This is the third in a three-part series on mass incarceration and Christianity’s role in bringing transformation to those affected by it. Previously, we examined the criminal justice and prison policies in the United States that lead to high rates of incarceration, particularly among black and brown men. In addition, we’ve looked at some of the work being done within prison walls to transform lives and communities with the Light of Christ. Here, we will explore life after prison and some creative ways for churches to take the next steps in getting involved with their own communities.
After serving a prison sentence and being released back into the world, one is faced with a wide array of seemingly insurmountable challenges to overcome. Discrimination against the recently released is rampant, and is on top of the racial and economic discrimination one may have faced even before entering prison. Those released from prison often have a hard time finding a job that will pay them a living wage, and they no longer qualify for student loans to help improve their employability. They are often denied safe, affordable housing, and are not allowed live in public housing (even if living with family members that do qualify). They often lose access to food stamps and other government support benefits, at the very moment they need it most. Friends and family may have turned away, and it can feel like there is nowhere left to go. Could this be where God’s Church is needed most?
Over 75% of prisoners released are re-arrested within five years. The first month after release is critical, but recently released citizens often face the same challenges that led them to prison in the first place. As discussed previously, ministries like the Horizon Prison Initiative work closely with men on the inside before they are released, but they also acknowledge that “after paying their debt to society, formerly incarcerated individuals go home. Home to the same circumstances that fostered the environment that led them to prison.”
Horizon’s Executive Director Jeff Hunsaker suggests that “not everybody’s called to do this work, but on the other hand churches are called to be part of healing community. Churches get real comfortable and don’t see that bigger world we live in.” He laments an attitude that says “I don’t care what happens to them, just keep them away from me,” one that only sees the incarcerated as those deserving of punishment. But Hunsaker notes that “90% come back to your community. What kind of person do you want them to be when they return?”
A Role for the Local Church
The Church can play a critical role in receiving recently released citizens back into their communities. Indeed, we are called to “let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Hebrews 13:1-3).
This is the verse that inspired the West Ohio Conference (WOC) of the United Methodist Church to think intentionally about how its communities in the region could do a better job of receiving returning citizens into their churches. “Transformation is not going to happen if we entrust it to a purely punitive system,” says Deaconess Sue Wolf, “It’s about God’s love and God’s Kingdom. If we can prove it’s true there, then it’s true for all of us, anywhere.”
“A lot of local churches and seminaries are involved in their own individual prison ministries,” acknowledges Harris Tay, Director of Diversity Initiatives at the WOC. But he wondered what a unified effort across the region would look like. Noting the Church’s commitment to hospitality, he says “reentry work should be part of the fabric of what we do.”
So the WOC set out to create the ‘All In Community’ Re-entry Program to address multiple facets of prison ministry within the context of church communities. This program was formed to be intentionally asset-based, acknowledging that the prisoners themselves are assets to the ministry. Thus, the content and curriculums began to form with guidance and partnership of those currently incarcerated, relying on their suggestions rather than on the varying perceptions of those on the outside.
Ultimately, the WOC plans to connect twenty-five churches with re-entering citizens to form relationships and support well before those individuals are released. The hope is to have churches ready to receive wherever prisoners are going. They will create a safety net, a soft landing, for those being released.
The program is designed to be about mutual relationships, understanding that everyone can learn and grow no matter what role they play. While inside prison, participants are required to complete cultural competency training. Thus, participating churches are also required to undergo the same. Kenya Cummings, an intern for Diversity Initiatives at the WOC, says that the churches will need to “lean into some knowledge that the released men will be imparting.”
Indeed, the goal of the partnership is to “transform prisoners, transform prisons, and transform communities.” Thus, volunteers and congregations have much to learn from the prisoners themselves, who have dedicated years to prayer and spiritual discipleship with the time they had on the inside. It’s not about a one-way relationship, but rather a partnership that brings about mutual edification and spiritual growth. Cummings attests that “the men know the Power of God and how it can be at work. They know about transformation. They know if they can be transformed, so can the Church.”
The ‘All In Community’ Re-entry Program will also serve as a hub for community organizing, healing the neighborhoods that are most affected by mass incarceration. They will employ five Urban Encouragers to act as first-contacts for released citizens and will also serve guides for congregations that are learning how to be good partners. They will organize within the local community to help restore neighborhoods and to identify assets within the community that can support those being released.
Cumming suggests that churches interested in engaging in re-entry work become “incredibly aware of where their church congregation is located and what they have to offer.” Every church and every community setting is different, with unique needs and assets. “Reentry can never be a carbon copy ministry,” she attests, “you have to look at your church’s assets and passions, and let the ministry emerge from what is currently present.” If volunteers are artists, start an art prison ministry, if they are engaged in legislative issues, she suggests focusing around that. Customizing a church’s prison ministry is key to both its effectiveness and its persistence.
Cummings also suggests churches investigate what programs and resources are already in their local neighborhoods and to them come alongside the ongoing work of the community. “We want to build, not duplicate,” she says.
Overcoming Apprehension with Art
Asked if local congregations have been receptive to the program, Tay observes that “most churches don’t know where they really sit on it,” but that the WOC is willing to invest in the training and development to help with the adjustment. “We’re actually going to walk with you and do the trust building and relationship building to help make it happen.” He notes that many churches affirm a commitment to love and hospitality, but “any church can say it. We have the opportunity to expand and enhance that pledge.”
Along these lines, the WOC has created a collaborative for churches engaged in prison ministry to share resources, training, and encouragement with one another. Cummings understands that work like this is rewarding, but challenging: “Folks can get tired in doing the work. They enjoy it, but it becomes tiresome.” Churches starting on the journey may also have concerns. Cummings says they may feel “anxious about what it really looks like…but after talking through fears there’s greater calm.”
To address these needs, Cummings is heading up opportunities for participating churches and volunteers to become rejuvenated. “Art is incredibly healing,” she notes, and she plans to use art to engage with those participating in the ministry collaborative. With a mix of poetry, spoken word, visual art, and storytelling, Cummings hopes to create an environment “for collaborating, not just another burden.” She observes that “as we tell stories and share resources, we experience renewal.”
Tay affirms that “A static meeting may not be the best way to connect with the soul….Performance has always been the voice of movements,” and that churches should be considering how to merge creativity with action. “How do we build trust through the arts?” he asks. He goes on to praise Cummings’s collaborative as “a huge opportunity for those who want to do church differently.”
Cummings anticipates a wide variety of ministries will be able to come together to share the stories and ideas. There will be teams throughout the west Ohio region. “Each team might look really different and I’m excited about that,” says Cummings.
Taking up the Challenge
Hunsaker has a challenge for churches: “What are you here to be and to do?” He says he’s brought Horizon graduates to some churches where they’ve felt uncomfortable and unwelcome. He worries that the decline in attendance that some churches have experienced is because they have “lost touch with why they exist and what their purpose is.” It may be that they profess a value of love and reconciliation, “but how many are actively involved in it?”
Jimmy Cheadle, a Horizon graduate and now an Urban Encourager and Reentry Coordinator with UM Church for All People in Columbus, OH, say the best thing churches can do for the recently released is just welcome them in and create a loving, healthy environment for them.“ But,” he says, “sometimes churches aren’t so good at that.” He has had experiences where he didn’t feel welcome, “You pick up on that, when they keep you at arm’s length. They were nice to us, but they were glad we weren’t coming back next week.”
But Cummings observes that those being released show remarkable bravery and surprising willingness to engage beyond any mutual fear. True, there may be feelings of anxiety, but it is often outweighed by the understanding of what reentry without strong community looks like. They may fear rejection, but Cummings notes that rejection is a reality for them anyway. Part of what the Horizon program offers to the men is the tools and spiritual strength to deal with that rejection on the outside.
There are a lot of reasons that a warm, loving welcome doesn’t always happen. Cheadle senses some churches respond out of fear rather than faith. They react by saying things like “What do you mean you’re bringing a criminal here? We have enough of that already.” He says building loving relationships is sometimes three steps forward, two steps back, “and the two steps back takes the wind out of everyone’s sails.” But he urges, “it’s really not so much about what you want to do. It’s about what you’re supposed to do.”
Hunsaker encourages churches to become involved on a relational level, to volunteer and to interact one-on-one with those on the inside. He knows that what your heart will encounter is beyond description and that once you’ve experience it, you’ll be hooked.
Jesus himself was put on trial, found guilty, imprisoned, placed on death row, and ultimately subject to capital punishment by the state. If we are to identify with Christ, we are to identify with those who find themselves in similar situations today.
Local churches can play a vital role in God’s plan for transformation. Encourage your congregation to engage in authentic intentional prayer for the incarcerated and for local prisons. Pray for those about to be released and those who have recently reentered their communities. Pray for the renewal of both the imprisoned as well as of the systems and structures that brought them there.
Include these prayers in the regular liturgy of your church, perhaps along with other ‘prayers of the people,’ if that is a tradition in your setting. Do not let the incarcerated men and women of our society be forgotten or left out of our daily prayers, but rather be diligent in lifting them up to God. In doing so, watch as our prisons and neighborhoods are blessed with God’s redemptive.
As prayers continue to be lifted, consider beginning a small group or bible study around the issues of mass incarceration. In partnership with willing correctional institutions, begin to send birthday and Christmas cards to specific inmates. Have all the members of your church sign these cards as part of their Sunday morning routines. Begin to ponder what it would look like for your church to become a sanctuary for recently released citizens.
It is important to engage your congregation early and often around these issues to help increase awareness and compassion. Similarly, it is important that the entire worshiping community remain mindful and prayerful together, not simply leaving it as a specialized interest of a few. Lift up the prisons and those ministering with them as a community, knowing that you are responding to God’s call to remember the incarcerated.
Be prepared for some challenges. The bureaucracy associated with prison ministry can be daunting. So too can be the cultural differences we may experience in prison ministry work. We learn many things about ourselves and our own culture’s assumptions and values when we encounter those different from ourselves. And it is in so doing that we see the face of God.
Isaiah 61:1 says “the Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, Because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” What does it mean to take these words seriously? What witness would we bear by living out God’s challenge to walk beside the imprisoned? Imagine how such a commitment might radically transform not only the individuals we help, but also profoundly alter our own lives, our local churches, and indeed entire communities for the glory of Christ.