Former prisoner keeps promise to Quayle - Commission on Religion & Race

8/31/2012

Donald Gilliard, center, speaks with friends at OKC-Quayle. Photo by Cedric Barnes

On July 22 in Oklahoma City, a promise decades in the making was fulfilled. Donald Gilliard came to worship at Quayle UMC.

Gilliard, a skilled stage director and performer, had been considered a part of the OKC-Quayle church family since 1994. Yet having been sentenced at age 33 to life in prison, his promise to worship one day with the congregation had appeared to be an impossible one.

He had been transferred from a prison in South Carolina to a private corrections facility in Oklahoma.

Noting that many of the men in prison with him could not read or had not advanced beyond ninth grade, Gilliard had begun teaching GED courses to them. 

And he decided to draw on his background in theater to direct a production of "God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse." This 1927 book documents the powerful rhetorical traditions of African-American preachers who were a source for solidarity during slave uprisings and later resistance to the original Jim Crow laws.

For the prison performance, the men would need robes, but they lacked contacts for such resources. However, among them was a member of Quayle, who suggested they reach out to that church with their request for robes.

In response, Quayle sent not only robes to the prison but also a letter, asking if church members could attend the production.

Gilliard convinced the warden to permit the guests to come and, as a result, the women of Quayle UMC organized two buses full of eager theatergoers. Years later, the women still testified to the power and impact of the performance.

After the performance, Gilliard and some other men became penpals with some Quayle guests. 

For years, while appealing his sentence, their correspondence continued, and the church members undergirded Gilliard and others in the prison with their care, concern, and compassion. After 20 years behind bars, Gilliard succeeded in his appeal. 

Today, he resides in his home state, South Carolina, traveling and speaking to groups large and small, with particular emphasis on the youth in danger of being swept into the cradle-to-prison pipeline. 

On July 21, a program by the Oklahoma Conference’s Commission on Religion & Race (OCORR) drew him back to Oklahoma.

On behalf of OCORR, Joe Harris presents the 2012 Bishop Robert E. Hayes Jr. Racial Unity Award to author Michelle Alexander on July 21. Rev. Harris also serves on the denomination’s General Commission on Religion & Race. Photo by Farrah Butler

"A Christian Approach to ‘The New Jim Crow’: Solidarity Mobilization" was a jurisdiction-wide education and training event, designed by the late Glenn Harris, who chaired OCORR, and hosted at Oklahoma City University. Gilliard joined other key speakers, including attorney Michelle Alexander, author of "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness."

Attendance July 21 totaled about 125 people, according to Quayle’s pastor, Victor McCullough, with participants from surrounding states as well as Oklahoma.

The next day, Gilliard’s promise became reality as his Quayle church family welcomed him in morning worship. He testified to the congregation: We have a human rights crisis on our hands. For communities of color disproportionately locked up and locked out, we as people of faith must respond. And our response can begin much as the Quayle United Methodist Church community responded, with hospitality, with concern, and with eagerness to connect and take action (paraphrased).

—Adapted from a July 25 blog by Laura Markle Downton, national organizer for Restorative Justice, General Board of Church & Society.


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