How Do We Extend and Receive Welcome in Prison Ministry?

In the words of The Rev. Cass Shaw

As with any other relationship, you need to spend time with each other to build trust. So, get to know each other. Sit down over a meal. Creating that safe space is all about being willing to listen, learn, and laugh together. It’s finding out about each other’s kids. It’s also giving someone permission not to share. Welcome means that this space belongs as much to them as it does to you, which means they get to shape the agenda of how that space is used.

It’s especially important for those of us who have not experienced prison to listen to the people who have: the inmates, the chaplains, the correctional officers, the families, and so many others. But listening can’t be about voyeurism. It has to be about learning. 

Part of that education is learning to use the right words. As we look at the way we talk about people who have spent time in prison, we remember that we are a people of the Word. Words are important. They shape our realities. They can set someone free… or they can limit. 

It’s not the “criminal justice system,” for instance; it’s the “criminal legal system.” This system isn’t just for everyone, and our words should reflect that. Also, a lot of people talk about ex-offenders. But that term holds the person captive to the past. The “offender” part is all you hear. Suddenly, their whole identity is defined by their crime. Instead, use “returning citizens.” 

For me, the joy is seeing how even seemingly insignificant offers of hospitality are deeply significant for people who simply want to be welcomed home, who have done their time and who deserve to be reintegrated into the community in a loving and respectful way. A little goes a long way. Think of a person who’s just getting out of prison. Think of what they need: that first set of clothes, first set of clean underwear, a birth certificate, a government-issued ID, a safe place to live, trauma resources, job interview training.

But be careful. Don’t become paternalistic. To welcome the currently and formerly incarcerated is to allow them to find their own healing. We have our own work to do: we have to confess and seek redemption for the systems of injustice, stigmatization, and violence, of which we are all a part.

Faith communities are thus in a unique position to offer the kind of radical hospitality that would bring a whole new understanding of justice, healing, and redemption.  If you and/or your congregation are interested in offering hospitality to people coming home from prison, there are several avenues you can explore:

  • Join the Prison Ministry Network; we are building a host of resources and connections.
  • Find out what agencies in your community offer re-entry services, and become a volunteer!
  • Talk to the chaplain(s) at the nearest prison or jail or to local parole officers and ask them what specific needs people have when re-entering the community.  Let them know you are interested in getting involved.
  • Pass out flyers at food pantries, soup kitchens, or other places where people in need go for help, and indicate that your congregation is open and welcoming.

With any new venture, think carefully about how much time you are able and willing to give, as an individual or as a church.  Prepare, listen, think, learn and talk to people who are already engaged in re-entry services BEFORE you jump in the deep end, so you don’t end up doing something short term and then giving up!