Editor’s Note — This June 2, 2016, article recently won an award of merit from Religion Communicators Council (RCC) for writing. The Alabama Baptist also garnered awards of merit from RCC for its bimonthly Faith and Family feature package, newspaper single issue and overall regional newspaper. Bob Terry also earned a third place award from Evangelical Press Association (EPA) for his Sept. 22, 2016, editorial “Mocking the Alabama Supreme Court.” RCC and EPA are two of four national religious press awards competitions TAB enters. Results from the other two plus the Alabama Press Association awards competition will be announced in coming weeks.
Could the state’s prison system crisis be exactly what Alabama Baptist churches need to bolster relevancy within society, discipleship efforts among believers?
By Jennifer Davis Rash
The Alabama Baptist
Prison reform, prison overcrowding, funding for new prison facilities, prison problems, prisons, prisons, prisons — we’ve heard it, read about it and watched the news clips on it until we can’t process it any more.
Alabama prisons are in serious trouble and few can seem to agree on what to do about it.
I’m not sure many people even notice the media reports, legislative debates and pleas for help any longer. They have become white noise nagging at our consciences but easy enough to ignore if we aren’t personally affected. Plus when it comes down to it, the numbers, options for help and degree of hopelessness are all truly overwhelming.
Grace and forgiveness
But if we as Christians believe what we say we believe about the gospel, about grace, about forgiveness, about being a new creation in Christ, then why are we not walking alongside every single inmate striving to truly change? Why are we not knocking down the prison gates trying to make a difference?
With more than 1 million names on the rolls of the more than 3,200 Alabama Baptist churches, what type of reforms would naturally take place in the correctional system if every church was intentional about making a difference? If every church decided to focus on even one specific item needed by one specific chaplain at one specific prison facility? If each church saw the closest prison facility to them as a missions field?
What if church members prayed for those in prison by name? What if volunteers from the churches consistently showed kindness to those behind bars, sharing the gospel with unbelievers and encouraging believers? What if they intentionally built relationships, sincere relationships, with those on the inside?
And what if churches became an immediate and automatic support system for those in their congregations who have a family member in prison or jail? What if the church culture was a safe place without fear of shame for those families as they shoulder the pain and daily life difficulties of an incarcerated family member?
What if those same churches encouraged, mentored, loved on and discipled the incarcerated men and women who are seeking forgiveness and grace? And what if the church was present during court hearings, on visitation days and when those returning citizens walked outside the prison gates?
The re-entry period is critical, prison ministry advocates contend. Attempting to transition from behind bars alone most often is disastrous, they say, noting reports and statistics that prove the greater the support system, the greater the chance of becoming a positive, contributing member of society.
With more than half of those released from prison returning for parole violations or new crimes, it seems logical that an easy place to start on solving the overcrowding problem is at re-entry.
The federal government agrees, said Jesse Wiese of Prison Fellowship, noting billions of dollars a year go into re-entry programs. But the money, which is funded by taxpayers, is basically wasted when there’s no one to walk with and mentor the returning citizen.
He described it like teaching someone to drive, giving them the tools they need to build a car and helping them build the car, but then forgetting to provide a road on which to drive.
“We’ve got to provide the opportunity for people to know what they owe, pay it, be accountable … and live in a world where punishment has an end, where men and women with a criminal record are valued and can give back to their communities at their highest potential.”
Prison ministry advocates noted that the Department of Justice will gladly partner with churches in religious-based programs to help increase re-entry success stories — “but churches aren’t interested.”
Involving the whole church
And for the churches that are interested, the entire congregation needs to buy in to the mindset to make the biggest difference, prison ministry leaders said. “If the ushers are mean-spirited or judgmental, then the returning citizen will never find the four members who volunteer with the church’s prison ministry,” one leader explained.
Another leader in prison ministry, Rob Cleeton, a Southern Baptist Convention-endorsed prison chaplain in Illinois, said it comes down to authenticity and whether the Church is going to practice what it says it believes.
“If the Church is going to have an impact on culture, we are going to have to get dirty. … The world has become so broken with so many casualties that it is really dirty and messy.
“But this should be the most exciting time in Christianity,” he added. “It gives us a chance to prove our relevancy.”