I guess every ministry has its special tragedies. In prison work, the worst thing I can think of right now is seeing an inmate who has done his time or been paroled, gone home, get in trouble again and return to prison. Of course, overall that is the way the System works. It's called "recidivism" and the percentage is about 85%--that is, 85% of all inmates, once released, will "re-offend" and end up back in prison.
Still, those of us who work with these men and get to know them and love them, and know the testimonies of God's grace working in their lives, do not expect to see any of them back in prison. It does happen, however. This past weekend was a particularly rough one for me. Friday night we were holding our regular service in a facility which has about 150 men in a special program for parole violators so our "congregation" is mixed between those fellows who are in a 6-month program and regular inmates doing time.
We had a big turn-out and some new faces and I was wandering around greeting the guys when a familiar face appeared--familiar, but out of place. Brother Spencer, who had been a member of our group in another prison until a couple years ago when he was paroled, was back. He was embarrassed and I was stunned. This fellow would be voted "Most Unlikely To Reoffend" if I were the voter. Soft-spoken, dignified, intelligent, reserved, about 50 years old......looks like a college professor. As we talked, he told me his parole was violated for "Failure to Report"--meaning he skipped his mandatory meetings with his parole officer, probably habitually to get violated for it. Without knowing for sure, I'd guess he got back on drugs and in that messed-up state, did not care or know whether he reported.
Then Sunday night, at the prison where I first met Spencer, the Chaplain's Clerk (an inmate) asked: Do you remember Brother Hamm who used to sit back in that corner pew? Sure I remember him, I said. "He's back....." This hit me hard, maybe because I was still suffering from the Friday night episode; it was like being punched. "Where is he?" I asked, since it was obvious that he was not in the Chapel. The clerk explained that Hamm was back in the living area because he was ashamed to show himself to me or the other guys in the Chapel service. I told him to go ahead with the singing service and that I'd be back in a few minutes....
Down in the living area, I asked the officer which cell was Hamm's and was directed to 119. As I headed in that direction, I saw him watching me...."I guess you came after me, huh?" he said "Who told you I was here?" Through his embarrassment, he was smiling and happy to see me, at least on some level. We walked back to the Chapel together, he tried to express how ashamed he was and how difficult it is to face his brothers after such a fall. And I, probably pretty lamely, tried to tell him that we loved him none the less and wanted him to rejoin our group and worship with us. We had a small group in that service, most of whom knew Hamm from before, and they welcomed him warmly and sincerely, leading me to think that it will benefit him to associate with them, that they will genuinely minister to him.
It breaks my heart every time this happens. Yet, it will always happen so long as men are in this sinful flesh. It's good for me to see how quickly one can fall. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. (1Cor 10:12)
This prison system is a self-perpetuating monster. I'll try not to get started on that. But I will start on this: We minister to these men while they are incarcerated. There are lots of good ministries, doing a good job of preaching the Word, faithfully getting the Gospel to these inmates. While the guys are locked up, they can go to services almost every day. Some services are not doctrinally sound, to be sure, but many of them are. Men are converted while in prison, and Christian inmates are brought back into fellowship with the Lord during their time behind bars. This part works pretty well, if not problem-free.
The problems begin when the men leave prison--at sentence end or on parole. We encourage them to find a good church home, even give them recommendations to visit specific churches in the area where they are going to live. Sad fact is that many churches do not want these "convicts" in their congregation. Yes, it is the individual believer's responsibility to find a place to worship, but it seems to me that the church ought to reach out to these men willingly and lovingly rather than the men having to go through rejection after rejection from uncaring, unconcerned and even frightened congregations.
Right now, I have four former members of my "congregations" in half-way houses in Nashville. I have actually "advertised" for a church to minister to these men. Currently these guys are wandering from church to church, attending all sorts of off-the-wall, undoctrinal assemblies just because they don't have any guidance. From my advertisement, I got one response. After that fellow managed to get the approval of the elders for these men to visit, he apparently was unable to find anyone to arrange transportation for them. I've not heard any more from him after the initial flurry of interest.
Overall, the "church" has made it clear to me that: 1. They are not interested in ministering to "those people" at all. 2. For those of us who do go and carry the Gospel inside, fine. Just keep it to yourself. 3. If those inmates are saved while in prison, or are restored to a walk with Christ, when they come out, they are still "those people" and not welcome in "our church"
With that heart, I guess the "church" is relieved when the guys end up back in sin, back in crime, and subsequently back in prison. That's where they belong, right?