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Forty Days in an Orange Jumpsuit: A Lawyer/Pastor Wears Prison Garb for Lent

Our faith is done a disservice by ministers who seek to have the most, rather than seek out those with the least. Kent's act does what ministry should: challenge, inform and enliven our faith lives.
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"Crazy or Inspired?" was the subject line of the email I got from one of my heroes: Kent McKeever.

Kent has a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary and a law degree from Vanderbilt. When he graduated law school not long ago, he had two choices: take the safe route and make a lot of money, or take the bold step of putting those degrees to work in the world for those who need him most.

If you knew Kent as I do, you would have already predicted his choice.

He moved to Waco, Texas, a city with about 30 percent of its citizens living in poverty, and did the almost impossible: he started a legal clinic for the poor. Not a government-funded public defender office, but a faith-based, privately-supported law office to help low-income people with the humblest of legal problems.

Kent took a second job, too, because he has a wife and three young children to help support. That job is as a youth pastor at Seventh and James Baptist Church in Waco.

Back to Crazy or Inspired. Kent wrote me and another lawyer friend not long ago, with an idea:

"I have been thinking about wearing an orange jumpsuit (prisoner attire) every day during Lent. My heart continues to break over and over again at the devastation caused by our War on Drugs and mass incarceration system and 'tough on crime' attitude and policy... [T]he countless other ways our world locks up the poor and marginalized... compels me to do something visible to bring attention to the issues and especially to the plight of chains of our own making. Talking about it isn't enough."

I called Kent to ask why he would shed the suit and tie of a lawyer, and the clerical garb of a pastor, to wear the orange jumpsuit of a prisoner every day for 40 days during Lent. He said it was partly the result of seeing the calamitous effects of oversentencing in the clinic he runs; the U.S. has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world.

"I want to do something that's different and visible and challenging that just gets the word out. I thought, 'What if I wore a prison jumpsuit during a certain period of time? Then I started thinking about Lent. It was perfect: a time to repent, sacrifice, seek humility."

Repentance? I asked. What do you have to repent for?

"Repent for some of my own complicity in being silent, in not trying to understand what it is like. Some people have been asking, What if you're stopped by the police? That's probably what it's like to be black or brown walking down the street in a hoodie. Will I be considered a threat? We collectively need to repent of ignorance."

Sacrifice and humility, Kent explained, means "realizing how much I need to understand and experience what my brothers and sisters are going through, what it might be like to be rejected, despised, cast aside."

Okay, I said, what do your wife and kids think about you running around town in orange?

"My wife knows I'm crazy!" Kent responded with a laugh. " She is convicted and overwhelmed {with the specter of mass incarceration} as well. She's my strongest supporter and biggest cheerleader."

Kent's three kids, meanwhile, learned a lesson from their dad that contradicted the usual good-guy-and-bad-guy way children tend to see the world. "I told them God loves every one of us; God wants all of us to have a new life."

Kent started wearing his orange jumpsuit on Ash Wednesday. He said it "has already been a humbling experience to be drawn closer to God who suffers with us and into solidarity with those among us who suffer. I've grown in conviction and courage to not be afraid to do radical things but to do them faithfully, as a lover of God and a lover of people. This is about God's love, which always results in social justice."

This is the Lenten discipline of God's disciple Kent, lawyer and pastor dressed as a modern-day prisoner. You can read more about it on the blog he just started about the project:

Our faith is done a disservice by ministers who seek to have the most, rather than seek out those with the least. Kent's act does what ministry should: challenge, inform and enliven our faith lives. When he becomes a prisoner, he becomes reviled. He wears the cloak of the most despised, men like the one who killed my sister Nancy during Lent in 1990. But he does this at Christ's own invitation: Jesus said, "When you visit those in prison, you visit me." Like so many of the things Christ taught, it is a hard lesson, but one we should receive with gratitude from brave and -- yes -- inspired people like Kent McKeever of Waco, Texas.

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