Audrey still remembers the day she was called into her pastor’s office to receive some of the most discouraging news of her life.
After becoming a Christian in prison, where she served time for a white-collar crime, Audrey returned to her community and joined a church with her husband Jeff. But members of the church leadership were uncomfortable with Audrey’s history, even though she had already paid her debt to society. That’s when the pastor told her she was no longer welcome.
“That was devastating. That experience sent me into a depression. I didn’t want to be out [of prison] anymore,” remembers Audrey.
Removing obstacles to belonging
Thousands of people like Audrey come out of prison each year, seeking a place to belong in the community and in a local church. But while many congregations have vibrant jail ministries or participate in Angel Tree®, it can be harder to know how to respond to someone coming into the church with a criminal history. Where do you even start?
Prison Fellowship®, the nation’s largest prison ministry serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families, spearheads Second Chance Month every April. Second Chance Month is a nationwide campaign to recognize the God-given dignity and potential of people with a criminal history and remove unnecessary obstacles to their successful return to the community.
In addition to hosting awareness events and advocating for reform, Prison Fellowship encourages churches to sign up as Second Chance Month partners. Participating churches will join congregations nationwide that are taking meaningful steps to welcome families and individuals touched affected by incarceration. All partners receive a downloadable Second Chance Sunday Toolkit, including sermon resources, a small group discussion guide, kids’ coloring activity, and action steps for further engagement.
No more ‘permanent visitors’
For many people coming back from prison, being received by a welcoming church community can be a stepping stone to a successful, law-abiding future, filled with purpose.
Audrey, who went on to join the staff of Prison Fellowship, oversaw an intensive biblical studies program for men and women in prison. She helped Anthony Ramirez, a young man who became a Christian in prison, get enrolled.
"When you meet Anthony, he might seem kind of intimidating—lots of tattoos," Audrey laughs. "But being around him is truly uplifting. He is so passionate. When he starts talking about the Word, you just get excited about how God has turned his life around."
When Anthony returned to the community in 2015, he connected with Dave Clark, a pastor in California, who offered him a pastoral internship.
“He was just warmly welcomed by our church family,” says Dave. “I’ve just seen him grow in different ways. Some of it is just exploring his gifts, serving, trying new things.”
Being welcomed into that church family felt like something Anthony had always wanted—to belong. At the church, the pastors mentored Anthony, who came to appreciate the importance of finding real community as a returning citizen. In the years since he joined the church, he has gotten married, gone to work for a Christian-owned manufacturing company, and continued to serve—largely as a result of finding a community that recognized his potential and helped him flourish.
“We don’t want to make the formerly incarcerated feel like permanent visitors,” says Dave. “These are our brothers and sisters. These are our family members who are coming home.”