Willie Mitchell would like to see a shift in our culture’s perceptions toward returning citizens.
After serving 18 years in prison, I worked with a church’s prison ministry where we held a walk and prayer vigil for incarcerated men and women.
I’ll never forget one conversation I had that day with a gentleman outside the church. When I talked about the challenges that prisoners face, he said, "I don't want to have anything to do with those animals."
He had no idea that he was speaking to a person that he would consider to be an "animal."
REALIZING A CALLING
On the inside, we're called offenders and inmates. One of the first things I noticed when I came out were the general attitudes toward people with a criminal record and the labels people use. People in society often do not see us as human beings worthy of a second chance.
After someone pays their debt to society and is released, the process of reintegration back into their community is a major hurdle. My transition coming home from prison opened my eyes to the barriers and hurdles I faced in assimilating back into society. I have a degree in culinary arts and worked as a chef during my incarceration, but because of my felony conviction, I was denied jobs I would otherwise qualify for.
I began to prayerfully ask God, What can I do to be involved in justice reform? I prayed not only for myself, but for some of the guys I considered friends when I was incarcerated. I also thought about the rest of the population who would come home after me. Of course, I hoped they would all succeed. But too often, people who struggle to be accepted by their community end up returning to a life of crime.
After that man’s remark labeling incarcerated people as animals, I knew I had to get involved and do something to change that stigma. I made a choice to spread awareness about the challenges people face coming home from prison.
Prison Fellowship® popped up when I was on the internet looking for prison ministries to see how I might get involved. I read about their Justice Ambassador program, which equips regular people like me to advocate for cultural change and second chances. Right away, I knew it would be a good fit. So, I took the chance of applying to the program and was accepted.
BECOMING A JUSTICE AMBASSADOR
As soon as I was approved as a Justice Ambassador, Second Chance Month® in April came up. I scheduled events including a prayer walk and a Second Chance Sunday event. I jumped in and hit the ground running.
Prison Fellowship has a special cohort for Justice Ambassadors who have been incarcerated. This cohort receives intensive, small group training that equips them to share their story, support meaningful legislation, and impact culture.
I trained in Virginia with my fellow cohort members just a few weeks after I joined the program. One of my fondest memories of that trip was the second day after we arrived. That morning, I was up early reading my Bible. I was looking out the window and a thought came to my mind, You don't belong here. I had to fight not to take those negative thoughts with me into class.
But as soon as I walked through the door, the other Justice Ambassadors welcomed me with open arms. They listened to my story with such care and attention, and I immediately began to bond with the whole class. The level of acceptance and community was an amazing experience.
Before I came to Christ, I was a leader, a speaker, a spokesperson. The natural skills I obtained in my previous life of being outspoken, speaking up for people—the Lord used that. He took that ability and helped me use it for Him and for others. Even at my previous places of employment, I've always excelled in some type of management position. I have had to listen to people and their needs, and advocate for those needs with other people in authority. I know what it means to fight for the people who are unable to fight for themselves.
Since becoming a Justice Ambassador earlier this year, I've hosted two Second Chance Month events and a prayer walk. I was able to contact a few pastors and talk with them about the need to speak up for returning citizens.
Soon, my Justice Ambassador cohort is flying out to D.C. to meet with lawmakers. Then I will have my first opportunity to speak before a lawmaker.
I would like to see a shift in our culture’s perceptions toward returning citizens—to see more people give us a fighting chance.
AN INVITATION TO FUTURE JUSTICE AMBASSADORS
To anyone considering becoming a Justice Ambassador, take the chance. It's one of the most fulfilling opportunities that you can have, whether or not you've been incarcerated. Getting involved with the things that are going on with others is fulfilling, because as you help people, you help yourself. Take the chance and get involved. I'm certain that others will fall in love with it just like I have.
I want to encourage anyone who is formerly incarcerated and struggling to find their place to keep pressing forward. Find all the dreams and desires that God has placed in your heart and mind and stay focused. Never compromise who you are in Christ or what He has put before you. As you walk that out, all of the promises that are yes and amen (2 Corinthians 1:20) in Him will begin to be fulfilled in your life.
Around the second day before I was released, I was praying, and the Lord gave me Ecclesiastes 4:14, the latter part of it, where it says, "And he shall come out of prison and reign."
That's actually what God is doing. He's making good on His promise.
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