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Second Chance Month: The Church and incarcerated individuals go together

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

As we put away our Easter decorations and wrap up this season on the liturgical Church calendar, these are the perfect days to reflect on the second chances offered to each one of us through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have all received the ultimate second chance because of Christ’s sacrifice and, as Luke 6:36 says, we are called to be merciful just as our Father is merciful.

Second Chance Month is a time to raise awareness of the many barriers faced by millions of Americans with criminal records and unlock opportunities for them to contribute positively to society. It’s an ideal time for the Church to ask how we can extend God’s mercy by unlocking second chances.

It starts by embracing people as they are. My dad, a Vietnam veteran, struggled with substance use disorder after he was honorably discharged from service. After committing theft and robbery to buy drugs, he lost his freedom. He developed advanced dementia while in prison and, after years of our effort and treatment, was released on medical parole during his 26th year of imprisonment. The day we first visited National Community Church in Washington, D.C., together as a family, I shared my dad’s story with one of the pastors. There was no judgment levied on my father or my family — just open arms and Christ-like love.

Now as the co-leader of the prison and reentry mission team at National Community Church, I work with our group to help unlock second chances by sharing the light and love of Christ. We visit and write to those behind prison walls, connect people to resources needed on reentry, serve children with incarcerated parents through Prison Fellowship Angel Tree programs and partner with Prison Fellowship to advocate for restorative justice.

I have seen first-hand the difference it makes when the local church walks alongside individuals and families to carry out this important work. It’s work I believe all Christians are called to do.

Isaiah 61:1 reminds us, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.”

As the Body of Christ, we are partners in this mission. We don’t have to look far for opportunities to fulfill this Scripture in our world today. People with criminal records face as many as 44,000 documented restrictions to essential needs such as employment, housing and education. Without full access to these needs, the reentry process falls apart and many people wind up back in prison. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The Church can help interrupt the cycle of poverty and incarceration by helping to unlock second chances.

As Second Chance Month comes to a close, I urge all believers to envision a society where restorative justice prevails and people are given the opportunity to transform and fulfill their God-given potential. The world misses out on the impact people can make when they are not given second chances.

Everyone has a part to play in this vital work. In Hebrews 13:3, the writer encourages us to be mindful of those in prison, saying, “Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”

Christians are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus as it relates to serving individuals and families affected by incarceration. My hope is that all believers find an organization, such as Prison Fellowship, to plug into — serving and supporting people impacted by incarceration.

On Second Chance Sunday at National Community Church last year, Pastor Mark Batterson said, “I’ve received thousands of letters from friends in prison who have read a book I’ve written, and those letters are as unique as the people writing them…But there’s a common theme. Most of the writers profess guilt and the regret that comes with it. But, they say, ‘All we want is a second chance. Give me a second chance.”

People can and do transform their lives if given the opportunity, but we must extend the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to help make it possible.

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Dr. Carmelle Norice-Tra is a physician-scientist based in the DC metro area. She volunteers as a prison and reentry ministry leader at National Community Church, a board member of The Frederick Douglass Project for Justice and as a Justice Ambassador with Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest Christian organization serving incarcerated individuals and their families.

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