“I wish the church knew how deeply God can change your life,” Mark said. His friends nodded in agreement around the lunch table, sharing a common meal of tacos and a common story of returning back to their communities after serving time in prison.
I had asked for their answer to a simple question: How can churches better welcome citizens returning from incarceration? Their answers were heartfelt and challenging—and I left wondering if their answers were all that different than the thoughts of any group of people who have been marginalized. How can the church better welcome . . . immigrants? Gay Christians? Millennials? People with depression?
I wonder if those answers would match the men’s simple, sobering ones: “Be my friend. Let me be honest. Be honest yourself. Offer hope. See past the stigma. Be more than a social club for the well-groomed and smiling. Don’t refer me to a program, invite me for lunch.”
In Scripture, there is a story that gets told again and again. It’s the story of a stranger who brings a blessing. The Samaritan, the woman, the sojourner in the desert, the traveler on the Emmaus road, the outcast, the threat, the “other” turns out to be an angel or a messenger or even Christ himself.
As I interviewed the group that day, I began to wonder if my initial question was wrong. Asking “How can churches better reach out to you-who-are-on-the-margins?” misses the point of these stranger-as-blessing narratives that God seems so intent on us hearing. I began to wonder if the better question was what blessings God was poised to give congregations if they thought of returning citizens as a welcome gift and an asset.
What if God is offering a gift to the church that is willing to welcome the prisoner?
The Gift of Freedom
“I can’t let judgmental people bother me. I can’t be held hostage to that.” —Steven
A very real experience for all the guys at the table was the “mask” that was expected when they arrived at church. Church, as they described it, was a place to look your best, to appear cleaned up and well-edited for maximum social acceptance.
They talked about the need to “let the church warm up to you,” to “not cross the line and share too much information,” and to accept that many church members approached them with fear. They were all aware of the great gulf that existed between them and many of the church-goers that surrounded them: the assumptions, the stigma, the judgment. And they were all determined that those masks would not prevent them from seeking after God, spiritual growth, and a relationship with Christ.
I wear a mask to church, too. I think most of us do. I could learn a lot from Steven, who is no longer held hostage to what other Christians think of him.
Is God offering the gift of freedom to the church that is willing to welcome the prisoner?
The Gift of Healing
“Confess your faults so you can heal. Otherwise you’ll act it out.” —Darrell
They talked about how grateful they were for the morning Bible study and accountability time they experienced through Next Step. Men who were willing to be real about their struggles were welcome to come and to find acceptance and encouragement. Returning from prison can be an isolating experience, and the mornings they gathered to read Scripture and pray together were mornings when they felt connected and seen.
During the season of Lent, Christians often focus on repentance. At my church, we include a prayer of confession and an assurance of pardon in each worship service. Still, there is such a difference between a private, silent confession of sin and a verbal confession that happens in front of a real person. I could learn a lot from Darrell, who has learned that privatizing and internalizing shame has real consequences down the road.
Is God offering the gift of healing to the church that is willing to welcome the prisoner?
Next Step of West Michigan is a faith-based nonprofit that gives jobs to people coming out of prison or rehab, providing them with a community of support that will help them integrate into the workforce, regain hope, and empower themselves to create a better future (nextstep-wm.org).
The Gift of Regeneration
“You’re not the same person you were.” —Michael
These guys carry with them the label of “felon” no matter where they go. They report their past crimes on every job and housing application they complete. They can’t apply for food stamps or welfare checks. In many states, they can’t vote or serve on a jury. This has been called the “collateral consequences of conviction”—the litany of ways in which people are punished long past serving a full sentence.
But these guys were clear: they were not defined by the worst choice they ever made. God’s mercies are new every morning, and they are new people. Though society might expect them to carry the burden of guilt forever, grace does not. I could learn a lot from Michael, who insists that God’s promise is true: that he is a new creation.
Is God offering the gift of regeneration to the church that is willing to welcome the prisoner?
The Gift of Restoration
“Forgiveness and mercy—you give them quicker when you know you’ve screwed up yourself.” —Floyd
During Lent, Christians spend a lot of time contemplating their sin. We put ash on our foreheads, remembering that we are dust. We walk through Stations of the Cross, remembering the suffering of our Savior on our behalf. We experience the pain of Good Friday, and consider the weight of our sin. We celebrate forgiveness and victory on Easter Sunday.
And yet, church is one of the last places where we learn to ask for and receive forgiveness from one another. In many Reformed churches, I fear there is a spiritualizing and privatizing of forgiveness that isolates us from the difficult and messy process of actually forgiving one another.
I could learn a lot from Floyd, who knows guilt and grace. Being aware of his brokenness makes him unafraid of the brokenness of others. He’s a grace-giver—naturally, easily, quickly.
Is God offering the gift of restoration to the church that is willing to welcome the prisoner?
What better time to reflect upon these questions than during Lent? As the dust sticks to our foreheads and we are reminded of our brokenness, may we also be reminded of the brokenness of mass incarceration and the other horrific injustices woven into the fabric of our criminal justice systems in the U.S. and Canada. As we contemplate the suffering of our Savior, may we also contemplate the suffering of those who endure oppressively long sentences, of children who are locked up with adults, of those who are denied the opportunity to fully reenter society after they serve their time.
As we reflect, may we be moved to learn more, to get out of our comfort zones, to advocate boldly for a justice system that restores both victims and offenders instead of isolating, punishing, and torturing.
And as we reflect, learn, move, and speak, may we welcome people who have been incarcerated into our congregations when they return home. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because in Matthew 25, Christ is clear: “I was a prisoner.”
When we welcome the prisoner, we welcome Christ himself. It is my prayer that, more and more, as we welcome returning citizens we will also experience all the blessings that Christ’s presence brings. It’s my prayer that we will experience the gift of the felon.
This litany is based on the “gifts of the felon” outlined in this article. It may be read responsively in a church service.
But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Rom. 6:17-18)
We pray that this church would be a place of freedom
where people are not judged by their reputations,
past sins, or most regretted mistakes.
We pray that we might all experience the freedom
that comes from following Christ,
and treat one another as freed ones, too.
Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. (James 5:16)
We pray that this church would be a place of healing
where we can speak honestly about our faults
and support one another in our weaknesses.
We pray that we can be real and authentic
about that which brings us shame and that which brings us joy
so that we might be the body of Christ together,
broken, and made whole.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2 Cor. 5:16-17)
We pray that this church would be a place of regeneration
where we live as new people, and treat one another as new people.
We pray that we might be stunned
by the new creation all around us,
developing eyes to see ourselves and one another
no longer from a human point of view
but instead with the eyes of Christ.
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. (Eph. 4:32)
We pray that this church would be a place of restoration
where we might speak truthfully about the ways we hurt each other,
and where we might find ways to repair harm
and strengthen relationships in Christ’s forgiveness.
We pray that we might be brave enough
to support those who are victims,
and to welcome those who have done harm.
We pray that this church would be a place
where hope is restored
and where Christ is revealed.