Praxis Connection Review is an online journal that highlights collaboration, innovation, and impact through churches in NYC.

Removing Incarceration’s Stigma, Living Out Matthew 25

by Praxis Connections Review Volume 2

What if churches treated prisoners and sick people with the same care and support? What if churches invested in the redemption of incarcerated people with the same regularity and resources as the healing and restoration of the sick? Both persons receive mention by Jesus in Matthew 25, yet while entire congregations mobilize around the sick, ministry with incarcerated persons remains the domain of a select few volunteers? What if we could mobilize entire congregations around the incarcerated person and the family left behind?

Healing Communities USA trains and supports congregations around the country in this important work. The staggering numbers of persons in the criminal justice system makes it virtually impossible that an individual church does not have a family impacted by crime and incarceration. By creating a congregational culture of healing and restoration, a church can reduce the stigma around incarceration, and help families come to grips with the ways in which they are directly impacted, and turn to the church for help.  

One church in our network experienced this capacity for redemption in a powerful way. After hosting a Saturday training in the Healing Communities model, the next morning’s sermon dealt with the connection between the church and the incarcerated, acknowledging that:

  1. To stigmatize the incarcerated across the board would be to stigmatize biblical characters like Joseph, Jeremiah, Paul and others who were imprisoned, and people like Moses, David and Peter whose acts of violence would have resulted in harsh sentences in today’s jurisprudence.
  2. Our belief in that all people are created in the Image of God brings hope for redemption and restoration.
  3. Jesus was arrested, tried, convicted, imprisoned and died in custody.

An altar call followed for families of the incarcerated.  One young woman who came forward received support from her church members. Just a year later, she stood beaming at the front of the church. Leading the worship service, she rejoiced in the reality of her redemption: a new start. A year earlier, she stood in front of that same congregation, weeping hysterically over that fact that her husband was one of the tens of thousands of inmates in the NY state prison system. She had been one of the 7,000 female inmates in NY separated from her two sons. Just home, she struggled to raise them, 2 of the 2.7 million children with an incarcerated parent. But that first morning at the altar, summoned by a call for families of the incarcerated to prayer, she was surrounded by others who’d had that experience. She felt hope, knowing she was not alone, and that her church would support her and her sons, and reconnect with her husband. Congregations can make a difference in the lives of those impacted by incarceration, beginning with identifying those within their own church. Supporting them promotes family connectivity, reduces recidivism, and models redemption…and redemption is why churches exist.