By Rebecca Flannery
When Kent McKeever thought about what he was going to forego for this spring’s Lent season, his image was the first thing to come to his mind. After considering what impact it could have on his life and in the community around him, he didn’t look back.
A part-time youth minister at Seventh and James Baptist Church and full-time attorney director of Mission Waco legal services, McKeever said his experience with urban ministry and his current position at Mission Waco led him to the decision to wear an orange jumpsuit for 40 days. He purchased the jumpsuit from a prison supply company.
“Through all my experiences, I have seen the struggles that the poor and the marginalized face and a lot of it centering around the criminal justice system, mass incarceration and legal discrimination against people with criminal records,” McKeever said. “In working with all these people I got to a point where I decided I needed to do something to understand what they go through and to raise awareness about the struggles that they face.”
Living his life as he normally would, McKeever said he felt a lot more strain and paranoia during the 40 days. He noticed people staring in grocery stores, glaring at him when he took his daughters out to the movies, and strange looks as he ran past people during the Bearathon.
“There was a wide variety of reactions,” McKeever said. “There were definitely experiences I had when I felt the stigma and the fear.”
In McKeever’s time at Seventh and James Baptist Church during the Lent season, Pastor Erin Conaway said the congregation took what McKeever said with respect and reverence.
“To know Kent at all, you can’t question his sincerity and heart in it,” Conaway said. “We took a great perspective on what he had to say about mass incarceration, even though it was hard to hear.”
McKeever kept a blog of his experience. He said he wanted to portray to the community how it felt being in the shoes of those who live through scrutiny and judgment every day. On the blog, McKeever tells stories of those who go through what he was feeling on a daily basis and he provides statistics and information supporting his personal experience.
“As temporary and slight as my experience with the stigma was, I will never forget the things I learned about what it’s like to be looked at differently in society,” McKeever said. “Wondering what people are thinking about me when I walk into the grocery store or the gas station – it’s really exhausting. It made me realize how tiresome it must be to live with that every day and for it to be real. It’s something that you can’t take off at the end of the day or explain to somebody like I could.”
McKeever’s story found its way to the New York Times, where reporter Jesse Wegman wrote about the unconventional approach to the Lent season. In the article, McKeever is quoted saying “‘We follow a condemned criminal! That’s very much at the heart of our faith.’” He said this thought was at the focus of journey all along.
The national and local attention he got didn’t distract him from his mission, which was to shed light on the injustice within our own society.
“I hope that this opened people’s eyes to the realities of these broken systems and how they affect so deeply people’s lives,” McKeever said. “We give such lip service to second chances and redemption and forgiveness in different areas of our society, but when we have big systems in place and legal discrimination that prevents people from having a true fair chance to show that their life has been redeemed and rehabilitated, we drastically and deeply affect their lives. We need to be more aware.”