Hillsong New York care pastor Steve Svoboda knows the Freedom Run sounds like a pretty lofty goal. A 280-mile relay from Manhattan to Washington, DC., over a period of three days to raise money for Prison Fellowship's criminal justice reform efforts?
"It's the first thing we've done like this [as a church]," Steve admits. "We're basically shooting for the moon."
WE RUN FOR JUSTICE; WE RUN FOR FREEDOM
Hillsong is a contemporary Christian church that began in Australia and has since grown into a global movement, according to the church's website. Hillsong is most widely known for their influential Christian worship music. The global network of churches reports over 150 thousand people in weekly attendance in 30 countries. And since 2019, Hillsong New York has partnered with Prison Fellowship® to bring the hope of the Gospel to the incarcerated at Rikers Island.
This partnership—and current events in our nation—have motivated members of Hillsong New York to action. The goal of the Freedom Run is to raise money to help support Prison Fellowship advocacy efforts holistically, which advance restorative values in the criminal justice system. One way Prison Fellowship is doing this is through the Justice Ambassador program. Justice Ambassadors are select volunteer advocates who use their voices to inspire the Church, change the culture, and advance justice that restores. Through pledges and sponsorships, Hillsong New York is helping us fund the launch of our new Justice Ambassador digital volunteer platform that will be crucial to deepening Justice Ambassador engagement.
"We want to run to bring freedom to people’s lives," Steve explains. "We want to run to bring hope, to bring change. … The Freedom Run basically is our way of putting our feet to action, putting ourselves in motion, and saying, 'Hey, we're going to do something that's challenging to help people in challenging situations.'"
'As a church we have faith that our country can truly embody freedom for every individual. And yet, faith without works accomplishes nothing. So, in order to be a part of the solution, we will be hosting a race from NYC to D.C., to raise money for criminal justice reform.'
Freedom Run FAQ
'OCCUPY YOUR STREETS'
The Freedom Run began on Thursday, August 20, in the heart of New York City. A team of runners ran 280 miles in just three days down the East Coast, ending in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, August 22.
It was a grueling run for the team. They ran around the clock and did live check-ins every hour on the hour to share their progress with their social media followers. They also shared why they were running and talked about Prison Fellowship's ministry. In between turns, the runners took showers and napped, thanks to a tour bus that followed behind them.
To raise money, Hillsong New York asked people to sponsor the run team or register for a virtual run in their own community. Registrants pledged $10 per mile and received an official bib and run number. Virtual runners were asked to post photos on Instagram with the hashtag #hsecfreedomrun to raise awareness. Church attendees from all over the country also joined in. And in California, Hillsong LA held a run on Saturday, August 22.
"Our pastor [Carl Lentz] always refers to Ephesians 3:20—that God is able to do immeasurably more than we could ever ask, think, dream, or imagine. And we believe [the Freedom Run] is one of those things that can bring freedom to people's lives. That's our prayer and that's our hope." Steve has witnessed how prison "doesn’t just affect one person, the person who is incarcerated. It has a drastic effect on multiple people." Injustice can devastate a community already reeling from crime. "Things could look differently. Things should look differently," he says. "Systemically, there's just change that needs to take place."
REFORM IS A GOSPEL MESSAGE
With recent protests in American streets over racial injustice, Hillsong New York knows that hope is needed more than ever. And that hope can be found in the Gospel of Jesus. Criminal justice reform and racial justice, therefore, are part of the Gospel message.
"I want to see reform because I think it's necessary, for starters," Steve says, "but at the core of it, I think that it's a Gospel thing. … The Gospel is all about life change." Since the fall of humanity, individual and systemic sin threaten and destroy the safety and peace God intended. The result: Broken lives, relationships, and communities that require the restorative justice envisioned and empowered by God and His Word.
Prison Fellowship's experience in prisons has brought us face to face with racism, an individual and systemic sin that violates human dignity and worth. We have witnessed firsthand the stark racial disparities in the criminal justice system. As Christians, we believe ending racism must be addressed at both individual and systemic levels. And the Church is uniquely equipped to contribute Gospel-focused, nonviolent protest and advocacy for racial reconciliation and communal healing. That truth is a primary motivator for Hillsong NYC.
"We could simply just be chillin' at home watching Netflix," Steve adds. "But instead we're saying, 'No, we want to do something and to be a part of change.'"
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