About 600,000 inmates will be released from prison this year, which may feel like more of a threat than an opportunity.
During five webinars this week, United Methodists will argue that it is a great opportunity to do God’s work, and they’ll suggest ways to do it.
The “Released: I’m Home, Now What?” webinars are sponsored by Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century and United Methodist Communications’ ResourceUMC. The Zoom events, beginning at 6 p.m. U.S. Central time Monday through Friday, require registration to attend.
“I see this as a ministry that the church really needs to embrace because 600,000 returning citizens come (home) every year, and guess what? They’re coming to your communities,” said the Rev. Michael L. Bowie, national director for SBC21, the national racial ethnic plan of The United Methodist Church.
“Instead of running from them, how do we run to them?” Bowie said. “(We have to) realize they can be a huge part and expand the kingdom of God and really help reduce this pervasive issue of mass incarceration in our communities.”
“I made a horrible decision that affected many lives,” Hough said. “I went to prison six months after being married. I received a life sentence and I was there for almost 20 years.”
In addition to his church duties, Hough, a former Marine, works at Californians for Safety and Justice and Shields for Families, both of which support vulnerable families. He will speak during some of the seminars.
“By the grace of God, some doors are open,” Hough said. “(The seminars will) give some information to the churches that are trying to figure out, ‘How do we help the men and women who are coming home? How do we help the men and women that are still incarcerated? How do we support them?’”
Many released prisoners are resigned that the only jobs they can get are manual labor, because the majority of employers won’t consider them for anything else, Hough said.
“The natural abilities that God has placed inside me are somehow silenced now,” said Hough, who eventually beat those odds.
“Not just to look at them, but to see them — see their worth, see their value and see the huge role they can play in the community.”
That can make all the difference, Hough said.
“When you’re fighting and … trying to establish yourself beyond that horrible decision that you made and to live out what is the best in you, it’s very difficult because there’s so many barriers that you have to overcome,” Hough said.
Many church members, especially in older congregations, are hesitant to work in prison ministries, Hough said.
“They shy away from it because it’s so hard,” he said. “It’s easier to do a homeless ministry and it’s easier to do a foster care ministry because you get more sympathy.”
As of 2018, Black Americans comprised 12% of the adult population in the U.S., but made up 33% of the prison population, according to the Pew Research Center.
At least some of those Black prisoners are behind bars because of racism, Bowie maintains.
“There’s a portion of people who have been incarcerated for minor drug infractions,” he said. “The other races would get either rehabilitation or probation. … I believe the church can play a major role in dismantling racism that’s prevalent in our judicial system as it relates to incarceration.”
The stigma on released prisoners is considerable, even in churches, Bowie said.
“You have very few Black congregations who are part of this work,” he said. “I think there’s an embarrassment. I think there’s guilt and shame that Christians in the Black church need to overcome.”
Many Black Christians have family members who are serving time, Bowie said. All the more reason to be actively helping prisoners when they come home to have support and find gainful employment, he said.
“What better way in the body of Christ to realize … it’s all about having a second chance,” Bowie said.
Patterson is a UM News reporter in Nashville, Tennessee. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.
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