The anxiety level is palpable. Due to overcrowded pisons and the budget crisis, the state of California will soon be releasing 30,000 prisoners. Some will be released to county jails (also overcrowded) and others will simply be paroled (to a system critically short on parole officers). You get the idea of why there is anxiety and why the result may be dangerous. But how could this be an opportunity?
What if every church in California prayerfully and carefully considered being a host church for one of these prisoners? Many churches are doing prison ministry already, but I know what most smaller church folks are thinking—this would be too hard for us. It is hard. It is very hard. I know because the church I serve is doing it. In February of this year our congregation welcomed a man who was paroled after thirty years in prison. He had been in the juvenile justice system many years before that. We have other people in our congregation who have spent some time in jail, but never this kind of a parolee.
I will call him George. As providence would have it, George found our church through a free Google call service with directory assistance and talked to one of our prison ministry volunteers who just happen to be volunteering answering the phone that day. For three years we corresponded about what might happen if he were released. Like many prisoners, George had come to faith while incarcerated and his life was transformed. He had become a serious student of the Bible and had not had any incidence of violence or crime for 20 years. But each year when his parole hearing came around, his parole was denied. His crimes were very serious ones and spanned most of his life. He was deemed a threat to society. He was a changed man, but the justice system did not believe it.
But through more providence, George ended up with a very attentive young public defender who was a devout Christian and came to believe in George. Through his efforts George was finally released. George was on his way to First Presbyterian Church of Downey. There is no way we could ever be adequately prepared for such a relationship. And, at times, I wondered what we had gotten ourselves into. Especially the day George met with a group of elders and told them his story—his whole story! I remember thinking and praying , We are not equipped to do this! I heard a voice inside me say, “No, you are not, but I am, and where else can he go?” And so, we submitted to the providence that had brought George to us. Though, I know there is still much work to do, so far God in his grace and mercy is walking with us. George is being greatly blessed, but so are we!
Even a small, resource-challenged church like ours (about 325 active members and friends) has been able to make a difference. Some of the things we have done are simple. The first things we provided did not cost much but were critical for his re-entry. We provided George with a cell phone (and taught him how to use it!) and a thirty-day bus pass. The cell phone made sure that he could contact any one of his support group or his pastor at any time. His lawyer had helped him get a bike. But George was spending hours getting to and from appointments and job interviews. The bus pass helped him to get around much more quickly.
Some of the things we did were more difficult. George was living in a shelter when he was first released from prison. Though it was a roof over his head and one meal a day, there were dangers there for George as well. In his extremely vulnerable situation legally, just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, again, would send him back to prison. So, a member of the congregation had apartments and a couple of them were in the process of being updated. This member made one of these apartments available for George. After a couple of months, when George’s character was more proven, this member provided a room for George in his own home. According to this member, George is a hard-working person who contributes to the family and brings a great deal of laughter and joy to them.
We have utilized George for odd jobs around the church. Some he did as a volunteer—he needed constructive use of his time—and other jobs he was paid an hourly rate to begin to provide income for him. In this we were able to see his work ethic and whole-heartedly recommend him as a laborer to others. Another member of the congregation helped George purchase a used truck to accommodate his finding a job.
And, because we know this is a very complex situation, we have partnered with professionals along the way. Professionals and experience with other people that pose some risk in the life of a church helped us. A document called a limited access agreement is drawn up to set the boundaries for the participation of persons who pose any risk to the congregation. And to assist with George’s safe and positive acclimation into the life of our congregation a team of men was formed to be his support at all times. Any time George is on church property or with church members, he has one of his support group with him. This provides risk protection for the congregation but also for George. Due to his long history of incarceration, he is very vulnerable. A simple misunderstanding or misspoken word or an entirely false accusation could result in his return to jail. These wonderful Christian men are always with him to help guide him in the right way but also to protect him from false accusations. This agreement will remain in place until professional counsel says it is no longer necessary.
All this, by God’s grace, has meant that for the first time in thirty years, George is a free man and enjoying the simple things in life that most of us take for granted. But our congregation is being blessed as well. The grace and power of God evidenced in George’s life is amazing! If God turn his life around, God can do anything! George’s knowledge and love of the Scriptures and his eagerness to give testimony to what God has done in his life puts most of us to shame! George has inspired us! George is living proof of the transforming power of the cross of Christ.
So, what if 30,000 prisoners released from prison were to be adopted by 30,000 churches? What if 30,000 churches took seriously Christ’s teaching that as much as we do this for one of the least of these (including prisoners!) we do it for him? What if 30,000 prisoners released is an opportunity for the power of the love of God to be demonstrated to the watching and fearful world? I am just saying . . . What if?