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To set the prisoner free

Man in jail

Traverse City Central United Methodist Church is in ministry with neighbors two blocks from the church in the County Jail.

Traverse City: Central UMC

“I know I made some mistakes, but I just want to get out of here and work to support my family”.

This was how the 30-something earnest man in orange began our conversation as we sat in the visitor room at the Grand Traverse County Jail last week. I have come to know the names and faces of several incarcerated young adults (mostly men) through the visits and chapel services that Central Church is involved in there. The men and women in the County Jail are our neighbors, residing a mere two blocks from our church building. 

The statistics are sobering to see how young the jail population is, and how many cases are the result of non-violent drug violations. Addiction is insidious. These are people who admit they are guilty of their crimes. Yet these are people in desperate need of in-house recovery programs with the best-possible mechanisms for education, incentives, accountability and spiritual support. However, the current reality in many jails, ours included, is more of a punitive warehouse where persons “sleep off their time” with few programs to better themselves or become responsible citizens. This year community leaders and corrections officers, are hoping to see things improve.

I appreciate the local work of Keys To Freedom Ministries, under the leadership of Chaplain Tina McCalley, who coordinates the religious services, access to books and Bibles, Christmas party for inmates’ families, and the valuable resource of letter-writing materials for inmates. Our church partners with each of these services, in money and presence.

I am also excited about another, newer,  group in town. I would like our church to know about BDAI, which stands for Before, During & After Incarceration. BDAI is an advocacy group for folks currently or previously incarcerated, plus their families. I believe they are a group worthy of our support and prayers, as they engage the larger justice issues for those in our jails. Here are BDAI’s four goals –

  1. Humanize the faces of the incarcerated.
  2. Change the attitude of the community towards the incarcerated through education and advocacy.
  3. Change the culture in jail from a culture of punishment to one of recovery.
  4. Advocate for programs which will improve: A. Diversion from jail B. Rehabilitation services in jail and C. Success in reentering the community once released.

United Methodism holds a deep tradition in caring for social justice concerns, and seeing dignity in every person, regardless of their record and history and status. When I was a college student, I was awakened to these values when an elderly woman in my church challenged me to join her in taking a stand against the death penalty. She cited our United Methodist Social Principles that say “… the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore, and transform all human beings.” Her challenge shook me up, in a good way, to not only see the sacred worth of someone in jail, but also to visit them, to help them seek employment following their sentence, to represent in small ways our “God of second chances”. Click here for a great article on UM jail ministries that are in the business of transformation with the incarcerated.

Noticing and creating relationships with our incarcerated neighbors, our addicted neighbors, our neighbors experiencing homelessness all fits in beautifully with Central UMC’s expressed goal this year for Greater Community Engagement. A thoughtful member of the church forwarded another fine article my way on how the really great churches are the ones who are compelling their members to leave their buildings in order to walk alongside neighbors in making a difference for the common good. I invite you to read the whole article here.  I was especially taken by the writer’s short list about engaging the neighborhood around us – inmate, shopkeeper, condo resident, tourist. So here is the list of the “seven L’s”. Which one of these challenges you to dig deeper?

1. Love all people.
2. Listen more and talk less.
3. Learn from new places and new people.
4. Live, lead, and be present in the now.
5. Lead into the future.
6. Launch from a place that creates a win-win.
7. Learn and lead with others in addressing current justice issues. 

These are great times to be the church of Jesus Christ. Central Church in Traverse City is vibrant and healthy precisely because we take serving seriously. Hooray for entry points such as our monthly Serve Saturdays, Outreach meals, Mission trips, and now seeking greater ways to befriend our neighbor in-and-released from jail. 

We are in the business of transformation here.