In the past year I've learned some things while shepherding a parishioner through the arduous experiences of returning after 25 years in prison. I've seen firsthand the urgency of all of us doing better to make justice possible rather than recidivism inevitable.
The "get tougher on crime" mindset has given us more laws that are impossible to effectively enforce, as police and parole officers can testify. The bureaucratic maze that clutters the path of re-entry, with catch-22 dilemmas, came home to me in this experience.
It happened early one morning when the two of us waited with a dozen other men at the entrance to the Chicago Police headquarters. A CPD officer opened the door to announce that no one could get inside for the required address registration without a verifiable address. One man spoke up to say that since his release from prison he was homeless. "That's your problem," the officer said and was ready to close the door when I took on the role of an on-the-spot advocate for one honestly trying to do what the law required.
When the officer saw my skin color and the clergy collar I wore, he did a double-take, dissembled briefly, and told the man to get himself to a Chicago shelter somewhere and come back with an address. I asked which shelter and how he could go and return that day, via public transportation, with no cash. My questions went unanswered as we went inside to register, both of us white, male, presentably dressed, etc. That moment provided a glimpse of the tipping point between making it and not making it when returning from prison — in this case, registering as required by law or not registering, with return to jail as the consequence.
I saw other tipping points when accompanying our parishioner to acquire a state ID, qualify for food stamps, secure a landlord's permission to live at an address and deal with an erroneous claim that he has violated his parole.
Repeatedly, I found myself wishing that legislators and administrators would, for at least one day, accompany men and women returning from prison and learn how fraught the system is as a set-up for failure — and then learn how to do better.
That's not going to happen. What is happening, however, with transforming impact, goes on wherever people become a welcoming community to those coming back from life behind bars. Religious congregations are prime among them.
I've seen it happening in the unconditional welcome and myriad acts of practical support at Grace Lutheran. Our returning member, always a brother for whom we prayed throughout his years of incarceration, is truly back home. He's found himself, moved beyond bitterness, gained part-time employment, entered graduate study, and become a needed resident in the household of an older member.
He gives as well as receives. His steadiness in Sunday worship helps us see the enormous privilege of freely joining in the worship of God, of belonging, serving, and getting on with this messy, demanding, yet altogether glorious venture of living together, warts and all. The late Wil Campbell, a salty churchman, impatient with gauzy religious clichés, summed it up this way: "We're all bastards, but God loves us anyway."
However expressed, the truth is that when we're at our honest best, we're amazed by the grace of God that delivers us from our own dark, imprisoning forces and sets us free to do better by being better.
F. Dean Lueking is pastor emeritus of Grace Lutheran Church.
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