By Caleb Seibert
This month, the Christian Life Commission joined Gov. Greg Abbott, Prison Fellowship, and several advocacy groups to declare April “Second Chance Month” for formerly incarcerated individuals. Second Chance Month is an opportunity to highlight the challenges of formerly incarcerated individuals and their families and to share stories of redemption for those who have successfully overcome their criminal pasts.
Nearly 70,000 people are released from Texas state prisons every year, but most churches have little to no interaction with them. These people and their families often face a mountain of obstacles to re-entry ranging from work barriers and criminal debt to the deep stigmatization that comes with their past experiences.
Research by Lifeway Publishing in Nashville seems to echo this sentiment. After polling 1,000 Protestant churches, Lifeway found that 31 percent said no former inmates attended their church, 36 percent said one or two former inmates attended, and only 33 percent indicated three or more former inmates attending their church.
Hebrews 13:3 says to “remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them.” How can Christians remember those who are in prison and those who have been released?
Here are four practical suggestions for ministry based on conversations with Doug Smith, senior policy analyst at Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and David Valentine, a pastor, who has ministered to prisoners and guards over 20 years as he pastors in Huntsville, home to one of the largest prisons in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Offer presence: A recent report notes that visitations to inmates in prison have been associated with a nearly 26 percent reduction in the likelihood that those individuals will return to prison.
Churches can offer this companionship by mobilizing volunteers to go into local prisons under the prison chaplains in your area. In most cases, all that is required is a two to three hours of training every couple of months for willing volunteers. Volunteers can also connect with any of a number of prison ministries including Prison Fellowship, Texas Baptist Men Restorative Justice Ministry, Bill Glass Behind the Walls, and CHARM.
Offer employment: People with a criminal record have a very difficult time finding employment because of the stigma and potential liability these individuals can represent to business owners.
Mobilize your networks to help people find employment. Every church, large or small, consists of a unique network of professionals and resources that can partner together to provide opportunities for newly-released individuals.
Offer resources: As is the case with many issues, there is always a need for more funding in the fight for restoration. Here are a few ideas of effective places to send donations:
Have a Sunday school class adopt the family of an incarcerated individual. In addition to providing financial support, pray for and mentor these families through their time of crisis.
Give to drug rehabilitation programs. Large percentages of prisoners are being held for drug crimes, and fighting addiction is crucial to reducing the cycle of poverty and incarceration among these people.
Offer advocacy: You can join the Christian Life Commission in criminal justice reform advocacy.
Advocate for laws that facilitate pathways to redemption for individuals. Sentencing reform, bail reform, and a change in the structure of fines and fees that the poor encounter in the justice system would go a long way in equalizing the reentry process.
For more information on CLC’s legislative agenda, request a copy of their advocacy and public policy guide by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
The church is uniquely positioned to be a part of changing the prison system from a revolving door to a highway to redemption. Armed with a unique mission, a clear calling, and an unrivaled network, it also carries a power and hope that the world is desperate for. This “living hope” described in 1 Peter 1 extends to all people, from the wealthy person in the corner office to the broken man in a lonely prison cell. Let’s be the church that continues to bring the hope and life of the kingdom to the hardest and darkest places, for when we do it for the least of these, we do it for Him.
Caleb Seibert is an intern with the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission and a graduate student at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs in Austin.
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