You shall be witnesses unto me in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and unto the uttermost parts of the earth."
In the minds of many people in church leadership, the prison and the prisoner have been "the uttermost parts of the earth"—people that we would like to reach someday, but not directly linked to us. But when your church's families and neighborhoods are affected by incarceration, prison suddenly becomes our Jerusalem—our backyard.
HEALING COMMUNITIES USA
In 2007, a group of pastors and church leaders formed the Healing Communities USA, a response to record numbers of men and women returning from state and federal prison the year before. They concluded that the starting point for prisoner reentry ministry would be the individuals and families in their own churches who were impacted by incarceration. To reach those in prison, the Church must create a safe and welcoming place where families of the incarcerated and returning citizens can find second chances at life.
Thus, in a partnership between the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Progressive National Baptist Convention, these church leaders began preparing training materials for their congregations based on two research-driven facts for successful reentry:
- people coming home from prison need pro-social attitudes to make good decisions in the community, and
- people coming home from prison need a solid support network of friends and family to reinforce positive attitudes.
The Church is uniquely designed to support second chances. Best practices in reentry already include things all churches are called to do—provide a new set of values (evangelism and sanctification) and solid relationships (fellowship and discipleship). Churches minister to their own families, building bridges to successful reentry.
THE ATTITUDE OF THE CHURCH
Yet some argue that there are no families in their church impacted by incarceration. A 2016 survey by LifeWay Research stated that while the overwhelming majority of pastors have visited a prison facility, most report not having much contact with currently or formerly incarcerated persons from their churches. In fact, "half of pastors say no one from their congregation has been jailed in the past three years. A third have seen one or two people from their church go to jail."
This attitude overlooks two key factors: shame and stigma. It negates the calling of the Church, and perpetuates the myth that those affected by incarceration are undeserving of a second chance.
As one minister explained, "our outreach to the prisons can't overlook the families in our own church. We should treat the prisoner the same we do the sick person and visit them. If you get sick, the whole church knows and mobilizes, but if you go to jail, you just get three volunteers from someone else's church."
A CULTURE OF SHAME AND STIGMA
The same shame and stigma that makes prisons "the other parts of the earth" keeps church members from telling their pastors and congregations about their time in the justice system or the arrest of family members. Churches must create a culture of safety and trust for members to divulge the existence of an incarcerated family member. This enables them to receive the support they need and to help their incarcerated loved one.
Healing Communities USA provides resources for congregations to create such a culture. For example, we have shown churches how to open an altar call for families of the incarcerated. In the last ten years, there has never been an empty altar. As churches embrace a culture of safety and trust, they put a face on the person in prison and the returning citizen. They know the individual's grandmother. They've watched the individual grow up in Sunday school or sing in the choir with their mother.
Citizens who return to congregations that have tackled the shame and stigma find a hope-filled welcome.
SECOND CHANCES CLOSE TO HOME
Early in the movement, the Progressive Baptists decided to call any congregation that adopted the Healing Communities model a "Station of Hope." These churches partnered in 2009 with Prison Fellowship to provide joint training on reentry. In one of his Breakpoint broadcasts, Chuck Colson called it part of a "perfect cultural storm" as congregations with historically different records and approaches to social justice came together around reentry.
In 2010, Healing Communities USA became a ministry of the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation, providing reentry training nationally for diverse congregations, denominations and judicatories. It acknowledges restorative justice practices, support for survivors of crime and ministry to children of the incarcerated. But it's reentry model continues to revolve around the twin pillars of values and relationships, starting with families in the local church, and creating the climate where any returning citizen can experience a church as a Station of Hope.
Through this model, thousands of congregations have discovered that prisons are indeed "Jerusalem" and that second chances are available close to home.
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