"Even though I had turned my back on what God's call was on my life, God never failed me," says Dave. "He never turned His back on me."
Dave Clark spent over eight years in prison before he was released in 2003. Having accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior when he was just 12 years old, he experienced a revival of faith during his incarceration.
"It was my relationship with Christ that got me through [prison]," he explains.
Dave was fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in Christian classes and groups, including Prison Fellowship® courses. For many Christians behind bars, the Church inside can be a great source of encouragement. Fellow brothers or sisters in Christ stand side by side and share the struggles of prison life together.
But when prisoners are released—as 95 percent of all prisoners are—that encouraging community must be left behind. Once on the outside, returning citizens may have difficulty finding a church willing to accept them.
"The church just really loved me and took care of me. They were there to help me and didn't hold anything back."
PRESSING NEEDS AND COLLATERAL CONSEQUENCES
Returning citizens face an overwhelming number of needs upon their release from prison, such as finding a place to live, securing a job, and building new relationships. Returning citizens also face thousands of collateral consequences that restrict their ability to support themselves. They may be denied housing or rejected from a job. They may have their driver's license revoked. These and other collateral consequences can last a lifetime.
While incarcerated, Dave had a unique opportunity to attend church services at a church outside of his prison in North Carolina.
"Because of my security level, I [would] go out on Sundays and play the organ," Dave shares. "When I was actually released, [the church] had a job set up for me and housing. … The church just really loved me and took care of me … They were there to help me and didn't hold anything back."
Having that church's encouragement from the start helped Dave as he began his new life. Because the church was able to see past Dave's criminal record and invest in him, Dave was able to do the same for others.
"My main involvement was in music," Dave recalls, "But while I was there, I had the opportunity to direct a ministry called 'Second Chance Ministry.' Basically, it was a house for guys coming out of prison and making the transition into home life."
Not every church is equipped with the resources to start a full-blown prison ministry or reentry ministry. However, all churches can support returning citizens by welcoming, nurturing, and discipling them.
CHURCHES: PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH
Today, Dave resides in Virginia and is a member of River of Life Community Church, an Assemblies of God church. He is still involved in ministry, but it has not always been easy for him.
"I had one church that I served that had a couple of people that just couldn't stand the fact that I was a former inmate," he recalls. "They did everything they could to throw a wrench in the works. But they weren't successful."
Dave holds no resentment for those in the church who were unable to accept him, but he acknowledges that churches must practice what they preach.
"If you believe that Jesus Christ is a life-changer—if you believe that the power of the Holy Spirit can change someone and make them new regardless of what they've done, and if you believe in God's power over sin," Dave says, "then you need to stand on that … In Christ Jesus, nobody has to be a complete failure."
Rev. Peyton Harris, Dave's pastor at River of Life Community Church, often forgets Dave was a prisoner. "I can recall a couple of times when I said to him, 'Dave, I forget that you used to be in prison.' … I accept Dave as the individual he is."
"Everybody is a second chancer. Nobody starts off perfect."
THROUGH THE EYES OF JESUS
The Church is uniquely positioned to help former prisoners re-enter society. In fact, the Gospel of Jesus is based on humanity's need for a second chance. Because of this, the Church should be a place where those who have been granted a second chance can thrive in their new identity.
"Jesus says, whatever we do to the least of these, we've done unto Him," says Peyton. "As we walk with Jesus, we begin to see people through Jesus' eyes."
Dave agrees. "Everybody is a second chancer," he says. "Nobody starts off perfect. It is the power of Jesus Christ that calls us to have hope. 'My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness.' That should be the Church's theme for itself and the community."