplish today if we once again raise our voices together? “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy,” (Proverbs 31:8-9).

*From program booklet for Ecumenical Advocacy Days, 2015.

For more information about Ecumenical Advocacy Days, visit You may see photos of the 2015 event and watch videos of 2015 plenary speakers. 2016 Ecumenical Advocacy Days are April 15-18, 2016, at the DoubleTree Hotel by Hilton Washington, D.C., Crystal City.

Bonnie SestitoBonnie Sestito serves as Coordinator of Mission with Women and Girls for American Baptist Women’s Ministries.

Sunday after Christmas: Needing You This Christmas Season

By Jenn Leneus

Madonna and Child, Budapest, (c) 2012 Sandra Hasenauer

Madonna and Child, Budapest, (c) 2012 Sandra Hasenauer

10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul will exult in my God; for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.11 For as [surely as] the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring forth, so [surely] the Lord God will cause rightness and justice and praise to spring forth before all the nations [through the self-fulfilling power of His word]. For Zion’s sake will I [Isaiah] not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest until her imputed righteousness and vindication go forth as brightness, and her salvation radiates as does a burning torch.And the nations shall see your righteousness and vindication [your rightness and justice—not your own, but His ascribed to you], and all kings shall behold your salvation and glory; and you shall be called by a new name which the mouth of the Lord shall name.You shall also be [so beautiful and prosperous as to be thought of as] a crown of glory and honor in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem [exceedingly beautiful] in the hand of your God. (Isaiah 61:10–62:3, AMP)

Christmas time is a season of celebration and of praise. It is a season of remembrance and appreciation; for even before we were of existence, before we had breath in our bodies, God saw fit to save us from a world of destruction. He provided a way before we even knew we needed direction. Christ left his throne of glory, and became human for our sake. He came for men and women alike; not differentiating between sexes, color, age, or religion, making one of more importance. He came to provide life to the lifeless.

We are called to walk in the image of Christ and to see as he sees. As women, we are beautiful. Not just on the outside, but on the inside. We ought to teach other women their worth and self-value. In this day and time where human trafficking is at an all-time high, but is being kept low-key as if it is not an issue, women all around the world are being degraded and treated as less than human. Are we any better than them? Do they deserve the life that they are given? Of course not! I believe we have certain issues in our environment so that we are able to grow as one in the body. For the body has many members, but each member has a specific task to complete (1st Corinthians 12:12). If there is an open wound in the body, the heart picks up its pace and pumps more blood to accommodate for the loss. In the same manner, we ought to go out and reach out to our sisters that are suffering, whether it is through missions, outreach, or simply prayer. We are commissioned to go out to the four corners of the earth to introduce Christ to others (Matthew 28:19).

In the spirit of Christmas, let us remember our sisters in prayer. Lift them up before God so that God may hear our cries and heal their land (2 Chronicles 7:14). Let’s give them the assurance of being fearfully and wonderfully made. Together we can make a difference. Let us take this time to make a resolution to empower and uplift a woman, a young lady, or a little girl at least once a week. Who are we without each other? We are just one part of a body that needs our other parts in order to be fully functional!

Jenn LeneusJennifer Leneus serves as coordinator of Young Adult Women’s Ministries (2014-2017) on the national board of American Baptist Women’s Ministries. A member of Haitian Baptist Church at the Crossroads in Newark, New Jersey, Jenn served as secretary of the Youth Federation Committee for the Haitian Alliance of ABCUSA for three years. Jenn has helped plan several national events for young adult women sponsored by American Baptist Women’s Ministries. She is a graduated practical nursing student and is working towards her Bachelors in Nursing.


New podcast episode posted: Prison and Aftercare Ministries

Be sure to check out the newest episode of our In Their Shoes podcast series! “Episode 49: Prison and Aftercare Ministries” features an interview with Rev. Errol Cooper, associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, New Jersey. The congregation at First Baptist is deeply engaged in this ministry with members and with the community. Our conversation includes why there may be more people connected with the judicial system in your congregation than you’re aware; why this ministry is so critical, and some ideas for how you can engage in it yourself.

You can subscribe to the series, or download or listen to the episode through iTunes. You can also listen to the episode by clicking the “Listen now” button at the bottom of the show notes on the In Their Shoes Podcast page. You can forward this blog post to others, “like” it on Facebook, or post it to Twitter to help spread the word! And, as always, leave your comments and be part of the conversation!

Walking and Talking the Love of Jesus…

"Christ in the House of Simon," (detail), by Dieric Bouts the Elder, c 1440.

“Christ in the House of Simon,” (detail), by Dieric Bouts the Elder, c 1440.

Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little. (Luke 7:47, NIV)

This verse of Scripture is found within the story of a dialogue between Jesus and a religious leader named Simon. Luke 7:36-47 tells us about Simon, a Pharisee who had invited Jesus to come and have dinner at his home. It appears that the meal was happening somewhere out in the open because a woman of questionable character appeared and began to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears and wipe them off with her hair. Simon was appalled! Not only did her actions break the social and religious norms of the day, in Simon’s mind Jesus could not have been a true prophet because he allowed this woman to touch him.

Now, before we start to “jump all over Simon” because we know the end of the story, let’s put ourselves in Simon’s place. We may discover that we are more like Simon than we think! Although we preach, “whosoever will let them come,” frequently when they arrive we are conflicted. For a variety of reasons we are offended and afraid: offended because they tend to be rule breakers. Afraid because they have not yet been sanitized by our religiosity. Like the woman of questionable character they just love Jesus and are abundantly grateful for his grace and mercy. They haven’t yet learned “church etiquette.”

Our leeriness and fearfulness is particularly noticeable when formerly incarcerated persons come to our churches. We have concerns and, if we are honest, those concerns are understandable. Scripture, however, confronts us with the

example and unconditional love of Jesus Christ. Jesus never condoned sinful behavior. He chose rather to meet people where they were and offer to them a more excellent way.

So, then, the question arises,  “How can we authentically show the unconditional love of Jesus without being ‘duped’ by wolves in sheep’s clothing?” Isn’t that what’s at the heart of our fears? That if we open ourselves, our families, our communities, our churches to returning citizens, that they will take advantage of us and do us harm?

How do we overcome that major concern? Let’s consider some practical steps.

  1. Pray and ask the Lord for guidance and direction. This may sound simple and obvious, but you may be surprised to know the number of churches that jump into a ministry without discerning if that is God’s desire for them at that time.
  2. Make preparation for “the Lord’s guests.” As with anything, preparation is needed. Make preparation by having open and honest discussions about concerns, questions, and logistics. How is this going to work?
  3. Invite experienced volunteers and other professionals to speak with the congregation and selected ministry team leaders for special training sessions regarding tips, “do’s and don’ts,” etc.
  4. This is critical: develop a relationship with the local prison. Determine to go at least once monthly to the prison and hold Bible Study, prayer sessions, worship, and so forth. Take it a step further and find out who will be returning home soon. Be intentional about working with the prison to see how your church may be of support. Following guidelines, get to know the returning citizens coming back into your community. Once you develop a rapport, it will be easier to minister to them when they come home.
  5. Finally, keep your word. Don’t make promises that you cannot keep. Be realistic about what you can and cannot do.

Remember Jesus’ observation: Those who have been forgiven for much, love much. Might we add, those who realize they have been forgiven for much, love much!

May we realize the love that Jesus extended to us “while we were yet sinners” and be willing and eager to extend that same grace and mercy to others.

Rev. Christine A. SmithThis blog post is contributed by the Rev. Christine A. Smith, Senior Pastor, Covenant Baptist Church, Wickliffe, Ohio. Covenant Baptist is deeply engaged in ministries with formerly incarcerated persons.


Do you enjoy this blog? Help it continue by supporting American Baptist Women’s Ministries. Click here to donate. American Baptist Women’s Ministries is a diverse community of American Baptist women and girls engaged in ministry in Christ’s name. With local, area, region/state, and national levels of ministry, AB Women’s Ministries creates a community of passionately faithful, mission-minded women and girls engaged in worship, service, and friendship.

An event for women on prison and aftercare ministries

iStock_000014366748XSmallAmerican Baptist Women’s Ministries is addressing the topic of prison and aftercare ministries through its fourth virtual mission encounter for women in 2013, “For I Was in Prison and You Visited Me: Prison and Aftercare Ministries,” November 4-8, 2013. Virtual mission encounters can be done without leaving town and while still attending to family and work responsibilities. The virtual mission encounter includes emailed daily activities, a private blog with more information or reflections and to enable conversation among participants during the experience, and evening conference calls with special guests who have experience and direct engagement in the topic of the day.

“For I Was in Prison and You Visited Me” offers participants the opportunity to learn about preventative ministries with at-risk youth, ministries with incarcerated individuals and their families, and aftercare ministries with newly returned citizens, as well as exploring the restorative justice movement. Guests include Rev. Julia Moses, Associate Minister/Minister of Christian Education, Covenant Baptist Church and Chaplain of The Cleveland Clinic Foundation; Miriam Grady, volunteer with COTAAN, an aftercare ministry; Rev. Fela Barrueto, ABHMS national coordinator for Prisoner Re-Entry and Aftercare Ministry; and Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz, co-director of Mennonite Central Committee’s Office on Justice and Peacebuilding and author of several books on restorative justice.

AB Women’s Ministries Executive Director Virginia Holmstrom commented, “This is an issue that touches families and communities everywhere. Within any group of people—in a church or in an extended family—somebody knows someone, or is someone, that has been incarcerated. Here’s a chance to learn what’s at stake and how to walk alongside those that Jesus spoke of in Matthew 25.”

Registration for the “For I Was in Prison and You Visited Me” five-day virtual mission encounter is $30 per person; deadline for registration is October 31, 2013. More information and online registration is available at, click on “Events.”

Update on COTAAN Ministries in Ohio

We checked in recently with Rev. Christine Smith, pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in Wycliffe, Ohio, to see how things were going with the a-borning COTAAN project. You may recall reading previous posts contributed by Rev. Smith. (Use this link to see all of the previously posted COTAAN-related blog entries.) Rev. Smith was thrilled to be able to let us know what was going on! Here is what she had to say….

“We held our community open house on Monday, October 15th.  In preparation for the meeting, we painted  two of the classrooms and prepared the children’s room (a room designed for children of the program participants should they need child care during their time with us) for the meeting tour. We had about 15 agencies to respond to our invitation; not all showed up, but their responses were very enthusiastic and encouraging. We had presentations and remarks from three of our community partners and received information about several other agencies that may be willing to partner with us. We were also blessed to have a testimony from a young lady who served time in prison years ago. She shared the struggles of returning citizens and how a ministry like COTAAN would have blessed and benefited her in her time of transition and need.

“Since our last discussion, the Lord touched the heart of one of Covenant’s members to donate a van to the church/COTAAN for our transportation ministry! The van will be used to provide transportation to program participants should they need a ride to the meetings. Although the van is older, the family had just replaced the old engine with a new one. Isn’t that a wonderful metaphor for what the COTAAN program is striving to do? While we can’t change the vessel, God can change the heart within the vessel and make it brand new!

“The program agenda is below. Unfortunately, we were so excited to have our first event, our director forgot to take pictures – ugggh! Oh well, can’t get everything right! Keep us in your prayers. We are awaiting an answer from our most recent grant endeavor. We had to push our actual start date back to January 15th, 2013, while we seek additional funds for the program. In the mean time, we have visits planned to the Cleveland area pre-release center, meetings with additional partners scheduled, and letters going out to local pastors and churches, inviting them to refer individuals to COTAAN.”

Program Schedule:

Meet & Greet Reception
Welcome–Minister Kathryn Johnson, COTAAN Program Director
Opening Prayer–Rev. Christine Smith, Covenant Baptist Church Senior Pastor
Scripture Reading  (Luke: 4:18-19)–Sister Rhonda Lawrence, COTAAN Teache
COTAAN Overview
Vision for COTAAN              Pastor Christine Smith
Mission Statement                 Min. Kathryn Johnson (“The mission of COTAAN is to provide a soft landing to those coming from a hard start.”)
Statement of Need                  Min. Kathryn Johnson
Program Overview                 Min. Kathryn Johnson
Introduction of Teachers
Reverend Christine A. Smith, Senior Pastor Covenant Baptist Church
Minister Kathryn Johnson, Associate Minister Covenant Baptist Church
Reverend Julia Moses, Associate Minister Covenant Baptist Church
Reverend Monica Morris, Associate Minister Covenant Baptist Church
Sister Denise Bryant, Lay Church School Teacher Covenant Baptist Church
Sister Rhonda Lawrence, Lay Church School Teacher Covenant Baptist Church

COTAAN Partners
Rasheda Mims, Fifth Third Bank
Devon Hickman, Cleveland Clinic Foundation
Miriam Grady, COTAAN Volunteer & Testimonial Supporter

Questions and Answers
Solicitation of Support                       Min. Kathryn Johnson
Words of Appreciation                       Pastor Christine Smith
COTAAN Classrooms Tour

COTAAN is a grant project of AB Women’s Ministries. For more information about COTAAN , including how you could help support this ministry, click here.

COTAAN–God Makes Connections

Casual conversations, chance meetings. God speaks.

Since we’ve started the COTAAN journey, opening ourselves up to the possibilities before us, God has brought people and resources our way that we never heard of or thought about.

Recently, while visiting one of our congregation’s ministers in the hospital, I began to talk to her roommate’s daughter.  Low and behold, the roommate is a close friend of a friend of mine!  She leads a prison ministry!  We are planning to meet soon to talk about ways to connect through COTAAN.

While in the ladies’ room at an appreciation dinner, another minister began sharing about her hectic day with me in casual conversation.  When I inquired about her experience, she shared that she was responsible for assisting in coordinating a graduation ceremony for Women in Transition, a beautiful program sponsored by Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, offering resources and support for women living through times of transition in their lives. I told her about COTAAN and asked if she would be willing to connect me with her director so that we could consider ways for the two programs to collaborate.  Since then, COTAAN’s director, Minister Kathy Johnson, and I have met with the director and assistant for Women in Transition.  We are currently exploring ways to support one another without overlapping services.  We would like to be able to refer women to all of their various opportunities–from education to employment connections–while they would like to refer women to COTAAN for spiritual support and financial self-sufficiency workshops!

Casual conversations, chance meetings: God is on the move, opening doors and showing us the way. It’s a little scary, but also very exciting!

The COTAAN blog posts are contributed by Rev. Christine A. Smith, pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in Wickliffe, OH, Stay tuned for more on this story!

COTAAN is a grant project of AB Women’s Ministries. For more information about COTAAN , including how you could help support this ministry, click here.

COTAAN–Communicating with the Congregation

(One of the questions we had asked Rev. Christine Smith to address in these blog posts was, “Why and how are you communicating about the work of the ministry with your congregation?” Sometimes a church will launch a ministry and then assume everyone knows what’s going on; they forget to keep the congregation engaged in the process. When this occurs, the result can be that it becomes just a small handful of people carrying the ministry on. Communication is crucial to the success of a ministry, so we asked Rev. Smith to talk to us about COTAAN’s experience in this area.)

COTAAN is still in the infancy stages.  Honestly, COTAAN will help our church to clearly understand the “doing” of ministry.  Other than raising money to send to overseas missions or missionaries, and doing nursing home visitations or assisting in a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving, my congregation (unfortunately) did not have a history of hands on, community, “in-your-face” ministry.  For some, “ministry over there”–in other words, when money is sent off to people we probably will never have to touch, see, or feel, except in pictures–for some that has been more comfortable.  For me, it is a social justice issue.  Jesus wants us to “do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God,” (Micah 6:8)

As we launch COTAAN, our congregation will be invited to participate in various ways: assisting with Bible study, building maintenance, moral support, and so forth.  There are so many points of intersection for people of a variety of skills and availability. A few of our members will sit on the board and one of our associate ministers will serve as the director.  COTAAN is a wonderful opportunity for our congregation to learn how to minister in tangible ways to the hurting, struggling, and renewing in our midst.

The COTAAN blog posts are contributed by Rev. Christine A. Smith, pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in Wickliffe, OH, Stay tuned for more on this story!

COTAAN is a grant project of AB Women’s Ministries. For more information about COTAAN , including how you could help support this ministry, click here.

COTAAN–Collaborations and Partnerships

This post continues to follow the evolution of a new ministry being born: COTAAN, a prison re-entry and aftercare outreach.

Building Collaborations and Partnerships

Depending upon the size of your congregation, it is important to assess what your capabilities are.  In other words, how many volunteers you have that are willing and able to assist with the program, be on a board, and help with practical things like answering the phone, assisting with office needs, just “being there” during the hours of operation so that the staff of the program does not have to be by themselves as they meet individuals.

It is also important to identify what is offered by other agencies in your area so that you are not re-inventing the wheel.  Understand that you can’t do everything.  Pick a few things that through prayer and experience appear to be your congregation’s strong suits.  Individuals re-entering society need support in the following ways:

  • The basics of food, clothes and shelter: They may need assistance with getting into a “half-way” house, food vouchers, a few changes of clothes, personal hygiene items, etc.
  • Emotional/psychological counseling
  • Spiritual guidance and support
  • Encouragement and acceptance
  • Depending upon the length of time they’ve been away, perhaps a re-introduction to society today (technological changes, new laws in place, the job application process)
  • Clothes for job interviews (connecting with programs like “Dress for Success”)
  • Bus passes for transportation

Google is a wonderful thing!  In addition to speaking with local pastors and missions in your area, you can put in key words like, “prison after care programs,” or “support for ex-felons” or similar phrases to identify local agencies.

As I mentioned in a previous post, our congregation determined that we would provide referrals to other organizations and agencies providing many of the needed services, thereby focusing our energies on those things we were uniquely equipped to do.  Start by building bridges first. Then see where your ministry is most needed, and what tools and gifts for service God has given you in particular.

The COTAAN blog posts are contributed by Rev. Christine A. Smith, pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in Wickliffe, OH, Stay tuned for more on this story!

COTAAN is a grant project of AB Women’s Ministries. For more information about COTAAN , including how you could help support this ministry, click here.

COTAAN–Developing a Plan and Building a Team

This post continues to follow the evolution of a new ministry being born: COTAAN, a prison re-entry and aftercare outreach.

Developing a Plan and Building a Team

I brought the vision for a re-entry program to the church general board.  The board unanimously accepted the idea and was excited about the vision.  One of our board members was already involved in prison ministry; that member had worked in the community to assist ex-felons in finding employment and also had a family member who was being released from incarceration.  We began to discuss funding for such a ministry, as our congregation is small and has limited financial resources.  We also discussed securing a grant writer to help us to think through all of the particulars for such program.

The grant writer helped us to identify what was manageable for us as a small congregation.  Through her guidance, we determined that even with funding, we were not equipped to offer a full-scale re-entry program.  However, we could serve as a referral service: partnering with larger established re-entry programs in our area. We also determined that we wanted to provide a spiritual component that would help individuals to further develop their sense of redemption and security in the Lord, and understand the power of prayer to help re-direct their lives and order their “moral compass.”  Finally, we also wanted to assist in providing them with practical tools for self-sufficiency.  Therefore, we determined that we wanted to include workshops in collaboration with a local bank to help them develop money management skills.

American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHMS) has wonderful social justice ministry resources.  I would encourage anyone who is interested to visit their site and contact a representative to discuss possibilities.  In terms of setting up a board of directors, I would not recommend a large board (no more than 5-6 people).  Be very clear about what their role in the program will be: Are they expected to assist in raising additional monies for the program?  Are they partners or “overseers?”  What level of expertise to they need?  How are they connected to the vision for the program? (Finance? Law? Business? Shelters? etc). It would help to write up a job description for a member of the board of directors that would include responsibilities as well as other considerations before you begin asking people to serve.

The COTAAN blog posts are contributed by Rev. Christine A. Smith, pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in Wickliffe, OH, Stay tuned for more on this story!

COTAAN is a grant project of AB Women’s Ministries. For more information about COTAAN , including how you could help support this ministry, click here.