by Joel Rosales Matute
When people are released from prison, many of them have nowhere to go and no job. Worse still, they are not accepted by the community.
- Spend a few moments talking about the conditions people face in prison in your country or local area.
- What do you think people experience when they are released?
God’s children form a community of faith – the church – to receive these people. For this to be possible, the church has to have at least three qualities:
1 – The church as a community of love
Jesus calls us to love others as he loves us. This is an extreme and unconditional love. At the final judgement, Jesus will say:
‘“Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For... I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you… in prison and go to visit you?” The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”’ (Matthew 25:34–40)
The arms of the church are the arms of Christ. It is through us that people will receive God’s love. We often visit offenders and preach a message of love, but once they are released, they do not receive this love within our churches. We must remember that when we do something for people in need, we are doing it for Jesus himself.
- How can we practically show God’s love to someone who has recently been released from prison?
2 – The church as a community of acceptance
Society stigmatises ex-offenders, often despising them, but this is not how it should be in the church. We must create the appropriate conditions for them to rejoin society, valuing them and respecting them as children of God. Many of us naturally have a fear of ex‑offenders, and we need to pray for God’s help to overcome this.
During his ministry, our Lord frequently mixed with those stigmatised by society at that time. For example, we read in Mark 2:16–17:
‘When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”’
- How can we show acceptance to an ex-offender
3 – The church as a restorative community
The Bible presents the church as a restorative community, in which the wounds of the broken are healed. We must welcome those being released from prison, for we are here to restore and not to judge. The Lord teaches us in Matthew 7:1–2: ‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.’ At the same time, we must always ensure we are keeping the people in our congregation safe.
- In what specific ways could we help restore a person who has recently gained their freedom?
- Let’s role-play how we would receive an ex-offender in our study group.
If our churches love, accept and restore those who have suffered the difficult experience of being a prisoner, we will be faithfully fulfilling our work as Christ’s representatives. Through our love and support for them, we can help to prevent them from re-offending.
Pastor Joel Rosales Matute has worked for many years in communities with high crime rates in Honduras.