After Freedom

Imagine, if you can, that you are in prison. Perhaps the justice system worked as it should. It does much of the time. You committed a crime and paid the penalty. Perhaps the system failed you. It does far too much of the time. You languished in prison unjustly. Either way, your former life is nothing but a memory.

You did what you could to endure encarceration. Church people came into the prison regularly to read the Bible with the inmates, and you attended every time, even when the lessons were not particularly helpful. Because of good behavior, you were transferred to the county workhouse, which allowed for lower security and additional opportunities. You made the most of each one. You attended classes offered by well-meaning people on the outside. They weren’t always interesting, but their kindness was meaningful.

Now, your release date approaches. But your family and friends cut ties. You have no money, and your prospects for employment are few, to say the least. The question looms: how will you begin again?

Upon release, things are worse than you imagined. You have no income, but fees, fines, and expenses pile up immediately. You have nowhere to sleep, nothing to eat, no clothes but what you wore out, and no income. And it turns out, the church people who taught you the Bible on the inside are not interested in helping practically now that you’re out. Your “debt to society” is paid, but society clearly has no place for you. Suddenly, the question is not how you will begin again but how you will survive.

You’re sleeping on the street and relying on public services and benevolence for basics: a meal, a shower, a coat, a blanket. You’ve interviewed for a few jobs, but most employers won’t give you a second look because of your record, and you don’t have the clothing necessary to make a good impression anyway. And how would you get to work if you got a job? You can’t afford to get a driver’s license (forget a vehicle) or other essential documents. Sometimes you can use public transportation, but most of the time walking is the only option. You have no cell phone, and payphones are a relic of the past.

People look at you with pity or derision, or they simply ignore you. Maybe drugs or alcohol were part of what landed you in prison, but you’ve been sober for years. Maybe not. Either way, your situation is overwhelming, and any escape is tempting. Swiping something to eat from a gas station starts to feel like your best option today. You live at constant risk of being cited for loitering or public nuisance.

The cycle we call recidivism is frequently rooted in such situations. Beginning again is massively challenging. There are many public services on offer in most cities, but they tend to create dependents. Even the best services—so-called “wrap-around” services—tend to leave critical gaps that break down the process for many prospective clients.

For example, one organization in my area requires prospective clients to attend a three-day orientation in order to become eligible for services. But how can a newly released person get to the organization’s facilities? What will she eat for those three days? Where will she sleep? Even if other organizations might provide solutions, it is not obvious how one would find them, much less travel from place to place to acquire them.

Even more fundamentally, many newly released people lack basic life skills, such as making a plan for the day or budgeting. Many landed in legal trouble because of bad decisions rooted in learned behavior, and prison does not serve to inculcate a different way of life. Old patterns persist.

“Reentry,” as it’s called, is complex and dauting for these reasons and more. So what does it mean to begin again? How is it even possible?

When Jesus read the Isaiah scroll in Luke 4, he identified the release of prisoners as a dimension of the good news of the kingdom of God:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18–19; NRSV)

Thankfully, the twenty-first century has witnessed an increasing embrace of the kingdom’s holistic implications among Christian traditions that previously reduced the gospel to one version or another of “spiritual” salvation. The gospel redemes every dimension of life! The good news is truly good in every way. But the hard truth is that the modern “penal” institution creates all kinds of challenges that the gospel must also address, and the American church has largely failed to imagine its role in bearing witness to the kingdom after freedom.

The term of art for church work among the recently encarcerated is transitional ministry. In recent months, I’ve begun learning what transitional ministry means. There is plenty of poverty in the United States, and it has many faces. But I’ve learned that one of its most powerful manifestations is the desperation that plagues so many who come out of prison. The transformation that Jesus’s kingdom promises in American society should be manifest among the tens of thousands who struggle to find new life after freedom. Good news to the poor is good news to the freed; good news is new life after release. As the church in my context struggles to imagine what it means to proclaim the good news of the kingdom in word and deed, transitional ministry is a sphere of vital witness.

Good news to the poor is good news to the freed; good news is new life after release.

But, frankly, most Christians fear to step out on this water. The challenges are overwhelming. The costs are extreme. The risks are unavoidable. The “results” are elusive. In short, transitional ministry is a mission field.

I will continue to reflect on transitional ministry as I learn what it means to love neighbors who seek new life after prison. My hope is to help Chrisitians who seek to imagine what participating in God’s mission means in their communities. For many, bringing Luke 4 to life contextually and personally is not easy. There are reasons this is true, and I do not judge anyone—even myself—who longs to proclaim good news to the poor but struggles to imagine what that means in practice.

Praise be to the God of salvation, who leads his people in mission!

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