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The Church Must Be a Place of the Second Chance … Starting with Returning Citizens

second chance

In a culture so focused on dismissing people who have made mistakes, the Church has an opportunity to reflect something very different—forgiveness and a second chance. One group of Americans who need this type of grace are former prisoners who have paid their debt for committing crimes.

Returning citizens can face hurdles after prison that limit their access to housing, occupational licensing training, gainful employment, housing programs, student loans, and the right to vote. In some states, these barriers can cripple the ability to earn income to provide for a family.

In 2017, my organization, Prison Fellowship®, established April as Second Chance® Month to raise awareness about the barriers faced by the estimated 70 million Americans who have a criminal record. I have been fortunate to see story after story of God’s hand working in prisoners’ lives, but there are still barriers that need to come down after men and women leave prison. Once released, individuals with a criminal record can face up to 44,000 documented legal restrictions, not to mention social stigma, that keep them from reaching their full potential after they have paid their debt to society.

The fight to give people a second chance needs to involve the entire Christian community. God is patient in giving us second chances—we should reflect His grace by doing the same. The words of Isaiah, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression,” remind us of God’s unwavering commitment to justice. And as followers of Christ, our faith calls us to action and accountability—to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).

Here are three practical ways that Christians can join this movement of justice:

Host a Second Chance Sunday at your church

Promote a welcoming culture for people with a criminal record by hosting a Second Chance Sunday during a designated Sunday. On April 11th, we hosted a virtual Second Chance Sunday service that included music from Hillsong East Coast and a special sermon about second chances by Pastor Jon Kelly of Chicago West Bible Church.

You may be surprised that there are people with a criminal record in your church. With an estimated 1 in 3 American adults having one, it’s practically guaranteed. You can recognize Second Chance Month during your service simply with an announcement and second chance testimony, or by dedicating your entire service and sermon to the topic and inviting a time of prayer for impacted citizens and families. Challenge your congregation to memorize scripture on justice and compassion such as Ephesians 4:32 which says, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

Promote employment opportunities

Finding a job is one of the most challenging barriers someone faces after leaving prison. Whether you are a business owner or manager, or have connections with a company that is hiring, you have the opportunity to help returning citizens rebuild their lives. With the gifts that we have received from God, it’s our responsibility to use them to help those around us.

One example of this barrier is Rick, who lost his job after his employer performed a background check and saw his criminal history. “What people see is what they see on paper,” he told me as he worried about providing for his family. Financial struggles can create outside pressures to revert back to a life of crime, but deeply rooted, healthy relationships—and a steady job—can help break destructive cycles.

Spend quality time with returning citizens

You’d be surprised how impactful your friendship and time can be to someone exiting the prison system, as they try to navigate this new world on the outside. I Peter 4:8-9 says, “Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaint.”

Pastor Kelly, who was himself incarcerated, once said, “The people in church welcomed me to their dinner table, which is the most sacred space. I was a part of this community, and it had nothing to do with my story or my past; it was just a sincere love for me.”

“We often feel the need to go start this program, or we need to go do this or do that, but at the end of the day… just offering your dinner table and doing life with someone, and allowing them into your world is the way to go.”

Being invited into the homes of those in the church community allowed Pastor Jon to witness a healthy marriage and see how a godly man is called to lead his family.

This year, around 600,000 people will be released from prison. All of them will face legal barriers that make it difficult to reintegrate and more likely for them to revert to behavior that led them to prison in the first place. Set an additional place at your table, at your job, or in your church for them. Let’s make sure that these folks aren’t brushed aside and forgotten. They deserve a second chance.

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James Ackerman joined Prison Fellowship as President and CEO in 2016. Before that, he spent more than 20 years as a business executive, helping media companies like Documentary Channel, British Interactive Broadcasting, Broadway Systems, and Open TV navigate periods of transition and growth. Prior to joining Prison Fellowship as President, Ackerman spent about ten years volunteering in prison facilities, leveraging his business experience to teach prisoners important life skills, such as resume writing, job interviewing, household budgeting and personal planning. He and his wife Martha reside in California and they have two adult children.