Reentering society, former inmates face many challenges: Where will they work and live? Where do they belong? How will they be welcomed? How will they rebuild trust within their families and their communities?
“Often, it’s not one bad mistake that lands someone in prison,” said Reba Collins, All In Community (AIC) Consultant for The West Ohio Annual Conference. “There are layers – addiction, abuse, broken families, broken social structures, mental illness.” In some communities, lack of resources for education or lack of employment opportunities can cause bad decisions that lead to jail.
“We have brothers and sisters behind bars,” she said. “Ninety-seven percent of all people incarcerated return to their community. Their fear is when they are released, they won’t find a strong, supportive church.”
Incarceration doesn’t just affect those in prisons, she said. Parents, spouses and children of inmates can all face challenges and uncertainties, whether from poor, middle-class or wealthy backgrounds. “One in 10 Ohioans is directly affected by incarceration, either by being incarcerated themselves, or being the family member of the imprisoned,” she said.
“We work with the families as well as the incarcerated,” Collins said. “We know there are certain community needs that we can meet through ministries that actually help prevent a cradle-to-prison pipeline.”
An all-inclusive initiative, All In Community allows church communities to discover the best ways to serve the incarcerated and their families, Collins said.
Some churches find they are called to help members of their own congregations. Others find they are best suited to serve as mentors to children of incarcerated parents, juveniles in detention centers or inmates preparing to make the transition back into the community. Other churches serve as crisis responders, providing housing, clothing, meals or transportation during the first days after an inmate is released.
Congregations can also join a district collaborative, working in partnership with other churches, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, and other area entities to build long-term relationships with the men and women reentering society.
Relationships that heal
Through relationships with Christ, Collins said, congregations can help heal the soul and mend broken relationships incarceration can cause: “As people of faith, we as the church can help people continue a journey of discipleship that may start on the inside. For us, as folks in our churches, it makes us better disciples because it gives us the opportunity to encounter Christ’s grace.”
She said the ministry is transformative to both the minister and the ministered through the relationships created.
“In building relationships, people often realize the person who has been incarcerated brings just as much value to our faith community as our pastors,” Collins said. “We can learn from each other in ways that make us all better disciples of Jesus Christ.”
Building those relationships can be scary, she said, because “we might encounter someone else’s experiences that we don’t know how to deal with. How do I help a child who’s seen addiction and abuse when I don’t come from that background? Part of AIC is equipping and training our church members to feel confident that they can be [a calm] presence in a chaotic experience."