The year 1787 saw many important milestones in American history. In 1787, the United States adopted its constitution, a document significantly, seriously, and regularly called the most important document of political freedom in human history. Delaware became the first state in the newly named United States of America. Silicon was discovered. It was a significant year.
Seventeen eighty-seven also marked the beginning of the Free African Society in Philadelphia, a mutual aid organization where Blacks gathered for community affairs, insurance and banking, health care, and education. African Americans also recall 1787 as the year that the United States federal government enacted a compromise between slaveholding and non-slaveholding states to account for enslaved Africans in the regular federal census — the now infamous “three-fifths compromise” determining that for the purposes of the census, Blacks were “three-fifths” of a human being. The only reason the South wanted enslaved Africans counted at all was that representation in congress depended on census numbers.
By the way, did you know that in the current practice of the United States Census Bureau, prisoners are counted as part of the census for the communities that host the prisons in which they live? A significant amount of public money is distributed according to census data, which means that communities that host prisons receive state and federal dollars for community projects based on their being the communities in which African American prisoners are held. In both cases, Blacks are counted but not as citizens.
A Mother’s Mission
The year 1787 also marked the birth of Sally Thomas, an incredible African American woman who represents the best in the human realm of what we can learn about the character and will of God concerning redemption.
Sally Thomas was born 225 years ago in Albemarle County, Virginia. She was a fair-skinned, enslaved African American who was led to her pursuit by wealthy White slave owners because of purposes in violation of biblical principles. Eventually she had three children by two White slave owners, neither of whom ever acknowledged paternity. Sally Thomas determined that her life’s goal would be the freedom of her three sons. In that regard, she mirrored the holy intention of God.
The life of Sally Thomas shows us how God commits Himself to our freedom — even as Thomas did for the sake of her sons. She sacrificed and worked hard to earn enough money to purchase the freedom of one, aid in the escape of a second, and arrange for a job that led to the freedom of the third. There was nothing more important to Sally Thomas than the freedom of her children. So, too, does God value the freedom of His children.
Paying the Price for Freedom
God commits to the freedom and redemption of His people out of His love and faithfulness. He expressed His commitment to Israel through the Exodus. He raised up prophets and priests, kings and judges for His people, even in the midst of their unfaithfulness. He expressed His ultimate love in sending Jesus for us “while we were yet sinners.” The renowned preacher Gardner C. Taylor was right when he told young preachers-in-training his charge: “The Bible has only one major theme: God is getting back what belonged to Him in the first place.”
Redemption is paying the price to buy something back. Sally Thomas paid the price for her sons’ redemption through work, money, and sound connections with the business world. God paid the price for our redemption by sending His Son Jesus into the world to die for our sins. The resurrection of Jesus gives hope to all who trust Him as Savior. The apostle Paul says that without the hope of the resurrection “we are the most miserable” of all people. Peter says that the Christian has been “born again into a living hope” by the Resurrection. Truly, the resurrection of Jesus brings us hope. It is the hope of redemption.
Just as enslaved Africans were objects of redemption in the antebellum period of the United States, a new cohort of persons in our society are candidates for redemption in today’s society. Over 2 million men and women live their lives behind the bars of our state and federal prisons, and countless more languish in county and city jails. The United States incarcerates its citizens at a higher rate than any nation on the earth. And the disproportionate numbers of those prisoners who are African American should give call for pause and prayer, preaching and prophesying in our congregations. According to the Pew Center, in 2008 one in every 100 Americans was incarcerated. For African American males between the ages of 25 and 34, the numbers were one in nine. Our young men need redemption.
In addition, the overwhelming majority of those state and federal inmates eventually return to society. In 2010, the number exceeded 708,000. And this number did not include those returning from county and city jails. For men and women returning from incarceration, redemption means more than just the personal regeneration occurring when a person gives his or her life to Christ. Redemption includes being reconciled with God and humanity, and those leaving the prisons and jails of our country struggle to be reconciled with family and friends, community and society.
Many of our congregations have prison-ministry programs. They do good work in providing worship services, Bible studies, and some counseling and working in conjunction with jail and prison chaplains. Yet so much more is needed. We need the work of full redemption.
When redemption comes to a person, it does more than change them internally. It changes his or her relationship to the community and world, as well as his or her relationship to God. God redeems His people to make them a people and a community of the redeemed who become agents of reconciliation in the world. A prisoner may give his or her life to Christ, but they also need support in reforming and revitalizing the relationships with others. And sometimes they need support to begin new relationships where there once were either bad relationships or no relationships at all.
Hope and Healing After Incarceration
A group of religious leaders met in Baltimore in 2006 at the Annie E. Casey Foundation to discuss ways in which congregations could be a part of the redemption of prisoners, especially those about to return from incarceration. They pointed to relationships as the key concept in assisting people returning from incarceration. As several of them met over the next year, they were joined by leadership from the Progressive National Baptist Convention, which formed a Social Justice and Prison Ministry Commission. That Commission worked with representatives of the Foundation and other key Christian leaders to produce a model for relationally based prison ministry and prisoner reentry called Healing Communities.
In the Healing Communities model, each congregation identifies families in their own church who have an incarcerated loved one — a father, mother, son, daughter, etc. The congregation then begins to minister to the family and the inmate just as they would if that inmate were hospitalized. They provide prayerful counsel and support, visitation to the prison, and assistance with financial matters when appropriate. One group of congregations began using their church vans to provide rides for families on visiting days. Another developed financial support for families with phone bills (a collect call from a state prison can cost as much as two dollars and fifty cents per minute). Yet another church, recognizing how important it is to keep families in touch during incarceration, set up a video-conferencing program with a prison seven hours away so that inmates could have real time video visits with loved ones.
These congregations grew in their ability to be communities of redemption. They became more sensitive to the difficult transition from incarceration back into society by ministering to inmates and their families during the period of incarceration and by becoming welcoming congregations upon the return of the inmate. They even moved away from using the term “ex-offender,” preferring the term “returning citizen.” One pastor, who had served significant prison time prior to his entering the ministry, told a group of churches that were beginning this ministry, “How would you like to be forever known by a title describing the worst moments of your life?”
This same pastor freely shares his having been incarcerated as a way of helping congregations overcome the stigma of incarceration. Many members of our churches have families living with a sense of shame that their family member is incarcerated. But as we look at so many people who have made the successful transition home and share their stories and hopes, we can reduce the stigma and shame and provide real support for all persons affected by crime and incarceration. Some pastors are even preaching sermons about prisoner reentry, citing Peter’s ambivalent reception upon his return from prison in Acts 12, the return of the Jews from Babylonian captivity in Isaiah 49, and John coming home from exile with a fresh revelation from heaven.
All of us must be held accountable for our actions. For some, it means the consequences of incarceration. But if we are willing to be changed — to be redeemed — then congregations must stand ready to be communities of redemption, no matter how far someone may have fallen. We should be prayerfully open to God’s heart for the redemption of the prisoner and his or her family. After all, our Redeemer paid the price for us while a prisoner Himself.
This article originally appeared in the 2010-2011 edition of Precepts for Living, UMI’s annual Bible commentary. Visit the Annie E. Casey Foundation website to download the handbook What Shall We Then Do?, prepared by the Foundation and the Progressive National Baptist Convention.