Shortly after high school, Erich Kussman, now a Lutheran pastor, was incarcerated for 10 years in the New Jersey prison system. A chaplain spotted his talents and upon his release helped him gain admission to Princeton Theological Seminary. He now serves as rector of St. Bartholomew Lutheran Church in downtown Trenton, New Jersey. Last week we spoke to Rev.Kussman about his extraordinary life.
Tell me about your background and how you connected with Princeton Theological Seminary.
Eric: I served 10 years, six months, and 14 days. I was in a prison called Albert C. Wagner Correctional Facility. I was working for the chaplain’s office, and the chaplain’s name is the Reverend Emmanuel Bourjolly. He took me under his wing back in 2004. He used to call me his son. He’s like, “You’re going to go to the school I went to.” I was like, “What school was that?” And he goes, “Princeton.” I laughed in his face. He tracked me down when I got out, and he found out I was graduating with my undergraduate degree from Pillar College in Newark, New Jersey. He showed up to the graduation and asked, “Are you ready?”
People get incarcerated that grow up in poverty, made single-parent homes, and eating government cheese and powdered milk. I remember those days. It took somebody outside of my situation to show me that there was life on the other side. There’s something else.
What was it like when you got to Seminary?
It was a little difficult because it’s Princeton Seminary. You’ve got people from all over the globe. I’m this scrappy little kid that grew up in the inner city of Plainfield and here we go. But I was able to hang in there.
Tell us about your church.
The church is St. Bartholomew’s Lutheran Church in Trenton, New Jersey. I’ve been here since July of 2019, so six months in. And what we do here is we try to provide for the needs of our neighbors in the community. We run a food bank. We do a lot of advocacy. We run a group for people returning home from prison. We do regular Sunday services and we try to be very active in our community.
It’s an integrated church, a very diverse congregation. About probably 70–80% of the people that attend here are living in the poverty line.
We have some homeless members. We try to find them housing and stuff like that.
What do you do for returning citizens, people coming back from prison?
We try to find them housing. We offer counseling sessions one night a week in a group so everybody can talk and discuss their problems. We try to find ways and avenues for job training. We are linked to a program that helps people if they have overdue fines and help them get their driver’s licenses back.
How did you get involved with the cannabis legislation?
There are 32,000 people a year that get arrested for marijuana possession in New Jersey and it costs $140 million. That’s absurd and wasteful, and you’re criminalizing people. Probably 50% or 70% of the people I was incarcerated with had to deal with some kind of drugs. But they were all African American or Latino. If these individuals, these people, these human beings lived not in impoverished neighborhoods, they lived in the suburbs, they would have been going to maybe a drug treatment program or gotten a slap on the wrist. But because of the color of their skin and their nationalities, they get incarcerated and thrown in a cage.
When you have a drug conviction on your record, it’s hard to get employment. They look at that. No jobs. They don’t want to hire you.
Is that true with arrests as well as convictions?
Eric: I’ve learned that with their federal database and state databases, when they run your name it’s not just convictions that come up, but also arrests, whether you’re guilty or not.
When marijuana legalization happens, what do we do next to push back the war on drugs?
We’ve got to continue to advocate and help legislators see through different lenses. The “lock ’em up” mentality is draconian. It tries to separate people as good or bad without looking at the humanity within them. Criminalization persecutes those that the Gospel tells me I need to speak up for. As Martin Luther King told us, “An unjust law is no law at all.”
Are there effective drug treatment programs for those who need them?
I haven’t done a lot of research into it. There are some good programs and a lot of bad ones. But there is another burden—impoverished people can’t afford treatment. Their insurance doesn’t cover it. If you are assigned court-mandated treatment, what’s that next step? They’re going to incarcerate you.