Those Leaving Prison and Those In Churches Need Each Other To Heal
Prison reentry efforts can too often—unintentionally—keep men and women returning from prison isolated from the rest of their communities. With specialized reentry nonprofits, paid staff, transitional housing, and other important services, we can create a kind of “human recycling silo.” Society can still keep the formerly incarcerated “over there.”
At Underground Ministries, we believe restorative justice is about the power of bringing people together into new relationships. Where those who’ve caused harm and those who’ve been harmed see, hear, and know one another. These relationships are the basis of healing and repair that flow in both directions.
So how do we get more of our local communities—not just the specialists, agencies, support groups, and staff—into real relationships with men and women releasing from incarceration? How do we build connections of tenderness and truth-telling to repair the chasms of trust left by individual crimes and by macro systems of oppression in our communities?
One Parish One Prisoner
In 2017, we started mobilizing faith communities to build teams of direct relationship and reentry planning with one person releasing from prison within a year or so.
When Adrian Cavala signed up for our new One Parish One Prisoner reentry program at Underground Ministries here in Washington State, he sent me a private prison email. He had his doubts.
I’d known him on the streets over my last decade of pastoral work among gang members in our rural Skagit Valley. We’d gotten to know each other better when squeezed into a small utility closet at a distant prison when the guards didn’t have a chapel room for our visits. Adrian, known on the streets as “Spade,” could imagine trusting a full-time gang chaplain like me, but not “normies”: regular folks, mostly white, from the large evangelical church in town who’d signed up to become his One Parish One Prisoner reentry team. They didn’t know a thing about the underground world of meth, crime, and survival bonds. Even though it was the same town, they were separate worlds.
“Honestly, I’ve felt that once they get to know me they may not like me,” he wrote in this email. “But then I remember how much many of us in prison have in common, even though we come from different backgrounds. Even the hardest homies I have ever met while doing time seem so unapproachable and uninviting. But once I get to know them and actually see them, we would end up having great relationships. We would be laughing all the time and clowning around.”
Without even a paragraph break, he pivoted: “I’m gonna put the same kind of outlook towards the people of the church as well. I mean, I’m a freakin’ delight, lol! So, they too might end up being some freakin’ delights in my life.”
For us, this is the hidden treasure of prison reentry work. Not just helping men and women being released from prison get some resources, a job, and – in the dismally utilitarian phrase – become “productive members of society.” Rather, we see what freakin’ delights they are beneath the mummy-wrapping of their addictions or learned violence. And, in the gift of their trust and raw authenticity, we on the outside might discover what freakin’ delights we are, as well – beneath our “normie” veneers as productive members of society.
Healing in Community
Over the following months, as the team followed our twenty-four monthly learning modules, they wrote letters to Adrian. They made the long drive to the prison, entered the razor-wire fortress, and learned from him about how he and his celly made a “prison tamale” out of Doritos and a spicy pickle from the commissary snacks. They built a comprehensive reentry plan with him.
The church prayed for Adrian and heard his letters read from the platform. A woman on the team sent Adrian photos of her growing tomato garden, and soon they were swapping stories about family tamale recipes.
Turns out members of the church had sons and daughters struggling with addiction. They didn’t really talk about it and so suffered alone. With Adrian now, a new space of tenderness was opening between them. New honesty for grief and growth was weaving their worlds.
Adrian was released last month, and I got a text message from a new number: “Sup Chris, check out me and my team.” A batch of photos buzzed in: he and seven folks I didn’t know were lined up at the Skagit River, grilling the coho salmon they’d pulled out of the August waters together.
In another text message, Adrian wrote me last month: “I thank God all the time for putting people that genuinely care in my life. So even though I fear to fail and I fear to let people down – I will try again – and again and again. This time though, I’m not doing it alone.”
This post was adapted with permission from a recent article by the author published by Plough.com.
About Chris Hoke
Chris Hoke is the Executive Director of Underground Ministries in Washington State, creator of One Parish One Prisoner (OPOP), and author of WANTED: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws and Across Borders (HarperOne 2015). OPOP has launched 57 pairings and reentry teams in Washington State, and is currently expanding to Chicago and Southern Texas.