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One inmate, one church


By Peter Oliver


“If every church in Canada worked with just one person coming out of prison, we could cut the prison population in half.” It’s an aphorism that comes up every so often when you work with Christians and prisoners. The federal government has tasked Micah with a contract that puts flesh to these boney words but there is a little more to putting this “proverb” to work than might be obvious at first glance.

What would a church do? What risks are involved? Who would need to be consulted? These are the kinds of questions that get asked from the church side of things.

The prisoner side of things is also punctuated by questions — often very different questions. Where will I live? What will I do for work? What about my addictions, old friends, old enemies and, quite often, where can I get my first pack of smokes? You may have noticed that church attendance isn’t one of the common burning questions. That sheds light on the biggest challenge associated with the “one church, one inmate” idea: there is a huge gulf between the culture of prison and the culture of most churches. Building a bridge between faith communities and prisoners takes time, patience, commitment and a heck of a lot of head-scratching, ear-bending, soul-searching discussion.

It’s strange when you think of it. Welcoming the stranger, community building and loving your neighbour are the meat and potatoes of many Sunday services. You’d think by now, we church people would have worked out how to connect with prisoners. But one thing I can say is that there is a lot of goodwill in our faith communities. Dave (my colleague in crime prevention at Micah) and I have been meeting with churches and we are encountering genuine interest and openness to the project. We even have a few churches that are actively engaged in supporting a person who is integrating into our communities.

Making it work is complex but the absence of arm-twisting and/or carrot-dangling is vital to its success. The commitment is voluntary for both the person who is being received and the community that welcomes the individual. The heart of the church’s response is an offer of friendship and a community with whom one can worship. This kind of relationship building can help to put some of the survival questions, the “What the hell am I going to do when I get out?” issues, in perspective.

Time spent putting the gospel into action pays big dividends for the community as well. It helps Christians to get in touch with their identity. You can’t welcome someone from prison into your community without a lot of prayer, discussion and discernment. That kind of engagement builds up the community.

Facing our fears is another plus. Crime stories and criminal behaviour create a lot of fear. Left unexamined, these fears can grow, crippling and isolating us. The truth is, almost every prisoner is released back into our communities. Determining how we can support these individuals is a positive way of working through some of our fears.

It can be a win-win-win. Faith grows, the community benefits and we are all safer — sounds like Good News to me.

Oliver works in chaplaincy and development for The Micah Mission in Saskatoon.