For Lent, Baptist dons orange prison garb for poor and imprisoned
Youth minister Kent McKeever, also an attorney who represents indigent clients in Waco, Texas, is wearing an orange prison jumpsuit for Lent to draw attention to disparities in the sentencing of the poor and minorities.
By Jeff Brumley
Kent McKeever’s choice of Lenten sacrifice has already generated enough stares and media scrutiny to last him a lifetime. But that's OK, he jokes, given the trade-off: a lot less laundry to do until Easter.
“It’s very nice to not get up in the morning and wonder, ‘What am I going to wear today?’" said McKeever, a Baptist youth minister and lawyer who represents the indigent for a Christian ministry in Waco, Texas.
“It’s been very freeing because all I have to think about is where did I leave my orange jumpsuit.”
That’s all he has to think about because an orange jumpsuit — like those commonly worn by prisoners in jails and prisons — is all he is wearing during Lent.
But it wasn’t comfort that inspired this approach to the 40-day season preceding Easter. Instead, it’s a way of experiencing humility and sacrifice and drawing attention to those mostly poor and mostly minorities caught in the nation’s mass incarceration and mandatory sentencing system.
“As a white, professional male, and middle class, I have never had to worry to leave my home or walk down the street and have people looking at me with questioning looks,” said McKeever, 34, who also serves as the minister of youth at Seventh and James Baptist Church in Waco. The orange jail scrubs are to enhance “my solidarity with those who truly suffer.”
There’s also an educational aspect to this Lenten practice, said McKeever, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and Vanderbilt University law school.
“I want to shed light on an area of our society that is dark to most of us because we don’t realize what is really going on,” he said, adding that “tough on crime” policies and mandatory minimums in drug offenses inflict undue hardships on offenders who could be punished by other forms of sentencing. It also causes hardships for their families.
“Many don’t realize how many people it is affecting, directly or indirectly, in so many devastating ways,” he said.
Some police ‘very supportive’
To help communicate that message, McKeever is writing a blog titled “40 Days in Orange.” In it, he writes on the need to support victims of crimes and tells stories of individuals and families who are victimized by the war on drugs.
“A lot of the feedback has been very, very positive and encouraging to me,” he said. “For a lot of people it seems like a light bulb is going off, ‘I didn’t realize this was going on.’”
The media attention may also be helping him avoid scrutiny from the authorities. So far, he said, police have not stopped him or questioned him when seeing him out in public.
That also may be due to his meeting with local officials to explain what he’s doing.
“The mayor of Waco is aware of this,” he said.
He also directly notified police in the Waco suburb of Woodway, where he lives, “so they can tell people, when they call in, ‘He’s clear, he’s fine,’” McKeever said. “They were very supportive and very encouraging in what I am doing.”
Considering civil disobedience
That’s because law enforcement is on the front lines of the war on drugs, and police see firsthand how inflexible sentencing guidelines are, McKeever said.
“Some of their words to me were that we see people who are not bad people, but who just need help,” he said. “Throwing them in jail is not the answer.”
What McKeever said he’s uncertain about is if he has to appear in court with a client. While an infrequent event for him, he said it could happen and he would have to decide whether or not to wear the jumpsuit.
“My plan is to let the judge know that I am wearing this because it’s my spiritual practice.”
If a judge refuses, McKeever said, he would have to be prayerful about his response.
“If I think it’s very unjust, I might consider civil disobedience.”
‘A broad impact’
Some of those who know McKeever best say they aren’t surprised that he’s wearing orange for Lent, or that he would fight for his right to do so, if necessary.
“It’s not an easy thing for him to do for his working life and his personal life,” said Erin Conaway, the pastor at Seventh and James. “That’s what makes me admire him: this is far more than not eating chocolate or drinking coffee for 40 days.”
While there certainly will be those who misunderstand or disagree with the message behind McKeever’s Lenten effort, Conaway said he has no concern about that casting a negative light on the church.
“I think it’s only a positive thing he’s doing,” Conaway said.
It’s a “wonderful influence” on the youth of the church and also on Conaway’s own children, ages 9 and 7. He said they asked why McKeever was wearing orange prison garb.
“I said it’s to help us remember about prisoners and how Jesus said when you visited the least of these, you visited me,” Conaway said. “There’s a broad impact this has.”
The orange jumpsuit has also had an impact on McKeever’s own family, said his wife, Emily.
It’s started an ongoing conversation among their children, ages 8, 6 and 2, about the disparities of the criminal justice system and how the jumpsuit their father is wearing is raising awareness, she said.
“We talk about how we should love all people and forgive them.”
Not that they were ever really surprised by the orange jump suit and all the media attention.
“They know he is an outside-the-box kind of person,” Emily McKeever said.
Nor was she surprised after 13 years of marriage that he would find a creative way to blend his concern for the weakest members of society with his spiritual practice.
“He doesn’t take the normal route by any means,” she said, adding that it’s inspired her to learn more about the issues her husband is championing.
It’s also inspired their youngest child, she added.
“Now my 2-year-old wants to wear orange like his daddy.”
© 2014 Associated Baptist Press, Inc.