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Upcoming Ballot Initiative and Matthew 5

A Sermon Illustration based on Matthew 5:1-12

By Rev. Sara Lilja, Lutheran Office of Governmental Ministry

In the coming weeks we will read again the text from Matthew 5, known to us as The Beatitudes. Jesus teaches his disciples about God’s love and favor. But Jesus’ sermon is no usual 3 points and a poem….Jesus reveals that God blesses and welcomes those who are poor, hungry, and in need of mercy into the Kingdom of God. God does not just looks with compassion upon those whom the world counts as disposable, God offers the Kingdom!

How do we treat the poor, the hungry, those who need mercy in our communities? We may offer food and assistance, thanks be to God! But have you ever listened to those you serve, or to those who are a stranger to you? Not just to ask about how they are doing, but have you ever sat down and heard about their life? Have you heard God’s voice pronouncing a blessing?

I would like to share one such story with you… his name is Mustafa Willis, a twenty-eight year old native of Newark, New Jersey and a victim of the failed bail system. He was arrested in 2010 and 2012. Neither of these arrests resulted in any criminal convictions, yet he and his family have suffered and continue to endure the consequences of an unjust system.

When Mustafa was first arrested in 2010, he sat in jail for four months solely because of his inability to pay a bail of $3,000 guaranteeing his release. In this time, he lost his job, lost a family member, and he lost hope in a system that is supposed to protect all people. He was wronged again in 2012. (Both cases against him were dismissed). This time, the bail was set at $6,500 (of which he is still trying to pay it off). While incarcerated, he was treated as less than human. Subjected to not only mistreatment from the prison personnel, but also unhealthy conditions. His family were given the run around multiple times trying to secure his release.

Mustafa’s experience is shared by almost half of other incarcerated people throughout the state who are in jail awaiting a trial with no ability to make bail. Thousands of people in New Jersey are subject to these harsh consequences: unnecessary time spent in jail, loss of and difficulty finding employment, and loss of financial support. His cases were dismissed, one by way of videotaped evidence that proved his innocence. Mustafa was never convicted of any criminal charges; and yet, he, literally and figuratively is paying for the consequences of an action that he did not commit.

Those people whom Jesus is blessing in the Sermon on the Mount are people just like Mustafa. He has been blessed by God and is working to help change this broken bail system. We, as people of faith are called to join in this blessing and change the system that creates such injustice. Will you join us?

On Nov. 4th there is a question on the ballot, Question #1, which asks you to reform New Jersey’s broken Bail System. We must ensure a fairer & more effective criminal justice process for everyone regardless of wealth. To learn more, please contact

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