‘Voices of Jubilee’ encourages, inspires incarcerated youth

New worshiping community began as a gospel choir at a Virginia juvenile correctional center

by Kelley Hope, Presbytery of the James | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Some of the volunteers with the Voices of Jubilee, a new worshiping community in the Presbytery of the James. (Photo by Mark Fagerburg)

RICHMOND, Virginia — In the fall of 2018, youth at Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center (BAJCC) in Chesterfield County, Virginia, asked to start a gospel choir. The request reached the Rev. Lauren Ramseur and the Rev. Ashley Diaz Mejias who, along with friends, collaborated to support the initiative. Ramseur and Mejias soon discovered that they were “doing church” — gathering twice a month at the correctional center for a community of worship. The group named themselves the Voices of Jubilee.

Volunteers of the Voices of Jubilee provide pastoral care to members of the youth choir through letter-writing, community conversations and visits. They seek mentors in returning citizens who share their stories and inspire hope in the incarcerated youth.

“Incarceration is a national crisis,” Ramseur said. “We support our folks who have been impacted by a system of racialized violence.” At the February 2020 meeting of Presbytery of the James, the Voices of Jubilee choir officially became a new worshiping community of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Bon Air Presbyterian Church in Chesterfield, Virginia, where Ramseur was a pastor for children, youth and families, is the congregational partner of Voices of Jubilee. Presbytery of the James also approved Mejias for ordination as the worshiping community’s co-pastor with Ramseur, ordaining Mejias in October and dedicating financial resources for the Voices of Jubilee through 2024.

Supporting incarcerated youth during COVID-19
In March, Ramseur and Mejias learned that a youth resident and two employees at BAJCC had been diagnosed with COVID-19. Facility administrators requested help providing masks for staff and youth. Voices of Jubilee put out a call to volunteers, friends and congregations. Within five days, they delivered 550 masks.

Soon after, they heard of a similar need at other facilities in Richmond. Through a fundraiser that collected $1,700 in one day, Voices of Jubilee purchased 1,300 masks for Richmond City Jail and Richmond Juvenile Detention Center. During the pandemic, Bon Air youth have been confined to their units. Classes and activities (including Voices of Jubilee gatherings) have been cancelled for the time being. With the young men and women in their hearts, Voices of Jubilee volunteers delivered 170 care packages for the youth, each including a journal, a puzzle book, a pair of socks and a letter of encouragement.

During the pandemic, Voices of Jubilee worshiping community has delivered 170 care packages for youth at Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Lauren Medina)

The COVID-19 outbreak at Bon Air spread to nearly 30 residents in the late spring, with each placed in medical isolation (solitary confinement for 23 hours each day) for two weeks. Unable to visit, Voices of Jubilee wrote to them and invited others to write. A new beloved community rose up in compassion. Letters came from friends and children; members of synagogues, mosques, and churches; neighbors and strangers. When all had recovered and rejoined the rest of the facility population, Voices of Jubilee and Bon Air Presbyterian Church delivered pizza.

Vision for the future
Due to center regulations, only 24 people can gather together with Voices of Jubilee for worship. This has created a waiting list of youth who wish to participate. In-person gatherings ceased in March due to COVID-19, but Ramseur and Mejias plan to create additional worship gatherings to accommodate more of the 140 youth residing at Bon Air as soon as restrictions allow.

Prior to the pandemic, Voices of Jubilee choir leaders and mentors gathered outside of the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center before an evening of singing. (Photo by Mark Fagerburg)

Voices of Jubilee also envisions expanding the ministry to include youth at other facilities, such as the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center and Sussex II State Prison. In addition to support from Presbytery of the James, the Voices of Jubilee worshiping community is sponsored by East End Fellowship, River Road Church Baptist, Presbytery of the Peaks and Shenandoah Presbytery.

Photography and videography inside Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center are prohibited. However, a 2018 documentary film by The Atlantic provides a snapshot of life at the facility. Watch the video at theatlantic.com/video/index/554468/marquez-jackson.

Learn more at voicesofjubilee.org.

Kelley Hope is Associate for Communications with the Presbytery of the James. Contact Hope at khope@presbyteryofthejames.org.


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