For centuries the Church has existed to bring us closer to God. The mission of the Church is to proclaim Christ and the gift of Salvation and Redemption offered by His atoning sacrifice on the Cross. Yet, all too often, we want to focus on the negative.
“It ain’t right,” said Rogelio (not his real name) an inmate in a federal prison that I’ve been meeting and helping. “It ain’t right that I come to know who Jesus Christ is, the Blessed Mother is, and the doors close to me all just because I am in prison.”
Rogelio is about to be released back to the streets. He has taken every proactive step he can to not find his way back into the criminal justice system. He’s written the church close to where he lives, the church he grew up in; he’s written different restaurants in hopes of finding emplsoyment, he’s learned to cook while incarcerated; he’s written two various criminal justice ministries to see what help they can provide him upon release.
“Look,” said Rogelio, as he showed me a list of people he’s written. “Only three write back to me.
Two of the letters were disappointing and showed what’s wrong with many Churches in America today. Two of those letters were long, drawn-out sermons on “planting your faith seed,” and that by doing so, “God will richly bless you up to one hundred-fold in return!”
When Jesus walked among man when he was God made flesh, He didn’t preach about sowing seeds to reap a financial harvest. He didn’t proclaim a Gospel of prosperity.
Rogelio, and so many like him, are forgotten by those who pack the pews week in and week out. They are ignored by the communities called to serve them, minister to them and pray for them.
In Hebrews 13:3, Paul askes Christians to “remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison.”
I was inspired to visit and work with those in prison by Sister Christian Doman (may God grant her eternal rest). While in El Paso, Sister Christine worked with the Peace and Justice Ministry of the Catholic Diocese of El Paso.
Sister Christian, and those who worked with her, strived to embody Christ and service to others. Each day they would reach out to those in area prisons and jails, ensuring that each inmate knew they were not forgotten.
I recall, as if it were only yesterday, what Sister Christian said about helping those in prison, jail, or living on the streets: “You don’t stop loving your parents, children or siblings if they make a mistake, do you? No. So why would God, Father of all, stop loving us?”
Yet, collectively as a people, we’ve forgotten those who live behind walls, guard towers and barbed wire fences. We’ve stopped loving them.
“This letter,” said Rogelio as he handed me the third letter, “made me have to think if God is here with me.”
That third letter was the most disheartening thing I’ve ever read. One passage that I copied said:
“We would help you, our brother, but we now know that most who have found themselves on the wrong side of both secular and God’s law are beyond hope of redemption. Recividism [sic] rates for people like you are high. God does not walk the rows of cells of jailhouses and prisons, my brother. He does not …”
“Spend two years on the outs, in the world, walking that well trod path of Christ and we will consider then, only then, to give you some form of assistance.”
The question is, will you let that mistake be a defining point in how you see someone? Will you let that mistake be the one thing that causes you to say they are beyond redemption?
In Matthew 25, Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Also, “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
Under Jewish law, Jesus was a criminal. Under Talmudic law, Jesus was a criminal. If He was imprisoned then, or today, would you visit Him? Would you write Him off?
“It happens that if my cellie was Jesus, He would not have visits or letters,” said Rogelio. “He would be as alone and lost as I am.”
It is urged upon those who follow Christ not only to forgive the sinner but to visit them as well. We need to understand that God has an extraordinary place in his heart for those who are in prison, those who are in jail, those who are on the streets or struggling in their day to day lives. Because He does, we need to as well.
A lot can happen to someone while they are in prison. Let’s look at two people, starting with Chuck Colson.
Chuck Colson served as Special Counsel to President Nixon from 1969 to 1970. Known as one of Nixon’s “hatchet men”, Colson was named one of the Watergate Seven and was later sentenced, as the first member of the Nixon administration, to prison for Watergate-related charges.
“I found myself increasingly drawn to the idea that God had put me in prison for a purpose and that I should do something for those I had left behind,” said Chuck Colson in his memoir, Born Again.
In 1976 Colson founded Prison Fellowship which is one of the nation’s largest Christian nonprofits serving prisoners, former prisoners and their families.
Another who found Christ, His love and forgiveness is Jon D Ponder.
Jon Ponder served time in Federal Prison, starting in maximum security prisons.
“I was sent to United States Penitentiary Allenwood, a maximum-security prison in Pennsylvania,” Jon explains. “I’d been on the wrong side of the law long enough to know that the reality of a maximum-security prison was a thousand times worse than it’s portrayed on television. I was in prison with about 950 Muslims. In Prison, you have to be affiliated with a group to survive. You can associate yourself with the Crips, the Bloods, the Aryan Nation or whatever, but if you don’t pick one you will face consequences.”
In prison, almost regardless of the security level, you need to be affiliated with someone. If you are not part of a prison gang or segregating yourself along racial lines, you are a target.
Like all inmates, Jon was asked who he was going to run with.
“This is not the life I live. I’m a Christian. Do not call me back to this table unless it’s to talk about Jesus Christ or how you can improve your life. I know the rules of the game. If I need to die for what I believe, let’s get it over with,” said Jon.
Jon found the love of Christ, and love for his fellow man, in prison. During his term of incarceration, he worked tirelessly to help improve the lives, and mindsets of as many people as he could. For me, Jon is an inspiration.
Today Jon runs Hope for Prisoners in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Both men, Chuck Colson and Jon Ponder had people on the outside that helped them, guided them, prayed for them. Where would countless individuals be today if it were not for others who followed the call of Christ to serve those who are incarcerated?
Hebrews 13:1-3 says “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing, some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”
“What’s going to happen to me when I walk out that gate, and the doors slam behind me,” asked Rogelio.
As a society, we tend to look down on “jailhouse conversions”, and “jailhouse religion”. Many seem to believe that those who find God in jail are only doing so to get better housing assignments, or time off from the parole board.
“Jailhouse conversions are meaningless,” said one of my college professors, Dr Ursula White. “They don’t mean it. It’s not a conversion that is going to stick. It’s not a true, genuine profession of any faith.”
Dr White’s observation is the exception, not the rule. What Rogelio and many others don’t know is that those who find faith in prison are less likely to re-offend. Even though many Christians refuse to acknowledge they have paid their dues to society, found forgiveness and placed themselves on a sure path, they will make it.
What saddens me, what caused me even to write this article, is the number of Christians that people like Rogelio reach out to. Sister Christine was a rare gem. Another was Fr Robles (may God grant him eternal rest) who also worked in the prisons around El Paso, Texas. Most don’t bother to respond.
The great commission was to make disciples of all nations and thereby, all peoples:
Matthew 28:19,20, “Go, and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
One who lives this out, who visits inmates weekly, is Rev Dr Karl Heimer of San Pablo Lutheran Church and Ysleta Lutheran Mission Human Care. If he misses a week of visits, a week of bringing Christ’s love into the lives of those who are incarcerated, he becomes visibly deflated.
“Why do I do prison ministry?” Said Rev Heimer. “I enjoy giving hope to people. Even though their circumstances are one that is really difficult to deal with, I still believe that the ultimate is God. I see that happening all the time happening in the scriptures, where the impossible does happen.”
I did ask Rev Heimer about Christians that do not work with inmates, who refuse to work with inmates.
“They don’t realise that we are people of the Cross. That means the nature of who we are is to deal with the real world,” said Rev Heimer. “That’s the problem of some Christians, and they do not realise that they are also sinful. They are no different, in terms of sinful nature than those in jail.”
Rev Heimer said that we struggle with our sinful nature and we need forgiveness.
“They [the inmates] are in the same boat as we are,” said Rev Heimer. “They need forgiveness just as much as we do.”
We need to remember that just because someone is in jail, prison or has a conviction in their past, there is no need for us to victimise them and hold it over their head. We all make mistakes; we all need forgiveness; we all need the love of God in our lives.
“Everyday we should start a new day,” says Rev Heimer. “Forgive them and help them, it is what Christ would have done.”
Before you cast that first stone, make sure you are living a sin-free, perfect life. I promise you; you’re not. So, put that stone back in your pocket and think of how God would want you to help your brother or sister.
Father of Mercy, the secrets of all hearts are known to you alone. You know who is just and you forgive the unjust. You alone are the Almighty Judge. We are not worthy of judging anyone. Your mercy is enough for sinners. Hear our prayers for those in prison. Give them repentance and let them believe in you. Give them patience and hope in their sufferings, and bring them home again soon. Comfort their near and dear ones. Let them trust in Jesus Christ and live with hope. Amen