One of the things we do at Prison Fellowship® is equip everyday people to advocate for justice reform. This year we hosted the Justice Declaration Symposium in Washington, D.C., to strengthen the church and its leaders in the calling to restore those impacted by crime and incarceration. The event was followed by a Day of Action on Capitol Hill. Those who attended the Symposium met with members of Congress to discuss the need to restore prisoners' access to Pell Grants for higher education.
We tagged along with Jared and Paola Rendon, a married couple who participated in the events, to find out what the experience was like.
DAY OF ACTION
WATCH: At Prison Fellowship, our goal is to equip everyday people to advocate for justice reform. At the recent Day of Action event on Capitol Hill, we followed married couple Jared and Paola Rendon as they lobbied for restoration of Pell Grants for prisoners.
Jared is a pastor and serves as director of the Dream Center at Next Level Church in Fort Myers, Florida. The Fort Myers Dream Center exists to heal the hurting and restore hopes and dreams. "We serve in a population where most of our high-level volunteers have come from some sort of involvement in the criminal system," Paola says.
The Justice Declaration Symposium exposed the Rendons to every facet of crime and incarceration, from victim care to family impact to advocacy. Afterward, Jared said, "This has been extremely helpful from a practical level to a high level on how we can go back to serve our community … in a better way."
The Rendons knew they would be in advocacy meetings the next day. Considering the day ahead, Paola felt, "A little nervous …" However, Jared was looking forward to it. "I'm excited. I think it gives us the opportunity to really be a voice and put our voice into practice."
Jared is a pastor and serves as director of the Dream Center at Next Level Church in Florida.
'We serve in a population where most of our high-level volunteers have come from some sort of involvement in the criminal system.'
LOBBYING FOR JUSTICE REFORM
The next morning, Jared and Paola, along with other church leaders and pastors, met for a training session over breakfast, just across the street from the Capitol. Members of our justice reform team first briefed the group on the current state of Pell Grants for prisoners. Then, they shared what avenues reform might take that would allow prisoners to access the funds for higher education. Finally, our team explained some best practices for how to talk and behave in a lobbying meeting.
Once the session was over, the group broke up into smaller teams. These teams would be zig-zagging across Capitol Hill as they went from meeting to meeting. Paola and Jared were a bit nervous as they took their seats for the first meeting. But before long, both of them shared passionately and personally about the issue with the Congressional staffer across the table.
"I feel like seeds were planted," Jared said. "[The staffer] definitely had a little tough outer shell towards the issue. But through personalized stories and through just stories that we've lived through, we believe that seeds were planted to hopefully get them to at least even review the issue at hand."
In all, Jared and Paola had three meetings to raise the need for Pell Grants to be available to incarcerated students.
'I feel like seeds were planted. [The staffer] definitely had a little tough outer shell towards the issue. But through personalized stories and through just stories that we've lived through, we believe that seeds were planted to hopefully get them to at least even review the issue at hand.'
'MY VOICE MATTERS'
After reflecting on the experience, Jared said, "The first couple of lobbying visits were quite the experience. Honestly didn't know what to expect out of them." But, he added, "It was unbelievable."
"I couldn't have done what we did today without the training of Prison Fellowship," he said. "It equipped us with statistics, with stories, with facts. Because it's one thing to come with a compelling story, but then it's another thing to come with just—quite frankly—cold, hard facts that support the issue that's at hand. And so with the [prior training] call and the training this morning, it thoroughly equipped us to walk into those rooms confidently to tell a story that could hopefully change tons of outcomes."
Paola, who was initially anxious about the meetings, said, "Today's experience sitting with people from our community, our state, … it just gave me that thought that my voice matters. That I can make a difference. Not only in my local community, but … we can make a difference nationally."
"The experiences the last few days have been absolutely incredible," Jared said. "One of my biggest takeaways is that as the Church, … we have a responsibility to use our voice to bring about change. … We have to take action towards change. Because if not us, then who will? And over the last two days, I've just realized that I am more empowered to bring change. And I think I have more tools and resources in my corner to bring about change, not just in my city and locally, but in our [federal] government."
'One of my biggest takeaways is that as the Church, … we have a responsibility to use our voice to bring about change. … We have to take action towards change. Because if not us, then who will?'
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