Restoring Prisoners to Community

July 30th, 2012
This article is featured in the Justice in the Church (Aug/Sept/Oct 2012) issue of Circuit Rider

Restorative justice is a term one does not hear much in America. Our country practices retributive justice, emphasizing the punishment a criminal deserves. Restorative justice, on the other hand, seeks to make right what has gone wrong, focusing on the needs and concerns of the victims, the community affected by crime, and even the offenders themselves. Victims, offenders, and community members come together to devise a solution to the wrongdoing, repair the broken relationships, resolve property issues, make restitution when possible, provide opportunities for healing, and set up ways to prevent future problems.

During the days of violence in South Africa, a young man of one tribe killed another young man. After he was caught, he came face to face with the mother of the man he killed. He was shocked and humbled that the mother’s response was to embrace him. She proclaimed that since he had taken her son away from her, he was now going to fill that role. He was now responsible for her well-being. He was now obligated to provide for her needs. He had to restore that which he had taken from her as best he could.

In contrast, when someone is murdered in the U.S. today, the offender is tracked down and the state presses charges against him or her with the goal of exacting retribution for the wrongdoing. The needs of the victim’s family and community have very little to do with the judicial system. They may be called to provide testimony at trial, but the intent of the process is not to help them heal. The intent is to punish the offender according to the laws of the state.

Restoring Humanity

Prison ministry in the United States has the challenge of working to restore humanity to offenders who are often seen as less than human by our society. Inmates speak of feeling forgotten, thought of as “trash,” and no longer worth anything to anybody. Fortunately, when volunteers and clergy enter into such a dark place with the Light of the Lord, hearts can change.

About ten years ago, Jerry Nail and Harry Boyko of Christ United Methodist Church in Franklin, Tenn., began Disciple Bible Study groups at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution (RMSI) in Nashville. This is a men’s prison with about 250 men with low restrictions, and up to 465 men with high restrictions (23 hours a day in their cells). The Bible studies were well received, and our prison ministry was born.

Over the past ten years, the prison ministry has grown in ways no one could have imagined. Sunday services have been conducted in the chapel since 2004 with a variety of active and retired ministers sharing their gifts with an ever-growing body of believers. The service starts at 8:00 a.m. and communion is shared every Sunday. Visitors are able to attend the service as well. There is something profoundly humbling and deeply spiritual about breaking the bread with fifty men in prison blues. The Spirit of the Lord is certainly in that place.

There is an annual Christmas dinner for about 250 low-security residents. Approximately fifty volunteers go in to set up and serve a catered holiday dinner with all the trimmings—turkey, dressing, gravy, cranberry sauce, green beans, mashed potatoes, roll, and dessert. We enjoy a time of fellowship with the residents and sing Christmas carols. It is a highlight of the year for many people, “insiders” and “outsiders” alike. Every resident receives Christmas gift packages prepared by local churches. The bags may include socks, soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, a soft drink, sweet treats, crackers, and a handmade Christmas card made by children of a local church. The packages are simple, yet so appreciated by the men.

In the summer of 2007 a pen pal ministry grew out of the connections being made at Riverbend. It started with a few matches and has grown to include sixty-five pen pal matches with members not only at our church, but also at six other churches. We also sponsor a biannual Inside/Out pen pal meeting in the Visitation Gallery. At the meeting, we meet with our pen pals for about two and a half hours face-to-face. It strengthens the pen pal relationship to be able to converse. Most outside pen pals will tell you that embracing this connection has been such a blessing.

Out of the Jail and into the Church

Many residents have joined our church and some even tithe while still incarcerated. When they are released, we provide assistance and financial support until they can get back on their feet. With the support of the church, Jerry Nail has mentored innumerable men and served as a facilitator and guide to men coming out of the system. He meets them at the gate, takes them to breakfast, and then brings them by the church to pick out some clothes from the clothes closet. It's always a joy for a staff person to welcome them and celebrate their release in that special moment. Jerry assists them in obtaining identification documents, a driver’s license, housing, and in seeking employment. He even goes to the halfway house, picks them up, and brings them to church each week.

When someone joins the church or begins worshiping here after being released from prison, he is treated like any other person who might be joining. We do not normally highlight the fact that someone has been released from prison, although some have chosen to do so themselves. One man joined and wanted to say a few words of thanks for the support he received. Another man came back after a parole violation sentence was served and we welcomed him home. Other times, they simply join in worship alongside everyone else. We do have to abide by some guidelines if the person has a sex offense involving a minor, but the pastors meet with that person and together they work out a covenant of boundaries. The congregation takes an attitude of "everyone's welcome." We're all a part of the worship service and the life of the community. As one of our former pastors put it, “If anyone is not welcome in the church, where are they welcome?”

Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors

Most people in prison are eventually released and will return to our communities. Extending the Christian hand of love and support to these individuals will help congregations and neighborhoods thrive. Walking into the nearest prison or jail will allow you to share the gospel where there are so many broken hearts and broken lives. Serving in a prison demonstrates the power of one’s healing presence—just showing up can make you a powerful witness if you are showing up as a disciple of Christ.

Open your heart and feel the pain of others—the least, the last, the lost. Only then can we work towards reconciliation and healing.

Open your mind to God’s plan for all humanity. It is his desire that none should perish, but have everlasting life. As we move through this world, we are called to share the gospel with everyone—no exceptions.

Open the door to jails and prisons and you can then walk in the light of God’s love. But a word of warning: Your eyes will be opened and your heart strangely warmed in ways you cannot imagine, even after you hear the steel gates slam behind you.


For more about Christ UMC's prison ministry, visit their website.

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