The statistics are staggering. According to the Population Reference Bureau, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world with more than 1.5 million people in prisons across the country.
Sadly, for many of the men and women who are released after serving their sentences, the road to reconciliation and transformation is paved with little support, high unemployment and lots of mistakes along the way. The lack of support and opportunities often leads returning citizens to make decisions that send them right back to prison, creating a kind of revolving prison cell for them. But, Christians, who understand the power of forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation, can make a positive difference in the lives of those who need support and restoration.
Churches are able to help break this vicious cycle by supporting returning citizens and the victims of crime as well as by providing resources and assistance to families of both and, ultimately, healing for the impacted communities. “What Shall We Then Do: An Interdenominational Guide and Kit for Creating Healing Communities” was developed in 2008 by the Progressive National Baptist Convention’s Commission on Social Justice and Prison Ministry with funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The102-page comprehensive toolkit and guide helps churches respond effectively and appropriately to the growing need many communities have to help those re-entering into society after having served time in prison.
Taking its title from Romans 8:31-39, this resources reminds us that we are more than conquerors over life’s circumstances and that nothing can separate us from God’s love. The toolkit includes reflection questions, information about the role of pastors and church members and guidelines for helping returning citizens transition back into society in holistic ways. In addition, the manual helps churches reduce the stigma of being incarcerated and shows them how to become a healing community through the work of reconciliation among “those who have caused harm, those who have been hurt, and the larger community.”
According to Rev. Dr. Dee Dee Coleman, pastor of Russell Street Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit and one of the commissioners who helped develop the guide, “The 21st century church has to be trained and equipped to receive those coming out of prison and to help their families and those of victims.”
While churches can have good intentions, Dr. Coleman points out that training is needed so that churches understand the full range of challenges returning citizens, their families and the families of the victims face when someone is released from prison. The toolkit helps churches identify ways they can contribute to creating healing communities by helping those affected by crime from the victims and their families to those who committed the offenses. In addition, training helps churches to be aware of how they can help families of those who are incarcerated as well as create ministries to help returning citizens transition when they return back to the community. Having “Re-entry Sundays,” mentoring programs, clothing closets, life skills training and food pantries are just some of the ways churches can provide support and resources to minister to returning citizens and their families.
The toolkit takes a unique approach to help churches address the many issues that arise when someone is released from prison and is written in such a way that it can be customized to fit the context of the local church or organization using it. Training is also available to help churches tailor the kit for their congregation and community as well as “train the trainer” workshops for those who would like to participate in training others to do this important ministry that is transforming lives, fostering reconciliation and creating healthy communities.