Ray Cruz Is Changing the Narrative for People With a Criminal Record
So many people still believe prisoners are just bad people—people to stay away from. But I believe every opportunity to get closer to those affected by incarceration is a blessing from God.
As both a chaplain and director of reentry services, I worked for an agency that provided biblical studies and reentry life skills to the men and women incarcerated in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. I have also provided counseling as a volunteer for different churches’ reintegration programs. We’re talking about all aspects of reentry—personal plans, resume preparation, seeking employment, interviewing skills, reengaging with family, joining a church, and becoming active and impactful community members. It’s such a huge need.
What keeps me involved in prison ministry is witnessing the blessings of what returning citizens are doing today. To see who they used to be, and to see that change and renewal, really impacts me. That’s part of why I started volunteering as a Justice Ambassador with Prison Fellowship®.
RAISING A VOICE
When I tell people I’m from the South Bronx, they often ask what that was like. I grew up in an area of New York City that was especially rough in the 1970s - 1980s. As a kid, my family lived in old brownstones and there were many times when I would skip over people who were shooting heroin in the staircases or on the rooftops. Now I’ll show people videos of it, and they can hardly believe what they see. But that was my experience.
It’s a lot different than Ventura County, California, where I live now. Many communities contain nice homes, middle and upper-middle-class living, comforts. What a lot of people here don’t realize, when they are that comfortable, is that people in their community are still impacted by crime, by addiction, by broken homes and real struggles.
The Justice Ambassador program has given me a practical way to respond to these issues in my community. Prison Fellowship staff send me materials and resources to stay involved, to speak with state and federal representatives, to support important criminal justice reforms. I write letters, make phone calls, and even meet with lawmakers. By staying educated on what’s going on with certain issues, like proportional sentencing and reentry, I also help mobilize and inform my church family.
CONVICTED FOR GOOD
One of my favorite opportunities has been to hold a Second Chance® Sunday service at my church, celebrating Second Chance Month. As Christians, we have received the ultimate second chance through Jesus Christ. We can extend grace to others, then, because every person has value and potential to be restored.
A large percentage of people in your church know someone who has been arrested, or they have been arrested themselves. A lot of people in the church would be surprised.
A lot of people with a criminal record want to give back to their communities, now more than ever. They are now convicted, by the Holy Spirit, and they want to serve the church and the community.
STORIES OF HOPE
As a counselor and pastor, I’ve regularly met one on one with returning citizens. They didn’t want to return to their old neighborhoods and old influences. They wanted support to stay on the right path.
Not long ago, I met with a guy who had been in trouble since he was 8 years old. He’s about 40 now. I saw him transform from a prisoner to a man growing in the Lord. Now, he’s remarried; I officiated his wedding. He is an incredible husband and father, has a stable job, and is loving life again.
We need to be telling these stories, especially in church circles. It’s a challenge to get churches to open their doors to returning citizens. The first thing they ask is, “What were you in for? How much time did you serve?” This person coming into your church is the kind of person you say you are welcoming and comforting every week. But are we really practicing what we preach?
We should want to champion men and women coming out of prison to rejoin their communities successfully. As a result, I'm in the process of starting a nonprofit in Simi Valley, California, called Abide Reintegration Services.
This prison ministry work makes me appreciate the Gospel more. When I’m sitting across from a formerly incarcerated person and hearing their story, I sometimes learn more from them than they learn from me. I’m seeing the way the Lord is working through them. Their testimony brings hope.
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