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Restorative Justice & Criminal Reform in Nashville

Most have heard of restoration, but you might not know of restorative justice for criminals.

During a recent Real Hope podcast episode, I shared a compelling conversation with Travis Claybrooks, who was born and raised in Nashville and is the CEO of Raphah Institute. I was inspired by Travis’ passion to bridge his personal experiences as a police officer and his faith upbringing as a Christian that begged the question: “Why is it that my faith practice and religious experience hasn’t ever brought me into contact with this?” Travis asked. This being the juxtaposition of crime and the lack of Christian response to restore criminals in the judicial system. It was here where the idea for Raphah Institute first began.

As Travis shared about his police training, I imagined sitting next to him on a ride-along, seeing Nashville in a whole new light. Crack houses. Immense levels of prostitution. Domestic abuse. Drug use and trade. This isn’t the Nashville most of us know.

It was here that Travis Claybrooks’ two tracks collided, illuminating the shadow-side of Nashville from the perspective of a police officer and asking, Where was Jesus? 

“I believe then and I believe now that Jesus is the answer for the world today, but he sure as hell was not there. I wasn’t there. And I had a problem with that,” Travis shared.

This single moment forever shifted the trajectory for Travis Claybrooks. Holding the tension between crime issues in Nashville and the need for Jesus birthed a dream that went on to become Raphah Institute, a Hebrew word that means to heal. Travis described how Raphah’s roots originate from the textile industry referring to a garment that has been torn or tattered, a form to describe the repairing of that garment, whether through patching, sewing, or mending. Powerful, isn’t it? 

As Travis applied this word to our social dynamic, specifically criminals as people who are torn and tattered, in need of repair, who need hope of being put back together, Raphah made perfect sense. As one who believes in the power of restoration, Claybrooks and my like-minded approach connected us instantly. 

Restoration vs. Incarceration

There’s incarceration and there’s restoration. 

If we, as Christian leaders and disciples, live by the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:10: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, then, as Travis shared, “He is inviting us as his disciples to be God’s presence on earth. Let’s be about His business… let’s invite people to a space of healing and a space of experiencing what the kingdom is like.”

Raphah Institute is founded on kingdom-come, Emmanuel-with-us, Christ-like restoration that invites healing, rather than simply incarcerating and punishing criminals. As we know, criminal activity is the symptom of larger, underlying issues, and for this reason, Raphah Institute is intent to create healing ripples in the community of Nashville and I applaud their valiant efforts.

When we read scripture, the Bible exhorts us to GO and DO:

I have sent them to be healers (Matthew 10:8)

GO into the world (Matthew 28)
Even while in my sins, Christ died for me (Romans 5:8)

Whatever is bound on earth, is bound in heaven (Matthew 16:19)

My passion is to serve the homeless community and I’m thankful for how we each have our part to play in the kingdom. 

Restorative Justice in Action

Raphah Institute is an organization that sees criminals for who they can be as a citizen, not merely for the crime they committed. “Restorative justice is both the ethos and the practice. When I say ethos, what I mean is the way of thinking and the practice, the way of being, of accounting for harm as it moves through a community without causing more harm,” Travis explained.

I was especially moved when Travis gave an example of how harm perpetuates harm with an example of someone who robs another person. 

“They didn’t simply wake up and decide to rob someone. There were many small moments of harm that went without being healed, sending the person into a trajectory of making one broken choice after another.”

And here’s how Raphah Institute is restoring the justice system in ground-breaking ways:

If the person who is robbed does not receive accountability, the harm will continue. But, if the harm is addressed through accountability with both parties, that harm will not only cease, but be restored, thus ending the trajectory of continued harm. 

This is Raphah. This is kingdom healing. This is full restoration for the criminal and the victim. Rather than throw criminals, who are beloved by God, into jail and lock them up, Travis Claybrooks sees the individual as one who has been harmed and in need of a Christ-centric framework in the form of restorative justice. Don’t we all deserve such mercy?

In my conversation with Travis, I was awakened to the reality that our criminal justice system is retributive in nature. “They exist to retaliate and punish criminals for their crimes,” Travis explains.  

“They don’t take into consideration where a person came from, what their story is before. Neither does it truly take the damage done to a person and how they might end up harming someone else because their harm has gone unaddressed.”

When criminals are incarcerated, rather than restored, when they get out (because they will eventually be released), they will continue the trajectory of harm. 

The power of Raphah Institute is that they exist to restore that brokenness into healing by building and maintaining a relationship with juvenile courts, the DA’s office, and their public defenders, including Judge Calloway who has a restorative court, mirroring the ethos of Raphah Institute. 

How does Raphah Institute bring Christ-like restoration?

With contagious passion, Travis went on to tell me about how Raphah’s restorative justice program now includes a multisystemic therapy component called MST, a national evidence-based model. This model gives Raphah an opportunity to wrap around the young person, “who comes with much baggage,” and his or her family. This robust program has been so successful that in November 2020, Raphaph’s MST service received a national award!

Raphah programs also include an early embrace program that helps communities heal by working in early education, especially communities of color and/or marginalized. 

The Heart of Christ

Restoration, healing and transformation were central to Jesus’ ministry. We see him move from city to city with his disciples, befriending the lowest and poorest. We learn from his grace and forgiveness not to abandon, but to move toward the hurting and to listen. To see them. To guide them toward hope. To offer grace because we ourselves are recipients of grace.

I was convicted by my conversation with Travis and invited to evaluate my posture toward criminals. Do I want them to be locked up and put in jail? What might it look like to adopt a mending approach toward those who are hurting? 

How can we extend grace and forgiveness to someone who has hurt us? Maybe you haven’t been robbed, but we’ve all experienced a desire for justice. Healing comes through sitting down at eye level. Through asking non-judgmental questions. Through leaning in close to listen. Through offering forgiveness. Through giving an apology. 

These ripples are powerful, kingdom-building, action-oriented offerings of hope. 

How, like Raphah, will we bring Christ-like restoration to our homes, businesses, and neighborhoods, beginning today?

Listen and share this conversation with Travis Claybrooks, CEO of Raphah Institute on the latest episode of Real Hope with Glenn Cranfield.

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