BRIDGEPORT — There's a passage in the Bible, Matthew 25:36, that reads "when I was in prison, you came to me."
The Rev. Tom Gaulke, pastor at Bridgeport's First Lutheran Church of the Trinity, takes the message to heart. He's hosting a prayer vigil for the incarcerated and detained on July 24 at 31st and Halsted streets.
"We get a lot of folks at the church who drop in ... and one of the things we've picked up on through various conversations is the number of people who know someone who is in prison or detained," said Gaulke, a pastor equally at home at the pulpit or protests. "Actually, some of the families are very close to us. And it's kind of a covered-up issue. It's there but nobody talks about it. It's a source of shame and embarrassment.
"We want to fight shame and embarrassment. We want to give people hope — not false hope — but hope that God is with their loved ones and that there is compassion for folks no matter the reason," he said.
Gaulke is active with social justice groups like Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation and IIRON, which are raising awareness about mass incarceration within an American justice system that locks up more people per capita than any other country in the world, with roughly 2.4 million people behind bars. That's roughly 1 out of every 100 Americans.
And the rate of incarceration has grown tenfold in the past few decades, studies show.
According to the University of Chicago Crime Lab, the cost to house an inmate in America is about $30,000 annually.
There are social consequences as well: broken families, poverty and an unchecked mental health crisis among them, experts say. Of the Cook County Jail's estimated 9,000 inmates on any given day, 39 percent identified themselves as mentally ill, the Cook County Sheriff's Office says.
At the Bridgeport church, Gaulke sees all walks of life come through the building's 150-year-old doors.
With the free "God's Closet" clothing center, open pastor's hours and a community center, the church and its social justice mission have attracted parishioners of all stripes, both hipsters and homeless.
Gaulke said he hopes the solemn candlelight vigil will stoke some passions among the participants who may feel a sense of injustice about the circumstances of their loved one's incarceration.
Maybe it's symbolic, but the vigil will be held in alley between the Chicago Police Department's Deering District headquarters and the Bridgeport Homes, a housing project that's drawn complaints for gang activity.
"We're not there to start a debate on whether people deserve or don't deserve to be in jail. We just feel a world where we feel we need to lock people up needs prayer," Gaulke said.
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