By Alan Bean
Forty days ago, I sat down in Kent McKeever’s office in Waco. It was the first day of a Lenten fast in which the lawyer-pastor would give up free world respectability by wearing the orange jumpsuit of the incarcerated. He never dreamed that his story would end up in the New York Times, but so it has.
Kent wanted to use his blog to draw attention to mass incarceration and what the experts call “felon disenfranchisement”. The normal course would have been to rail against the powers and principalities of this evil age. That would have garnered a few hundred hits, a few thousand at best, and most of the readers would be in full agreement with his perspective.
But following in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, Kent decided to dramatize his message, even if that cost him the anonymity and social comfort that comes with being a white male in a town owned and operated by white males.
In today’s blog post, Kent voices his amazement at the attention his symbolic gesture has received. He shares three experiences from Good Friday including this:
My parents are in town for the weekend so we went to a local restaurant for some takeout. As we waited for our food, a couple of the staff mentioned that they had been reading about me. I gave them my usual smile and thanks, and kept sipping my water. And then Juan came up to our table where we waited. He said he heard what I was doing and wanted to shake my hand. He knew what I was wearing. He had been there. He thanked me. I asked how long he had been out. Two years. And he had been blessed with a job at this restaurant since he got out. Things were going pretty well for him, praise God. But I could still see a remnant of that shame that we unnecessarily and without mercy place on people like Juan. We shook hands again, he thanked me, I told him it was a blessing for me, and he concluded, “We’re not all bad people.”
Amen, Juan. Amen. And that’s 40 Days in Orange.
APRIL 18, 2014
Kent McKeever has been summoned for jury duty twice. The second time was on March 17, more than a week into Lent, so he had no choice but to wear his orange prison jumpsuit. As he entered the McLennan County courthouse in Waco, Tex., two sheriff’s officers stopped him.
“The first one just kind of looks at me. He asks, ‘Where’d you get that?’ ”
“I said, ‘At the jail supply company.’ ”
“ ‘They sold it to you?’ ”
“ ‘I told them it was for personal use.’ And he was, like, ‘Hmm.’ ”
Mr. McKeever, a lawyer and part-time youth minister at Seventh and James Baptist Church in Waco, had prepared for worse when he committed to wearing the jumpsuit for Lent. After years of providing both spiritual and legal assistance to the poor and formerly incarcerated, it was time to do something more visible to call attention to the nation’s prison crisis, and to the obstacles inmates face on returning to society. But 40 days is a long time to dress like a convict, especially in Texas.
“A couple different people said, ‘I hope you don’t get shot!’ ” Mr. McKeever recalled on Wednesday, Day 37, speaking by phone from his primary job, as the director at Mission Waco Legal Services, where he helps clients navigate the legal barriers they face at every turn. “I didn’t know what people’s reactions would be. But I knew that I personally needed to experience what it feels like to be rejected and have stigma attached to you. As a white professional male, I’ve never had that experience before.”
Mr. McKeever, who grew up three hours west in Abilene, has worn prisoner’s clothes while delivering sermons, shopping for groceries, strolling the San Antonio River Walk and taking his daughter to the movies. He has kept a blog reflecting on his experiences (Day 6: “Stares, questioning glances, avoidance”) and on the politics of mass incarceration.
Engaging with those politics is the essence of his Christianity. “We follow a condemned criminal!” he said. “That’s very much at the heart of our faith. So I try to bring that in.”
Of course, themes like repentance and redemption have always been a natural fit within prison walls, but as Mr. McKeever has found in his work, they don’t often translate into the treatment former inmates get on the outside.
Among other efforts, he has pushed employers to stop asking about a job applicant’s criminal history — an effort known elsewhere as “Ban the Box.” But as a native Texan, he’s sensitive to tone. “I call it a fair-chance hiring policy,” he says. “It’d be hard even in a conservative place not to get behind something called a fair chance.”
For Mr. McKeever, the days of Lent and Easter — the emergence of life from death, as he puts it — are the perfect time to highlight these issues. “There are certainly consequences of our sins,” he said. “But what do we want for that person who has broken the law? Do we want to just respond with punishment and condemnation, or do we want to try to redeem and rehabilitate and help bring goodness and life and love out of that?”