Catholic Voices - One Parish, One Prisoner

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Like Lazarus, people in prison are socially dead and entombed — but we can help roll away the stone

Did you know that, roughly speaking, there are about as many prisoners in Washington state as there are churches?

Joe Cotton

This morsel of information grabbed my attention at a criminal justice meeting I once attended — and it captured the attention of two other attendees as well: Chris Hoke, a Protestant gang chaplain and author, and Neaners Garcia, a formerly incarcerated gang leader turned minister. The three of us connected immediately, sensing the power of harnessing churches to address one of the most complex and overwhelming tasks of criminal justice ministry: ensuring successful prisoner re-entry into society.

Hoke and Garcia are now co-founders of a new nonprofit called Underground Ministries, which has partnered with the Archdiocese of Seattle on a new and exciting endeavor called “One Parish, One Prisoner.”

Overcoming obstacles

Returning to society following years in a prison environment is, perhaps, one of the most daunting tasks imaginable. People who desire something different following their prison sentence face seemingly insurmountable obstacles that must be overcome to experience new life and freedom. Who’s willing to hire a returning prison inmate? Who will rent them an apartment? Will they have enough money to pay basic bills after covering their crippling legal financial obligations? What if addictions or mental health issues are in play? Many people, despite their sincere best efforts, find themselves returning to old ways, not out of desire, but rather desperation. What can be done about this?

As Catholics, we always look to Jesus for guidance. How might Jesus address this challenge? I believe the story of Lazarus in the tomb offers a solid prescription for a Christian response. (see John 11:1-44) Indeed, it is the scriptural foundation for One Parish, One Prisoner.

People in prison are socially dead and entombed. But Jesus awakened Lazarus in the tomb, just as many prisoners are awakened during their incarceration, returning home to themselves. Yet, in the Lazarus story, Jesus instructs the community to roll away the stone. Lazarus isn’t expected to do that himself. For us, the stone represents the many external barriers to re-entry that prisoners face (work, housing, debt, etc.), which are often too great and increase the likelihood of recidivism and re-incarceration. Then Jesus instructs the community to untie his burial bands, which symbolically represent the internal wounds that prisoners must also overcome (addiction, mental health, anger, etc.). Again, Jesus calls upon the community to do this work.

Building relationships

This is precisely what we’re asking our parishes to do for those who are socially dead and coming back to life. We are opening up new relationships between prisoners and church communities for their mutual transformation.

Churches are already organized and rooted in values of reconciliation, redemption and resurrection. As Chris Hoke says on the Underground Ministries website, “What if, instead of starting a massive, expensive agency, we helped each church build relationship and come around just one person leaving prison? It would empty the prison system. It would change every church. It would be mass resurrection.”

The archdiocesan Criminal Justice Ministry is currently piloting this new program with St. Joseph Parish in Seattle. The parish as a whole, led by a small group of volunteers, is developing a relationship with a single prison inmate via letter writing and prison visits, and will later provide community wraparound support upon that person’s release. For example, once the person returns and needs a job, perhaps a parishioner can provide one. And as parishioners engage in relationship, they too are transformed into more sacrificial, loving people.

There are three pilot churches in our region — one Presbyterian, one Methodist and one Catholic — making this an ecumenical endeavor. All churches receive training from Underground Ministries and the Washington State Department of Corrections.

What about your parish community? Is this something your church would like to explore? I hope so — the kingdom of God depends on it.

Joe Cotton is the director of pastoral care and outreach for the Archdiocese of Seattle.

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Northwest Catholic - March 2018