CHURCHES CAN HAVE A HUGE IMPACT OFFERING FRIENDSHIP, SUPPORT AND GOSPEL HOPE TO PRISONERS AND EX-PRISONERS
A surprising number of inmates respond to the gospel in faith. But on release they face huge challenges. Securing accommodation and getting employment is hard, existing support networks are often weak or unhealthy. Finding and integrating into a church family can be fraught with difficulty.
Just before the second lockdown, London City Missionaries Luke Carson and Olly Sherwood spent a day helping a man on his first day out of prison. He came out of prison at 10.30 with bags, and he had to get across London for a probation meeting the same morning.
A lot of other guys came out on the same day and he could easily have gone with them. If that had happened, then in a minute the whole direction of his life could have changed – perhaps do something stupid, even life threatening.
Instead, there was a familiar face to get some lunch, carry bags, take him to the probation appointment and pray for him. After months of preparation, he got to a rehab clinic the same day. If it works out, it’ll be life changing.
Leaving prison is a vulnerable moment says Luke: ‘Imagine coming out not knowing what the future holds, full of fear, anxiety and worry about what’s going to happen. If someone’s not there to help, it decreases the chance of getting off to a good start.
‘We would love to work with more churches in London, help people adjust to life after prison.’
Luke and Olly are now working full time in prisons ministry, working with local churches to befriend and mentor prisoners while they are inside, sharing the gospel and continuing that support on release. From experience they know that when a relationship of trust is established early, the chances for ex-prisoners are much better.
‘The guys that I got to know really well while they were serving their sentence are the ones that have come to church on a Sunday and have asked for help and support with different things,’ says Luke.
That’s why Christians going into prison to establish friendships is so important.
There’s a clear call from Jesus to visit prisoners. Anyone who’s outside of the prison environment, not a part of the system is so valuable.
‘You can’t overstate the value of Christians visiting prisoners,’ Olly says, ‘especially those who are not paid staff, such as a volunteer from the local church. It means a lot to people. They don’t forget.
‘Most importantly, people need love. The people who have sowed the most into my life have been those who were totally different to me, but simply loved me, and invested time in me.
‘The simple old-school thing of a prison visitor from a local church going in to sit with someone and chat is one of the most vital pieces of ministry possible.’
As friendships and trust are built, so are opportunities to share the gospel, to pray with people and talk through matters of faith.
‘The things that have impacted me most in my life have been little one-liners that people have said – you know, little things that people have done in a moment and they may not even realise how transformative it is.
‘When we are with churches who aren’t yet experienced in prison ministry, the main thing to help them understand is that time is best gift you can give to somebody.’
There are people in prison who will possibly never get out, or at least only at the end of their life, Luke says. ‘It’s surprising they’re still alive, that they haven’t taken their own life yet because they are so deeply depressed.’
There’s one man who Luke has seen for as long as he’s been in Pentonville. He always talks about going for parole, but every time parole comes around it just doesn’t work out for him.
He cuts his hands and elbows to the bone just because he doesn’t know any other way to deal with his pain. He’ll probably never leave prison. He is one of many who are really in hell.
Like many prisoners, his world has become very, very small, and part of prison ministry is to try and work out how the gospel applies to this tiny world of prison regime and self-harm, trying to make sense of the future they have.
The gospel is long-term everlasting hope, but it also offers hope in day-to-day interaction with others.
‘Success is different for everyone,’ says Luke. ‘For some, just being alive the next day is a massive success. With some people we’re literally trying to keep them alive. For others it’s getting a job, and others it’s picking up the phone and calling their mum.
‘But we always maintain the highest hope for people, to respond in faith to who God the Father originally intended them to be.’
Luke and Olly have seen that the guys really respond well to groups and courses. So they are inviting churches in London to run evangelistic courses such as the Difference Course, or Christianity Explored for ex-prisoners.
There is also a huge opportunity for churches to disciple Christian ex-prisoners to reach others, to be evangelists and disciples in their community and their local prison.
That really fits the longstanding LCM principle of the same people to the same places and same faces.
Want to know more? Attend our next PET day Prison to Pew, register here.