The following article was originally published in Winter 2017 edition of Inside Journal. Inside Journal is a quarterly newspaper published by Prison Fellowship® just for prisoners.
This article is reprinted here with permission.
It's been 20 years since Prison Fellowship field director Deborah Daniels was behind bars in Alabama—as a prisoner, that is. She's often back in prison these days, serving regularly with Offender Alumni Association (OAA) volunteers. She formally founded the group in 2015 as a support system for returning citizens and their families, helping them mobilize as volunteers and leaders in the community.
It all begins in organized support groups called forums, where people come together to share their stories and help each other move forward. A forum is a safe place to find peer-to-peer support, solve mutual dilemmas, and share known resources. Attendees may come from different backgrounds, but they often have similar hurts, fears, and weaknesses.
"Watching some of these men that have done a considerable time in prison, walk into one of our groups … you can just see the apprehension and uncertainty of what their life is going to be like," says Daniels. "They're just looking for something to grab ahold of and connect with."
The newly returning citizens gain wisdom and networking opportunities from other former prisoners who are already stable, working, and connected with the local community. The process generates a cycle of "offenders helping offenders," Daniels explains. Seasoned members of the group will connect with newcomers, call them on the phone regularly, and invite them back for Monday meetings and Saturday service projects.
"We want the community to see us as a body," says Daniels, "actually doing something together to give back, despite our struggles."
SPACE FOR SOMETHING GREATER
It's never easy to be open about your struggles and admit your need for help. But at OAA, it's not about pretending to be perfect. It's not even about trying to be. Rather, it's about being honest in the midst of challenges, and seeking strength outside yourself.
In the Bible, the Apostle Paul writes honestly about his own struggle with weakness. We don't know specifics, but we know that Paul pleads with God to take his weakness away—and God could, but He doesn't.
God does something even more powerful.
In 2 Corinthians 12:9, Paul writes, "Each time [God] said, 'My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.' So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me."
Paul goes on to explain that he can not only endure weakness, but also be thankful in the midst of it. For while Paul's weakness was great, God's strength would always be greater. That weakness would make space for God to show His strength in Paul's life—for Paul's good, and God's glory.
THE SECRET TO STRENGTH
God doesn't always work the way we expect Him to. When He sent Jesus Christ into the world 2,000 years ago, it was hardly an impressive spectacle. Jesus, the Son of God, was born in a stable, to a poor young girl and a carpenter. He received a welcoming party of barn animals and lowly shepherds. His 33 years of teaching, healing, and sinless servanthood were often marked by ridicule and loneliness, and it all ended in a horrific, shameful death on a cross.
But that's where God showed His power yet again, when Jesus rose from the dead after three days in the tomb.
2 Cor 12:9
Because of what Jesus has done for us, we can come confidently as we are—weaknesses, fears, broken pasts—and open our hands to receive God's gift of grace. If we will walk with Him, He promises to give us His strength every step of the way.
And, like our friend Daniels says, "Who can walk with me better than someone who has already been in my shoes?"
HELP THOSE ON THE INSIDE
To read more great Inside Journal articles, check out our Inside Journal archives for past editions in both English and Spanish.