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
"Our outreach to the prisons can't overlook the families in our own church. ... 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."
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."