Over the last nine years of working in prison ministry, we’ve discovered that many men and women experience a significant spiritual awakening and profound faith development while in prison. In fact, we developed and distribute a Spiritual Survival Guide for Prison and Beyond to help that very thing to happen. It’s been profoundly inspiring and rewarding for us to witness the depth and intensity of faith behind bars. Many inmates have told us they dream of the day when they can be released and join a church. Some do. All too many, however, don’t manage to make a meaningful church connection when they are released. They either feel unwelcomed or find themselves treated as clients. Either way, their spiritual momentum stalls, and their chances for leading a healthy and productive life on the outside suffer as a result.
At the same time, most congregations – even those that feel a call to this kind of ministry – feel unequipped to welcome in and effectively minister to the ex-offender community. We have met many serious Christians in jail, in prison, in halfway houses, and on the streets. We have a heart for them and want to enjoy even deeper fellowship with them in congregational life. We’re convinced that many of them would be a tremendous blessing to a congregation. We need the influence, intensity, and concrete faith of “the least of these,” – a faith that often outshines our own. We want and need them in our churches! We want to address the missed connection between ex-offenders and congregations by providing a clearer path for both ex-offenders and congregations – offering a new ministry model, a reproducible methodology, and some new practical resources for creating church-based “inside-out” connection groups designed for and led by ex-offenders.
By the way, anecdotal evidence gathered from informal surveys we’ve conducted with ex-offenders at a local social service agency and at an IDOC-sponsored Summit of Hope for parolees leads us to believe that at least 80% of these ex-offenders have no meaningful connection with a congregation.
Our ministry is designed for connecting and equipping at four key stages. The first two are part of our Under the Door prison ministry:
- 1. After conviction, and upon their entry into the Illinois prison system, especially during the period of “reception and classification”. We want to get copies of the Spiritual Survival Guide for Prison and Beyond into their hands.
- Inmates who are currently incarcerated and who want to be connected to a Christian pen pal. We provide pen pals for those who ask.
The next two key stages of the reentry process are where our Inside-Out ministry takes place:
- Inmates whose release from prison is pending within six months. We are making connections by having our program staff network with prison chaplains and by attending periodic Dept. of Corrections-sponsored “Re-entry Summits” at prison facilities throughout the state to meet with inmates who will be paroled out to our catchment area within a 5-mile radius of our Chicago location. At these re-entry summits, we will meet personally with inmates and invite them to participate in our Inside-Out Connection Groups upon release. Importantly, we will also help equip them for re-entry by developing and sharing RED Chicago, a practical Re-Entry Directory and resource guide to help them plan for their release and to connect with social service providers in Chicagoland. Importantly, RED Chicago is also being made available through parole officers and other service providers.
- 4. Ex-offenders who have already been released from prison, who are hoping to connect with a church, and who reside reasonably close to our Chicago location. We are making connections by getting referrals from partner social service agencies, halfway houses, and parole officers. The heart of our ministry is a growing number of Inside-Out Connection Groups where ex-offenders can meet weekly to bond, provide mutual support and encouragement, grow as disciples of Christ, and learn to lead. These small groups are intended to be both a ministry in their own right and a relational bridge into fuller participation in congregational life.
Parenthetically, at this stage of our ministry development, we are focusing our efforts on men only – we don’t yet feel either gifted or called to work with women or families and the special needs that they have.
In each of the four key areas that we’ve targeted, we (a) want to do focused, valuable ministry, (b) work collaboratively with others and (c) help fill unmet needs by producing some practical resources. Beyond this, we want to help spark a movement of reproducing small groups (we call them ‘connection groups’) by and for ex-offenders.