We All Need To Be Pardoned

I’m going to jail. I’m not joking, and I’m not taking it lightly. Whenever our church shows videos of volunteers ministering in jails, I wiggle uncomfortably in my seat. When my dear 70-year-young mentor told me that she was teaching marriage classes to couples with one spouse behind bars, I was fearful for her. So, when my husband’s heart was convicted to hire men and women from prison in 2016, it wasn’t a surprise that I was nervous for our family and our employees.

To put it simply – I am afraid of jail.

I suppose many of us were raised with a healthy dose of right and wrong. I’ve stood in the pitch-black cell of Alcatraz’s solitary confinement as a 10-year-old. It was Simply Terrifying. I’ve watched prison movies. Even the recorded sound of cell doors slamming shut creates a shiver down my spine. And years since watching, my most vivid recollection is the upsetting visions of life ending in the electric chair in The Green Mile. How could I now wrap my head around former inmates training my children on machinery?

All that to say, it had to be God’s nudging that prompted these words to escape my mouth. We were at a company celebration listening to stories of restoration and healing, I leaned over and whispered to my husband “before the end of the year, I want to go to jail.” And as quickly as they were spoken, I wanted to take them back.

That day arrived for my visit to Dayton Correctional Institute. We’re attending the celebration of 47 women graduating from the JUMPSTART, OH transformational program (www.jumpstartvision.org). As we drove, I wondered if God would replace my fear of prison with something transformative for me also.

  • I wasn’t prepared for the exuberance of many of the prisoners as they came bounding down the stairs – eager to see family and friends. A normal visit only lasts 15 minutes. Today’s celebration allowed them over two hours together. They wore ill-fitting and often patched, INMATE-stamped, state-issued work outfits, yet many took extensive time doing their hair and makeup.
  • I wasn’t prepared for the feelings of hope and joy that filled the room as they were reunited with their families, sensing that someone would be there to help them once released.
  • I wasn’t prepared for my heart breaking as moms said goodbye to their young children clinging to them. Or for the multi-generational support network of families caring for children left behind as mom is behind bars. Nor the anger of the early 20-year-old daughter who didn’t want to be there visiting her mom.
  • I also wasn’t prepared for the feelings of my freedom being taken away. I was required to leave all personal belongings in the car (no phone, no purse, no Chapstick). I was chaperoned by a guard to the bathroom. And I now have multiple audibles stuck in my mind of the real-life locking of doors behind me, as I progressed through checkpoints.

And the thought that struck me, as I watched Cassandra, Kaitlyn, Sonya, Courtney, and 43 others walk up to receive their diplomas, with their picture and personal commitments on the screen behind them, just like my daughter’s will be for high school graduation, will they be prepared for the outside world when they are released?

In reality, most are not. Once justice is served and felons are released, many are alone; family and friend relationships have been severed, with trust being broken multiple times, bank accounts have been drained, and personal records like a driver’s license and/or social security number are difficult to retrieve and recover. A former inmate who is ready to pursue a fresh start finds they are not prepared for the many obstacles in front of them. Life is expensive, and many employers won’t consider hiring if there is a prison record. Recidivism’s vicious circle begins, some return to old habits and ultimately return to jail.

Fortunately, there is a model that provides transformational change. The JUMPSTART program is based on the Bible and Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life. The core belief is “with Christ anyone’s future can be greater than their past.” “With Christ” is intentionally first because discipleship and life transformation begin with Christ. While JUMPSTART understands that one’s choices prior to Christ have real consequences that do not disappear just because one accepts Christ, and that one’s future will be greater than their past once they have repented and surrendered to Christ. (Hmmm, almost verbatim to what we tell new Believers and our children).

The Warden spoke of a movement happening with these 47 women. She said it matter of factly. Not with hope and expectancy, but maybe a twinge of let’s wait and see how long it lasts. She is tough. Her eyes and mannerisms are tough. In her role, she has to be. She has seen more than I care to know. Yet it is JUMPSTART’s track record of recidivism that makes us most excited to bring their program to Ohio prisons. With operations in South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia, those going through the JUMPSTART program have a 3.75% recidivism rate, compared to our national average of 40-60%. Do you think God is doing something with the lost and forgotten, just like the people Jesus was most drawn to, and just like Paul and Silas converting their warden?

“You need to hit the bottom to realize you only need Jesus.” Inmate Lilly

As I sit in the front row listening to the sisterhood that has grown among these women, I smile, knowing it’s exactly how it grows and binds me in my Bible study groups: creating space for fellowship, teaching repentance and forgiveness, modeling vulnerability, providing exercises on how to share our God story. All the tried and true principles of building solid character traits that will bear Kingdom fruit.

So, I ponder, is society prepared to pardon their past? Will society provide a fair chance to a former inmate? Will society want to be part of this movement? Because we are in these same shoes. Each of us is in debt to God for the sin He pardons us for. He is our only way to Heaven and eternity. Just like Lilly said, rock bottom or not, we all only need Jesus.

It’s been six years since we hired our first Fair Chance employee. I’ve been at arms-length, watching the corporate culture shift as employees accept and cheer for the new hires. I’ve watched as new leaders of all levels interview, desiring to be part of a company with purpose, and I’ve sat in fundraising meetings to learn how we can educate more businesses to do the same.

I’ve also sat at the kitchen table as my children came home with stories of their favorite trainer Miss Amanda, and their disbelief to find out she, Brian, Justin, Trinity, and many of their other “work friends” were formerly in jail. From my perspective, it is more than a winning hiring strategy. My takeaway of Fair Chance is it’s a WIN, WIN, WIN, WIN: Employment allows the employee to win with a good-paying job, the employer wins with an engaged employee, the community wins with a solid citizen … and the fourth win is for the family, having a parent home, stable work, and resources building into them.

Lord, I ask that Your following scripture will linger in our thoughts, nudge us to pray for those incarcerated, and prompt us to the actions You put on our hearts, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:34-40).

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