By / May 29

Seeking justice and righteousness, especially for those who are most vulnerable, is fundamental to our faith and an essential part of Christian living. God directly commanded us to seek justice through the prophet Micah, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8 ESV). 

The Biblical Call for Justice

Throughout Scripture, God calls his people to care for the vulnerable and to seek justice on behalf of our neighbors. As God gives the Law to the Israelites, he instructs them to care for the poor (Lev. 19:9-10, 23:22), to welcome immigrants and refugees (Ex. 22:21; Lev. 19:33-34), and to be fair in their financial dealings (Lev. 19:35-36). The prophets carry on these themes of justice and often indict the people of Israel for their failure in this area. Isaiah directly admonishes the people that caring for and fair treatment of the vulnerable is an essential part of faithful worship.

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard” (Isa. 58:6-8 ESV).

In the New Testament, Jesus says of those who are his sheep, “‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me; I was in prison and you visited me’” (Matt. 25:35-36 CSB). Later, in James, we are instructed as to what true faith entails: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (1:27 ESV).

Areas of Advocacy 

It is this clear mandate from God that both defines and motivates our advocacy for justice. Though injustice and tragedy run rampant in our fallen world, God’s people are to work for the good of our neighbors to push back the darkness and lift up the vulnerable. In our advocacy for fair and impartial judgment and equitable treatment of the unfairly marginalized, we bear witness to a God who is the ultimate just Judge, who deeply cares for the oppressed, and who proclaims a gospel that saves all who believe without partiality.

Immigrants and Refugees

Within our larger advocacy for immigration reforms that uphold ideals of dignity and fairness, the ERLC has strongly advocated for Dreamers, young immigrants who were brought to the United States by their parents, at no fault of their own. These Dreamers, who often have known no other home than the U.S., face continual uncertainty and potential future deportation unless Congress can deliver a solution allowing them to remain here legally. 

Additionally, in recent years, the U.S. refugee resettlement program has been devastated, along with the network of nonprofits and service providers that support resettlement. The U.S. has largely abdicated its role as a refuge to the vulnerable at a time of historic levels of refugees and internationally displaced people worldwide. The ERLC is deeply engaged in advocating for the rebuilding of this safe and legal program to restore our country’s legacy as a beacon of hope to those fleeing persecution.

Criminal Justice Reform

In 2018, the ERLC advocated heavily for the passage of the historic First Step Act, which worked to reduce recidivism in prisoners, prevented the shackling of most pregnant prisoners, and made other important steps toward a more compassionate criminal justice system that maintains public safety. Since then, the ERLC has continued to advocate for the RE-ENTER Act and the EQUAL (Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law) Act. 

The RE-ENTER Act would allow eligible individuals with federal convictions to apply for a certificate of rehabilitation from a district court, attesting to a law-abiding future and a commitment to successful reintegration into society. The EQUAL Act would remedy the disparity in federal sentencing for crack and powder cocaine related crimes that unjustly and disproportionately targets people of color. 

Predatory Lending

Payday lending is the term used to describe the practice of lending small amounts of money to people for two-week periods, until their next payday. The average annual interest rates on these short-term loans is 391%, often leaving already impoverished families with crippling debts. These unjust lending practices are exploitative and predicated on consumer loss, trapping families in poverty. In response, the ERLC is advocating for the Veterans and Consumers Fair Credit Act that would extend the same lending protections currently established for Active Duty military members under the Military Lending Act to all consumers, including veterans and their families. 

While Christians can have good-faith disagreements on the contours of our nation’s policies, the Bible is clear that all image-bearers are worthy of dignity and respect. As we face injustice in our world, indifference is not an option afforded to believers. God has called us to fervent prayer, advocacy, and service for all our neighbors. It is ultimately in this work that we will experience a taste of his kingdom on earth.

By / Apr 29

One of the most COVID-effected demographics is rarely mentioned: Prisoners. Already a population incredibly vulnerable to substance abuse, depression and loneliness, the toll for safety was high — and didn’t ultimately protect them very well. One in 5 have tested positive for the virus, and at least 2,700 have died. The New York Times reported triple the rate of COVID-19 infections from that of the general population inside American prisons. 

It’s past time to recognize the humanity of this population of more than 2 million image-bearers. April is “Second Chance Month,” an effort by Prison Fellowship to spotlight criminal justice reform and programming to help prisoners reenter society. Because there is no structure in place for men and women leaving prison, many walk out the door with nothing but the clothes on their back. Some don’t even have an I.D. Often without money or housing, the allure back to substance abuse or criminal lifestyle is high because it is one of few options. 

Things may be even harder now. 

On top of the contagion, in 2020 prisoners abruptly lost access to visitors and in-person programming by nonprofits and ministries aiming to bring light, life, and restoration. As the rest of the world mourned in-person gatherings, prisoners without any access to the outside world may have grieved it the most. 

Ninety-five percent of prisoners eventually reenter society, and the government offers no assistance upon reentry. The results are devastating. Two of 3 former inmates will be back behind bars within three years, furthering a toxic cycle of criminality that ultimately bleeds into the next generation. The children of incarcerated parents are six times more likely to be later incarcerated themselves. 

Men of Valor 

But God has called a group of people to minister specifically to this group. In 1976, after serving a short sentence in prison, Chuck Colson started Prison Fellowship, which spawned local prison ministries across the country, like Tennessee’s Men of Valor. These organizations are bringing God’s love, hope, and tangible resources to a population the rest of the world too easily hidden and forgotten. 

COVID-19 made programming harder, but Men of Valor was able to pivot and see God moving in incredible ways that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. “It’s kind of cracked the nut on getting some virtual programming into prisons,” said Program Director Curt Campbell over the phone. “We also got permission to show a faith-based variety show, including testimonies, sermons, and motivational videos.” 

Campbell said most prisons have a closed circuit TV channel that plays inside cells, where their show broadcasts. Thus, men who may never have attended a chapel service or Bible class will hear the gospel when they never would have before. 

Beyond adapting to COVID-19 restrictions, Men of Valor has kept a strong focus on their core initiative, a 1-year reentry mentoring and discipling program for 93 men at a time. After learning about and participating with Men of Valor while in prison, men can apply for the “After Care and Re-Entry” program, which boasts incredible results: Only 10% of those who complete the program go back to prison, compared to 66% of those who don’t. 

Incredibly, COVID-19 affected this program “more positively than negatively,” said Campbell. Because they received funding through the CARES Act (enacted to provide swift economic relief for those affected by COVID-19), Men of Valor was able to expand their programming capabilities to include virtual and socially-distanced learning spaces.They were able to keep the program near capacity, and most men were able to continue working. 

Being accepted into the program can be a huge relief. Once released from prison, accepted participants receive a home, food, clothing, transportation, and help securing valid I.D. and part-time employment. Beyond those basic needs, spiritual needs take priority through mentoring, discipleship, anger management, accountability, personal counseling, and more. 

Because of this program, men like Joshua Higdon say they are “thankful” for their time in prison. After growing up and joining a hate group gang at a young age, Higdon ultimately developed a drug addiction and found himself in prison. “The men that God moved into my life,” he said via video, ”showed me his grace, showed me his mercy and showed me his love.” 

Wearing a t-shirt inscribed with “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength,” atop a spate of tattoos, Higdon described how a bi-racial friendship inside of prison changed his views on race and led him to the post-incarceration Men of Valor program. 

At a time when many Christians are redefining their view of “pro-life” to include care and compassion for the most vulnerable citizens, it’s appropriate to view post-incarcerated men as such. They have broken the law and made mistakes, but have little chance to rehabilitate and start again without authentic love, financial support, and spiritual guidance to help them get there. They can’t do this on their own, and organizations like Men of Valor and Prison Fellowship are stepping up to ensure they don’t have to. 

By / Apr 21

Jeff Pickering welcomes back Heather Rice-Minus of Prison Fellowship to talk about the church, criminal justice reform, and why Christians value second chances. This episode comes as we are engaged in Second Chance Month, a nationwide effort each April to raise awareness about barriers to reentry and unlock brighter futures for people with a criminal record.

This conversation was recorded on Friday, April 16, the week before the verdict was announced in the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. 

Guest Biography

Heather Rice-Minus serves as Senior Vice President of Advocacy and Church Mobilization at Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest Christian nonprofit serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families. She is a powerful, knowledgeable voice articulating the case for restorative criminal justice solutions. She is also the co-author of Outrageous Justice, a Bible study curriculum and book. A native of Virginia, Rice-Minus resides in Washington, D.C., with her husband and daughter, and they welcomed a second child as foster parents in 2020.

Resources from the Conversation

By / Sep 21

These days it seems like we are all searching for ways to pursue justice and reconciliation. We know God calls us to “remember those in prison” (Heb. 13:3 NIV) and “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression” (Isa.1:17 ESV). Yet few churches have organized jail or prison ministries, and most evangelicals are uninvolved in pursuing justice reform

Why is that? The answer is complicated. Our justice system is exactly that—a system. It can be hard to figure out how to approach it. We may assume that, because of bureaucracy, prisons will be as difficult for us to enter as they are for prisoners to leave. We may also feel that prisoners are less deserving of our compassion than other people we might serve. 

However, God’s Word challenges us to work through those fears, challenges, and presuppositions to understand his heart for prisoners. So where do we begin? 

A free resource to help

For more than 40 years, Prison Fellowship® has been working to realize a more restorative justice system in this country, one that reflects the God-given value of each person. We’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. And we want to share those lessons with the church. That’s why we created Outrageous Justice®. 

Developed by Prison Fellowship’s subject-matter experts, Outrageous Justice is a free small-group study that explores the criminal justice system through a biblical lens, current events, and personal stories. Outrageous Justice is designed to awaken Christians to the need for justice that restores, then activate them to respond. Participants are equipped and encouraged to care for those affected by crime and incarceration—victims, prisoners, returning citizens, and their families—and to advocate for justice reforms. 

More than 61,000 people have walked through the study. Ninety-nine percent of participants surveyed after using the curriculum reported increased awareness about criminal justice issues. The majority also reported taking action to advance criminal justice reform—like Aaron Merritt and Ashley Erickson. 

Taking action

Aaron and Ashley are members of Mercy Hill Church in Minnesota. Like many churches in the U.S., the church hasn’t been able to meet due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of Aaron’s pastors approached him about leading a small group to make good use of the time. Aaron, who has been volunteering inside a correctional facility for two years with Prison Fellowship, agreed and decided to use Outrageous Justice

Ashley joined the group. She says, “I haven’t encountered a lot of people that have been incarcerated, and so I wouldn’t know what it was like. I could have an idea, but it would probably be very wrong.” Hearing firsthand from people featured in the curriculum who have committed crimes gave her a new perspective. “Humanizing them was a really big thing for me, rather than how we see [them] portrayed in media.”

Aaron enjoyed the connection to the Scriptures. He adds, “I really liked—and I think a lot of people in our group really appreciated—how action-focused it was. . . . There were actual action steps . . . from just doing email advocacy to . . . actually going to the prisons.”

By the end of the study, Ashley and Aaron were both ready to take one of those steps. “Ashley felt . . . compelled to get more involved and saw a vision for herself,” Aaron recalls. Ashley provides parent coaching to families in her community, something Aaron knew was applicable to prison ministry. “When [Aaron] mentioned that that was a possibility . . . to do in the prison, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah. For sure,’” Ashley says. She has now completed volunteer training and eagerly awaits the opportunity to work with parents once prisons in her state reopen to volunteers.

Aaron just completed the training to become a Prison Fellowship Justice Ambassador. Our team trains Justice Ambassadors to advocate for cultural change and legislative reforms that advance proportional punishment, constructive prison culture, and second chances. “[Now] I’m going to start setting up meetings with representatives on some of the criminal justice initiatives that Prison Fellowship is going to be working on,” he says.

Learn what you can do

Our goal is to help you, no matter where you’re starting from, determine your response to the biblical mandate to visit those in prison and pursue justice. 

Outrageous Justice will help you better understand the criminal justice system in America and why it matters to every one of us. It will equip you to advocate for justice that restores. Most importantly, it will invite you to speak up on behalf of those who can’t, bringing redemption and hope to the criminal justice system—and to our country.

Download your free copy of Outrageous Justice today and encourage others to do the same.

By / Feb 13

Today, nearly 2.2 million Americans are in prison or jail, and approximately 70 million Americans have a criminal record. Prison Fellowship® believes the Church has a unique capacity and calling to respond to the crisis of crime and incarceration. That's why we hosted the Justice Declaration Symposium in Washington, D.C., an event that brought together 80 pastors and church leaders—including ERLC President Russell Moore—to sharpen one another in the calling to restore those affected by the criminal justice system.

Moore served as the event’s keynote speaker. In his opening remarks, he said, “One of the biggest challenges that many of us in ministry have is dealing with multiple constituencies at one time.” Some will ask why bother ministering to those who have done bad things. Others will say justice reform distracts the Church from its mission. Some will think doing advocacy work makes you too political, and others will not think you are political enough. 

To better understand how different American Christians approach criminal justice reform, we commissioned a nationwide poll, conducted by the Barna Group. Here’s what we learned. 

What American Christians think about justice reform

The study revealed some hopeful trends. For example, practicing Christians are significantly more likely than other Americans to agree strongly that restoration should be the goal of the justice system. 

Similarly, because of their beliefs about the inherent dignity of each person, practicing Christians (especially evangelicals) strongly agree that prison conditions should be safe and humane and that caring for prisoners is important. The belief in second chances also ranked high among evangelicals. 

Not all the findings were worth celebrating, though. For instance, only one in five Christians said their church was involved in raising awareness about criminal justice. In fact, criminal justice was ranked as the social issue of least importance to respondents’ churches among several options. 

Also worrisome is Christians’ perception of the crime rate. Sixty-nine percent of practicing Christians and 81% of evangelicals think the incarceration rate in America is rising. But the crime rate has in fact been decreasing steadily since 1960. Meanwhile, the country’s incarceration rate skyrocketed, until a modest decline began a decade ago, thanks to criminal justice reform efforts. Researchers believe that no more than 25% of the decline in crime can be attributed to incarceration. Thus, we have not only misunderstood the problem at hand, but overly relied on incarceration as the solution, despite its devastating consequences on families and communities. To appropriately approach criminal justice issues, Christians must first have an accurate grasp of the situation—and what God’s Word says about it. 

The call to justice reform

What Christians think on any issue should be shaped first and foremost by the Bible. 

Moore, in his address to the pastors and church leaders at the Justice Declaration Symposium, said, “When we are shaped and formed by the kingdom of God, that means that we're going to have a different vision—a different view of what matters. And a different vision and a different view of who matters.”

To appropriately approach criminal justice issues, Christians must first have an accurate grasp of the situation—and what God’s Word says about it.

That “who” includes all those affected by crime and incarceration, from the victim to the community to the incarcerated. In Matthew 25, Jesus specifically calls out prisoners as people who count among “the least of these.” Even with knowledge of this calling, the Church doesn’t always know the answers to every difficult situation, but explained Moore, that’s OK. He added, “What we do know, though, is that we have an accountability before God. Do we act in those capacities in a Christ-like way, or in a non-Christ-like way? Do we try to ignore our responsibilities, or do we seek to act justly?”

Ultimately, whether we get involved with justice reform is shaped by our view of personhood. To this end, Moore reminded the audience that “our incarcerated brothers and sisters are joint-heirs with Christ."

Practical tools to help you get involved

At Prison Fellowship, we are working to equip Christians with the tools and information they need to get involved in justice reform. Here are some ways you and your church can take action:

  • Get free copies of our free Outrageous Justice® small group curriculum: The criminal justice system is complex. It can be hard to know where to begin with justice reform. That’s why we created Outrageous Justice, a small group study designed to help awaken Christians to the need for justice reform and put tools in their hands for getting started.
  • Sign the Justice Declaration: Signed by more than 10,000 Christians and prominent faith leaders, the Justice Declaration is a statement proclaiming the unique responsibility and capacity of the Church to address crime and incarceration. We at Prison Fellowship encourage all followers of Christ to add their names.
  • Host a Second Chance Sunday: Your church can celebrate Second Chance® Month by hosting a Second Chance® Sunday, with pastors or others sharing a message about justice and redemption and offering prayer for those impacted by crime and incarceration. 

You can access all these resources and more for free here. We hope these tools help you and your church respond to God’s call to seek justice.

By / Feb 6

How can the church minister to those in prison? Steven Harris moderates a panel discussion on the church and criminal justice reform with Heather Rice-Minus, Julie Warren, and Thabiti Anyabwile at Evangelicals for Life 2019.

By / Feb 5

In the final days of the 115th Congress, a significant and bipartisan federal criminal justice reform bill was signed into law at the White House. The First Step Act, which sought both prison and sentencing reforms, enjoyed overwhelming votes in the Senate and House this past December. Yet the bill’s journey to passage was as unlikely as the coalition of conservatives and liberals who supported it.

Heather Rice-Minus of Prison Fellowship was one of the dedicated advocates whose work ensured that this bill became a law. Heather worked at the center of many of the instrumental negotiations on Capitol Hill and in the White House. Heather joined Steven and Jeff at the Leland House to recount the story of what Van Jones called “a Christmas miracle” for criminal justice reform.

Guest Biography

Heather Rice-Minus serves as vice president of government affairs at Prison Fellowship, the nation's largest Christian nonprofit serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families. She is a powerful, knowledgeable voice articulating the case for restorative criminal justice solutions. She is also the co-author of Outrageous Justice, a Bible study curriculum and book. A native of Virginia, Rice-Minus resides in Washington, D.C., with her husband and daughter.

Resources from the Conversation

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By / Dec 28

"My house is too quiet," Beth Strong says. "I struggle to make ends meet. Every weekend, I travel several hours each way to see my husband during visitation hours. My adult children and grandchildren are celebrating birthdays and other milestones while he is behind bars."  

Beth's life was turned upside down when her husband was incarcerated for a first-time, non-violent offense and she was ushered into the bleak world of incarceration that affects millions of Americans.   But now a beacon of hope is breaking through the darkness. Recently, President Donald Trump signed the FIRST STEP Act into law.  

'Reform is overdue'

In the United States, more than 40,000 federal prisoners are released each year. Nearly half of those released will be rearrested within the next three years. This revolving door is devastating—to families, to communities, and to our nation.  

"The current rules and treatment of prisoners in the federal justice system are an affront to the dignity of men and women made in the image of God," writes Heather Rice-Minus, vice president of government affairs at Prison Fellowship. "Reform is overdue."  

The FIRST STEP Act is the first significant criminal justice reform bill in a generation. It will reduce recidivism by targeting prisoners' criminogenic risk factors through programming based on individualized risk assessments. Instead of doubling down on the failed policies of the past, it will give people tools and incentives to lead productive lives.  

The FIRST STEP Act

Prison Fellowship was established on the belief that all people have God-given worth and dignity. Prison Fellowship's vision is to see all those affected by crime reconciled to God, their families, and their communities.  

For more than 40 years, Prison Fellowship has learned what works—and what doesn't—to transform lives and reduce crime. The FIRST STEP Act is a smart approach to address recidivism, our national addiction crisis, and sentencing reform. It will increase federal prisoners' access to improved substance-abuse addiction programs, as well as life-skills and vocational training, which will then fuel local economies.  

The sentencing changes in the bill are modest but important. When people receive sentences that don't fit their crime, America loses. Disproportional sentences are an affront to human dignity and erode our faith in "equal justice under the law."  

"Respecting the dignity of men and women made in the image of God means holding people accountable with sentences that are proportional to their crimes," says Rice-Minus. "Men and women should not be languishing in prison years longer than necessary."  

The impact of faith-based programming

One critical provision of the FIRST STEP Act is improved access for faith-based and nonprofit organizations to provide desperately needed programming in federal prisons.  

Prison Fellowship has seen how faith-based programming has served the incarcerated in ways the government cannot. But until now, federal prisons unnecessarily limited the ability of nonprofit organizations and volunteers to mentor prisoners and provide programming.  

The FIRST STEP Act will enable entities like Prison Fellowship to serve men and women in the Bureau of Prisons with programs proven to educate, transform lives, and reduce recidivism.  

Our next steps

The FIRST STEP Act is just that—a first step toward a more just correctional system. This work is not finished. The scriptural mandate to remember those in prison (Hebrews 13:3) is ongoing. Current problems with the federal system range from overcrowded prisons to a lack of rehabilitative programming and support for returning neighbors.  

"These problems are not new," says Rice-Minus. "What's new is the unprecedented willpower exhibited by so many members of both parties in Congress in response to a diverse coalition of faith-based organizations, law enforcement, conservative groups, and progressives."  

An overwhelming bipartisan vote on the FIRST STEP Act has paved the way for future values-based reforms. It will bring substantive change to people now incarcerated in federal prison and those sentenced for years to come.  

The incarceration of Beth's husband has catapulted her into the role of advocate. She is one of over 150 Justice Ambassadors volunteering with Prison Fellowship. "For the people sitting in cells today and the families like mine waiting for their return, the FIRST STEP Act is our Christmas miracle," she shares.  

Our national leaders are finally ready to learn from the past and choose a more restorative path forward. With the support of many grassroots advocates and likeminded organizations and policymakers, Prison Fellowship will continue to advocate for restorative changes at the state and federal levels in 2019.  

This article originally appeared on Prison Fellowship’s site.  

By / Oct 11

Matt, Steven, and Travis catch up on latest federal policy developments including a legislative solution for Dreamers, Criminal Justice Reform, and two big wins for religious freedom at HHS and DOJ.

Dreamers/DACA

Criminal Justice Reform

Religious freedom wins at the agencies

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