This piece first appeared in Political Theology volume 23, issue 4, a special issue on Incarceration and Decarceration. The full issue is available here.
The following is an edited excerpt from a conversation that was conducted in April 2021 in conjunction with “Incarceration Nation,” a class that Joshua Dubler and Precious Bedell teach each spring at the University of Rochester as part of their work with the Rochester Education Justice Initiative. David Brazil and Sarah Pritchard founded Abolition Apostles in 2019. In early 2022, they stepped away from the organization.
Joshua Dubler (JD): So would you please introduce yourselves to our students?
David Brazil (DB): Of course, thank you. My name is David Brazil. I’m a pastor – a non-denominational Christian pastor – with my wife and co-pastor, Sarah Pritchard. I’m the co-founder of the Abolition Apostles national jail and prison ministry, which is based in New Orleans, Louisiana where we live.
Sarah Pritchard (SP): I’m Sarah Pritchard, and I am the other founding co-pastor of Abolition Apostles, and I’m here in New Orleans as well.
DB: And we’re joined by our son, Sam.
JD: If you’re listening to the audio, Sam is a year and a half.
DB: Fifteen months, exactly.
JD: …and is eating a banana. And we’re very happy to have you with us, Sam. So, tell us about the project. Tell our students about Abolition Apostles.
DB: Absolutely. We’ll try to keep it short and let y’all ask questions, because the truth is it reaches back into the depths of our biographies and our spiritual walk. Just briefly, Sarah and I co-founded a church in Oakland, California where we used to live in 2015 – Agape Fellowship – which is an interfaith community church and a very activist church. And that’s really where Sarah and I began to work together, to do work in community around Black liberation, anti-white supremacy work, anti-capitalist work, and work related to mass incarceration. And all of these things were kind of connected together because they are all connected together in our lives. Abolition was part of what we worked on, but just one among several things in a kind of anti-capitalist package, as it were. And that’s when I met Joshua [Dubler] when he was in California to present at an abolition seminar that I helped organize.
In 2019 we began Abolition Apostles formally under that name, and we began with penpalling because we realized that prison penpalling was a need that was largely unmet. Existing penpal groups serve special populations. One of the best known, Black and Pink, serves specifically queer folks, but there are other ones that serve people in solitary confinement, people on death row, but there’s no one group that provides free, national penpal services to anybody who asks. So we began with penpalling as the first in a five-fold solidarity platform with incarcerated people. Our five-fold starts with penpalling. It moves onto material support which can include commissary which is like a prison bank account, legal support where possible, research support for people who don’t have access to the internet. The third stage is visitation in prison. Fourth is advocacy, so supporting folks on the inside by speaking up on their behalf to parole boards and also doing community organizing. And lastly, doing re-entry work. We have a re-entry program called RESET, which is Re-entry Support Experience Teams that puts volunteers together with people who are coming out of prison. So, that’s our five-fold solidarity program.
Since 2019, what we do in Abolition Apostles has grown enormously. We now serve over 2100 incarcerated people across the country, in 36 states. We have over a thousand volunteers who help us do this work. We have 22 state chapters as well as a chapter in the District of Columbia where volunteers help to coordinate local organizing in support of things that are happening in those states. And we have different working groups. We have a legal working group that helps with legal issues, we have a Spanish working group for monolingual Spanish speakers, and other working groups that I could describe. The last things that I’ll say are that this is not a non-profit. We are entirely volunteer-run and donation based. We don’t take money from the state, from foundations, or from any church. Sarah and I are non-denominational pastors who don’t receive any salary for this work or any money from any church. We are an explicitly anti-capitalist ministry. We like to be clear about our politics, so that people can make an informed decision about engaging with us. We don’t require people to share those politics, but we like to be clear that we’re anti-capitalists, that we’re anti-white-supremacists so people know where we’re coming from. And finally, we’re a Christian ministry, but it’s not necessary to be a Christian in order to participate. We work with people from all faith backgrounds and people who wouldn’t describe themselves as being from any faith background. And as for folks who are inside, there are no strings attached to our services which are always free. We make religious materials available to those who request them, but we are not an evangelizing or proselytizing ministry. Once more, we just like to be really clear about where we’re personally coming from so people don’t feel the experience of some bait-and-switch down the road, but we like to make sure that that’s clear. We have a regular Sunday orientation meeting where we bring people on board to this work. We’ve started a national hotline that’s all volunteer-run. We’re also working to open a hospitality house near Angola, Louisiana State Penitentiary.
JD: I’m eager to hear about your vision for the hospitality center. As well, Precious and I work together here on a project that’s prison education, and prison-to-college pipeline and re-entry and we’re trying to decarcerate our community, and I don’t think we can claim to be anti-capitalist in this work – we’re trying to shake the capitalist tree. I definitely want to get back to that. I want us to just step back. I’m thinking about talking to you, David, when Abolition Apostles was just beginning to grow and before you even knew whether you were going to have a web presence at all. I’m just thinking from my students’ perspective, who just read Mariame Kaba. The questions I have for y’all are two-fold. One, how the hell do you all know what to do? So I think you might be geniuses at discernment or maybe you were just in it – it probably didn’t feel that way from your perspective. But for many of Precious and my students it’s like, I wanna get involved but I don’t know how. I would love to hear reflection of how you came to this vision. A practical version of that is when you lay out the five-fold solidarity program. How much are you tapping into existing institutional structures? How much are you engendering structures ex nihilo? I’m just really curious about both that internal process of answering a call and then the practical questions of how to build it.
SP: Thank you for those questions. I think to the first question the short answer is really what David already outlined in terms of the genesis of Abolition Apostles in 2019 being both the pilgrimage that we took to visit my friend Luis who is locked up in Calipatria and then subsequently the vision that that gave us to build this ministry. But I think behind that, and I think oftentimes as pastors we get questions from our congregants about like: what is discernment anyways and how do I do it? And so, I think for both of us there are keys to discernment that were important for us every step of the way and continue to be sort of guideposts for us as we do this ministry, and those include prayer, so spending time speaking to God and listening for what we can discern of God’s will, scripture study, and as you know and I’m sure your students will be familiar, there are so many places in scripture where we are enjoined to care for, visit, free the captive. We take those passages very seriously and actually very literally. And then, Christian conversation in community, which could be conversation in your faith-based community of your choosing. So David and I are blessed to have one another but also blessed to be in relationship with other believers and folks who are also directly impacted by mass incarceration from whom we take wisdom and guidance. Certainly, to begin my years-long relationship with Luis was a big part of our discernment and just learning from my own experience of the way that being in relationship with Luis over time transformed my own life and heart and recognizing from that experience like, oh there’s something really important about penpalling and the transformative potential for people on the outside who are not directly impacted to have their hearts and minds changed through building relationships with folks through penpalling but also for people on the inside the way that having a penpal can be a real lifeline for them and can break the isolation that is so cruel as part of incineration. But then also, once you start to build a relationship with someone who is incarcerated – like a friend of ours says that penpalling is low-threshold, high-ceiling activity because once you are in relationship with someone who is incarcerated, you start to recognize all of the ways that folks need support and all the things that people on the outside can do that are concrete actions to help people gain access to resources to do the kinds of things that you’re talking about, Joshua, which is like figuring what are the institutional connections and resources to help people actually get out of prison sooner. All those types of things were part of my experience being in relationship with beliefs, and I recognize that if we can create a larger network of the people who are engaged in this type of solidarity that together, if we collectivize our resources and our labor, we’ll be much better equipped to actually support people on the inside. So I would say those three guideposts – prayer, scripture study, and Christian community of believers – are really what we go back to in terms of how we continue to discern the direction of this ministry. David is there anything else you would add?
DB: Yeah. Josh, you said students are saying, how can I get involved? which I think is a great question, obviously. And I think that for us, a lot of what we’ve striven to do is create an organizing project that’s organizing folks both inside and outside, so we’re organizing folks in prison and also helping them to experience their own power as organizers while also bringing folks outside, especially folks who are maybe not directly impacted, into this work. And the truth is, it’s kind of hard, often, to figure out – you read Mariame Kaba, you follow her on Twitter, you read Are Prisons Obsolete, and you’re like, okay I’ve read the books, what do I do? And we’ve actually literally had a lot of people say this to us. And so our thing is to basically create tons of things to do, a ton of ways to interface. In part to deprive people of an alibi, to say, hey look there is some really low threshold stuff you can do. You can write a letter. You can make a five-dollar commissary donation. If you’re ready to take the next step, you can visit somebody in prison or help somebody who is transitioning out of prison. You can be a signatory to a letter on a parole board or be part of community organizing. So what we’re trying to do is connect the dots between a lot of different organizations and then connect our volunteers with those organizations as well as people in prison – to be this kind of clearing house for concrete abolitionist praxis which we also believe is the best political education there is because, as Sarah was saying, once you make that connection with someone in prison, it’s very humanizing. Once you go into a prison, as I’m sure you both know very well, your life changes because you’re just like, these places – nobody should be here, this shouldn’t exist. There is something about getting your body in that space that really changes you. So, I think we have designed what we do to say, you don’t have to figure out – we’ve built something from scratch so you don’t have to. You can figure out how you get in, where you fit in on a whole host of engagements. If you’re a writer, we have an arts working group, if you’re a lawyer, we have a legal working group. And our vision is that even what we have now is just a skeleton of what can grow the more people God sends us.
SP: I think it’s really important for people, for white folks and for people who are not directly impacted by mass incarceration, to look for the leadership that’s coming from Black folks especially and from formerly incarcerated folks in your community. And that’s what we spent most of 2019 when we first got to New Orleans – that’s what we spent most of our time doing – connecting with the leadership and organizing that has already been happening here for in some cases decades and figuring out how we can put our work in service of that existing leadership.
PB: I think my response… is really to say thank you. I am a formerly incarcerated person. I did nineteen years in a maximum security facility, Bedford, years ago, and it was really kind of on the line of reform versus punitiveness. We got a governor in, Pataki, in the nineties and parole changed. And actually parole here in New York was – it was created in New York. They had the first parole here in New York and people made their parole boards regardless of violent felony or non-violent felony. People came in, they did what they needed to do, they were remorseful, and they were redeemed when they were granted – by being granted parole, that helped their redemption in many ways. So, I created a prison ministry with a priest in the episcopal diocese. I’m a member of two saints, Saint Luke and Saint Simon. And so, I just have not been as successful as you’ve been. I live in a part of the world where people face so much stigma, so much poverty, so much oppression, and so much divisions with their families that are incarcerated. So, some people would love to visit. They don’t have funds to visit. So we fundraise and help people with gas cards. And Mother’s Day is coming up and our visiting has just started back yesterday, on the 28th, because of COVID. And the 3rd it’ll be open up to minimum and medium facilities…
[We also] have the Justice Scholars program and I’m really grateful to be a part of that piece, that component of the Rochester Education Justice Initiative because I have an opportunity to just get people into higher education when they leave the prison system and people in the prison system education by hiring professors and graduate students from the university or in other places. They go in and teach. So the component of my community outreach and my experience and my having a center in our community gives me an advantage of knowing the issues… [and] I want to get people, especially people who are impacted, like families, to build the program with me.
JD: Let me ask you one question, and again I’m thinking about my students, and I don’t want to keep you all too long, but you described yourselves as pragmatic abolitionists, and frankly it’s like, of all the reasons to be an abolitionist, one of them is because it is the pragmatic thing to be at this moment in history. Kind of like a strategic absolutism on the one hand and a kind of spiritual energy and a will to not be fooled again by the same old ways that the system absorbs critique and reconstitutes itself to grow.
JD: We’re all code-switchers, and I’m not an abolitionist when I’m talking to the Department of Corrections. But I’m curious about a different kind of code-switching, particularly with my students in mind, many of whom would think: religion and liberation? But religion is the handmaiden of patriarchy and domination. So, coming from the Bay Area where – when we spoke back in 2017, David – where one slips in and out of religious rhetorics because you’re in a pretty secular or even secularist space, does Louisiana feel like a homecoming? Because the religious discourses are – that’s the lingua franca there, I would assume, right? Or am I overstating it?
DB: It’s a great question. I think that we were expecting that it would more so be here, and the day-to-day normativity of the Christian hegemony, I guess is more present, in terms of that it’s unexceptionable that people use religious language in day-to-day life, but the feeling that that actually translates into much of anything different, I can’t say feels that much to me. And so I think that we are often enough speaking and relating in a secular way here. It’s a somewhat different feeling than the Bay, I guess. Also because political currents are less radical here, so that’s another issue that you can’t take for granted that people understand the ideas of the Black Panther Party as they did in Oakland or are conversant with the basics of Marxism or share those values, so there is also just work to be done on explaining: Yes, we’re Christians. We’re Christians in the tradition of Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner and John Brown. This is a red thread of American Christianity and Christianity as such. But that takes a little more often spelling out here.
The full conversation between Joshua Dubler, Precious Bedell, David Brazil, and Sarah Pritchard can be accessed here.