The Church's Attitude Toward Returning Citizens
The psychological effects of incarceration are impregnated with stress, disappointment, depression, hopelessness, and oppression. Scars from their journey through the concrete jungles, in the wilderness of corrections, is a non-erasable experience. Although the experience is non-erasable, the returning citizen’s past is not his/her destiny, nor does their predicament abort their potential to have a new life in Christ. The process of reintegration is not an easy journey to travel without assistant from compassionate, concerned individuals who believe in giving a returning citizen another chance to succeed in this saga called life.
When returning citizens attend our churches there is a tendency to ostracize them as if they have some loathsome health challenge. Matthew 25:35-40 is clear regarding Jesus being in prison in which He clearly implicates His natural affinity toward the disenfranchised, but what is not clear is the prevailing attitude that many of our churches orchestrate toward those of whom Christ said that “if you have done it to the least of these you have done it to me.” How we treat returning citizens when they come to our churches is reflective of how we treat Jesus. He always identifies with the downtrodden and the disenfranchised because He also was a prisoner and disenfranchised.
The irony of not accepting returning citizens into our churches borders on spiritual hypocrisy. This is predicated on the fact that prison ministry teams have been sanctioned by the church to preach the gospel according to the challenge delineated in Isaiah 61:1 “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me…He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prisons to those who are abound.” The returning citizen citizens received the gospel with great enthusiasm and are eagerly anticipating joining a church where they could continue to nourish their newfound hope in Jesus. Yet there is hesitancy to extend the hand of fellowship to returning citizens who have espoused the gospel that we embrace. Any exercise of this kind of attitude toward returning citizens is rejecting Jesus when He said that He came unto His own and was not received.
Many hours of labor have been expended in sharing the love of Christ to returning citizens which led them to accept the gospel that we preach. Acts of carelessness and indifference will cause this newborn creation to be spiritually aborted before the spiritual growth and development maturates. Insensitivity and inappropriate communication can drive an irreversible wedge in the returning citizen’s perception of what Seventh-day Adventist entails. The byproduct of this kind of spiritual behavior is defection and recidivism.
How should the members of the churches conduct themselves?
- Be loving, compassionate and understanding.
- Be kind and courteous.
- Be respectful.
- Accept them for who they are and remember that they are still in God’s workshop just like you.
- Help them to reintegrate into the lifestyle of the church. They are coming from custody to the community.
- Help assess their needs whether it is helping them find a job, housing, clothing, healthcare needs, Social Security card, food, or food stamps, etc.
- Continue to nurture them.
- Be positive and instill hope and encouragement.
- Engage them in the ministry and activities of the church.
What attitudes should the church avoid?
- Don’t be hypocritical.
- Don’t be snobbish and self-righteous.
- Don’t be negative.
- Don’t make negative comments about other members of the church to the returning citizen.
- Don’ be critical or judgmental.
- Don’t be pushy.
- Don’t feel like you are a change agent. That is the Holy Spirit’s job.
- Don’t forget that they are going through an adjustment period from custody to the community.
- Don’t avoid them, refuse to shake their hands, or sit next to them.
Returning citizens will be attending our churches in the future more than they have in the past. The everlasting gospel will be preached into all the world, even in the prisons where we witness it. Jesus as He looked over the cornfields of Sychar said the harvest is white and ready to be harvested. Returning citizens will be in this harvest. How shall we treat them? How shall we make room for them?
Submitted by Dr. Cleveland Houser,
Prison Ministry Coordinator for the North American Division