In Shawshank Redemption, “Red,” the character played by Morgan Freeman, calmly tells new inmate Andy Dufresne, “Haven’t you heard? Everyone in here’s innocent.” It’s a foregone conclusion that someone accused of a crime will claim innocence. “I didn’t do it,” is the worn-out phrase that echoes off the walls of courthouses and prisons. But for Brian Banks, a 28-year-old linebacker making headlines at the Atlanta Falcons training camp, it was horribly true. He lost years of his life behind bars after a schoolmate falsely accused him of rape. He wasn’t cleared until his accuser recanted.
It’s deeply disturbing that in our justice system a 17-year-old black teenager, accused of rape, would be counseled that it was safer to “plead out” than to defend his innocence in court. His lawyer told him he could serve a little time behind bars and on probation, and then the nightmare would be over. It’s even more disturbing that, even if well-intentioned, the lawyer wasn’t really telling the truth.
Ex-prisoners know all too well that their sentence truly isn’t over on the day a prison official hands them a bus ticket and a paper sack of street clothes. There is a second sentence that goes on and on. Men and women who have supposedly already paid their debt feel the weight of that second sentence …
- every time they have to check a box on an application for legitimate employment,
- every time they are denied the right to vote—The ACLU estimates that 5.3 million Americans are disenfranchised by felon voting laws, and it took Prison Fellowship’s own Chuck Colson 21 years to have his voting rights re-instated—and
- every time that landlords, neighborhoods, and social institutions put up “no vacancy” signs.
Thanks to these barriers, far too many of our citizens returning from prison don’t ever get what Brian Banks has gotten with the Falcons ̶ a second chance to live a full, contributing life that makes the most of their potential. As a result, an inestimable amount of human capital is allowed to collect dust. And, we’re losing out on more than just athletic talent like Banks’s. We also miss out on everything former prisoners have to teach us about fixing what’s broken in society.
Every person is an expert at his or her own failures. When an addict learns to beat her addiction, she is the best counselor to those still trapped by that lifestyle. A former gang member has the credibility to help keep young people from making the same bad choices he made.
It is perhaps understandable when the world doesn’t “get” this. But as one who pastored churches in Canada and the United States for 28 years, it saddens me when local churches have no room in their pews for ex-prisoners and their families. Men and women who are turning away from a life of crime and futility to follow Jesus and serve His Body are living portraits of the Gospel message those churches proclaim.
- They are Paul of Tarsus, who, as Saul, conspired to hunt down and even kill Christians.
- They are Moses, who fled Egypt to escape a murder charge.
- They are Rahab the prostitute, King David the adulterer, and
- Chuck Colson, whom was Nixon’s unprincipled political operative before Christ chose him to be one of His most influential spokesmen in the twentieth century.
Our faith is built upon people who made very real and serious mistakes, but who God used to demonstrate that no life is beyond the reach of His grace.
Churches who earnestly want to heed God’s call to “remember the prisoner” can still face significant roadblocks. Movies and news reports leaves us with scary mental images of what a “felon” looks and behaves like, even though you would be hard-pressed to pick the former prisoner out a crowd on the street, or even out of the ranks of the staff at Prison Fellowship Ministries.
When I pastored a church in Michigan that went on to develop a successful para-church ministry to ex-prisoners, I and the congregation had to navigate our way through some weighty issues. We needed to learn the humility to recognize that we are all recovering from something and reentering from somewhere, and that we have all been imprisoned by various kinds of idolatry and addiction.
We also needed to realize that at its core, ministry to ex-prisoners and their families is no different than what healthy, Bible-believing churches are doing already. It’s the Great Commandment and the Great Commission; it’s loving God and our neighbors, spreading the Gospel, and making disciples.
Once we grasped those truths, we found ourselves challenged and transformed by ministry to ex-prisoners and their families. We knew there was no going back to the way we used to be.
A recent essay in National Affairs by Eli Lehrer noted that between 600,000 and 700,000 men and women are released from jail or prison each year. That’s a huge number, and many of them are looking for a new start. So why aren’t more churches engaged in this process? Why aren’t we knocking on the doors of parole and probation officers, saying, “How can we help?”
I believe that two primary errors keep us from reaching out to ex-prisoners with the love and truth of Jesus. The first is a habit of cheapening the Cross by failing to recognize the reality of aggressive, pervasive evil in our own lives. In the interest of seeker sensitivity, too many churches never address sin. Instead, they talk about “bad habits” and “struggles” like gossip, dishonesty, or materialism. Jesus is presented as One Who can help us manage these more palatable failings.
So when more threatening forms of sin—like a sex scandal in the pastorate or embezzlement on a building committee—rear their heads within the church, we are shocked and paralyzed. We know Jesus can overcome “little sins,” but we’re less sure about whether His grace can restore people after bigger ones.
Likewise, when we see an ex-prisoner who might be facing significant issues headed in our direction, we circle the wagons, instead of holding out the Gospel as the antidote to a life-threatening illness. We forget that Jesus came to “seek and save the lost,” and to the sex offenders, addicts, and other convicts, we say, whether through open hostility or a non-welcoming stance, “Move along. Your issues are too complicated.”
The second error is to retreat into the self-righteousness of the Pharisees. Forgetting that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” we decide that some people have committed sins that exclude them from belonging to or serving within His Body. Too many ex-prisoners, longing to belong, have felt the sidelong glances and judgmental exclusion of such congregations and decided not to come back a second Sunday.
Friends, there are real challenges and issues to be confronted in ministry to ex-prisoners. I know of one church that holds “adults only” services on weekend evenings so that registered sex offenders can worship God in a manner that does not violate the conditions of their parole. Learning to minister to any demographic with specific needs requires a learning process. But there is so much that church leaders can do today.
- We can speak out for reforms that restore prisoners while they are incarcerated and lighten to load of the “second sentence.”
- We can conscientiously welcome ex-prisoners into our churches as brothers and sisters who God desires to restore to their full potential.
- And we can continue to hold out the full Gospel for our congregations, with all its costliness, grace, and glory.