It was a few years back when our church took a long hard look at our connections to our community neighbors within the few blocks radius of our building, and saw we could be doing a better job. We needed to become more “externally focused” with our vision to love and serve the neighbor. This meant to on-purpose get to know our neighbors. So the more I spoke with Dale, read books, prayed for wisdom, listened to those God was speaking through – I sensed a conviction in my heart that in the county jail, located one block from our building, were the very neighbors we were to supposed to notice. Feeling a bit of trepidation, I took a day of training required of all volunteers, then began shadowing others who were seasoned at approaching inmates, listening to their stories, offering encouragement or prayer, then inviting them into the church family once they are released.
I began to learn how hard it is to reenter society, land a job, remain sober, & find a little coaching when one is transitioning out of jail or prison. I found that often in jail it is a decent person who has made poor decisions, or been caught up in an addiction, or fallen behind in child support payments. Often it is young adults in their twenties, in need of adults who will listen to them, challenge them to improve themselves. I quickly saw what they don’t need is shaming or to be talked down to; they have enough of that.
In the two years since I & other Central volunteers began to visit inmates at the jail & help lead services, I’ve come to see these men and women as part of our neighborhood. Once released, they show up in our worship. They join us for meals. They ask for a bus pass so they can get to a job. They stand patiently in the Gathering Place just waiting for someone to strike up a conversation. What excites me these days is how opportunities are expanding to befriend and give dignity to these folks’ lives. Why, just recently, the jail administration has begun asking help with new initiatives (training offered) –
-GED classes for those wanting to earn a high school diploma while in jail (teachers needed);
-Life Skills Classes on topics like “Healthy Boundaries”, “Interviewing & Job Skills”, “Breaking Addiction” (volunteers needed to teach materials);
-Mentors to be matched with an inmate near end of his/her sentence, to be there to encourage over the next several months of transition (good listeners needed);
-Keeping a presence in the jail lobby (for a portion of Saturday or Sunday afternoon) to befriend families who have come to visit their family member in jail);
Some of us may want to be supportive, but are not yet comfortable with entering the jail. There are still some great opportunities to support and care, like the lobby hospitality mentioned above. The newly formed advocacy group, Before, During & After Incarceration (BDAI) welcomes newcomers to their meetings the 3rd Tuesday of each month. Here is where many of the initiatives & partnership with jail administration take form as advocacy. Then there’s the Gifts For Kids Christmas event, sponsored by Keys To Freedom Jail Ministry, held early December at Central Church for family members of inmates to share a meal & choose gifts for the children.
I see these offerings as an important place to be a good neighbor in the spirit of the early Methodists, going all the way back to John Wesley, tuning into Jesus’ advice that we visit those in jails & prisons, “for when you have done this for the least of these, it is like you have done it for me”. I am proud of our UMC Social Principles holding up the value of restorative justice, which chooses to see dignity not only in the victim, but in the offender as well (see below).
I would love to speak personally with anyone wanting to know more. Our neighbors who are serving time for their crimes will thrive after their release only when the community befriends them, and opens doors for them to experience success.
You might also appreciate this helpful article about Christians of all persuasions supporting prison reform legislation at https://religionnews.com/2018/04/26/people-of-faith-should-support-prison-reform-legislation/
I would also value your reflections as you reply to my blog.
Serving a Liberating Christ,
(from our United Methodist Social Principles)
In the love of Christ, who came to save those who are lost and vulnerable, we urge the creation of a genuinely new system for the care and restoration of victims, offenders, criminal justice officials, and the community as a whole. Restorative justice grows out of biblical authority, which emphasizes a right relationship with God, self, and community. When such relationships are violated or broken through crime, opportunities are created to make things right.
Most criminal justice systems around the world are retributive. These retributive justice systems profess to hold the offender accountable to the state and use punishment as the equalizing tool for accountability. In contrast, restorative justice seeks to hold the offender accountable to the victimized person, and to the disrupted community. Through God’s transforming power, restorative justice seeks to repair the damage, right the wrong, and bring healing to all involved, including the victim, the offender, the families, and the community. The Church is transformed when it responds to the claims of discipleship by becoming an agent of healing and systemic change.