American evangelicals and mainliners often seem worlds apart when it comes to engagement with social issues. Take prisons as a case in point. The rhetoric diverges along the lines that one might expect: mainliners rail against the American mass incarceration system, the new Jim Crow that locks away minorities and the poor and is sustained by in-prison private labor and for-profit facilities. They want to fight this sinful system through activism (protests and petitions), academia (lectures and scholarly books), and artistic endeavors (photo essays and poetry).
In one of those neglected corners of scripture that must scare those brave enough to think about it, Jesus promises an unpleasant future for those who would not visit him in prison: “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matt. 25:45).
For 16 years I have lived under the jurisdiction of the Michigan Department of Corrections. I know firsthand what behaviors are being bred within prisons. I entered the system when I was 18 years old. I spent five years learning from seasoned veterans how to be a better criminal.
When I was a newly ordained pastor, I heard a speech by a federal judge. The judge said that he kept in contact with every person he sentenced to prison. His rationale was simple: he didn’t want his only impact on an individual to be the act of denying his or her freedom. Though as a pastor I visited hospitals almost daily, I had never been inside a jail. Within a few weeks of hearing that judge’s challenge, I made my first visit to the county jail.
The same Spirit that was upon Jesus, bringing good news to the poor and proclaiming release to the captive, is found among Christians today who have a heart for prisoners and their families. Led by two members with such a heart, our church began a ministry to prisoners.