I traveled to a Tennessee prison last weekend to visit a cousin. My sister engineered our trip, and we picked up our cousin's brother en route and had a nice day, despite the major purpose of our excursion. I learned that other family members had been reluctant to go through the process of approval and to visit.
I remembered once hearing a radio host fielding a call from a lady who'd distanced herself from relatives who had a family member in jail.
"I don't want to be around them and I don't want my children around them," she said.
Surprisingly the host agreed.
"This inmate made a bad choice and you have to shield yourself from the family," she said. "I agree with you."
I was flabbergasted at this exchange, and honestly felt the host was out-of-line.
I was a regular Bible teacher at Bibb County Correctional Facility in Brent for a number of years when a long-time friend was named chaplain. I met Bob Hall in Brent; he was director of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary's Birmingham extension. Bob recommended me to the North Georgia extension that sponsors a program in the Phillips Prison in Buford, Ga., and I've taught two classes there in recent years.
All of that to say that most of the men I meet in prison are remorseful. They've missed so much in life that can never be replaced. One inmate told me he was incarcerated when his son was 10, and his son had recently come to visit him on the boy's 18th birthday. Stanley was in tears when he said his foolishness made his son grow up without a father.
We mustn't forget that Jesus said, "I was in prison and you came to visit me" (Matthew 25:36). It's striking that for believers, serving those in prison is serving Christ.
My cousin is hopeful his release date will be in December. He's also anxious about what he'll do, where he'll live and how others will relate to him.
One mark of Christian grace is not only showing kindness to people in prison, but also showing kindness to former inmates. Jesus taught us to welcome those who messed up. In the story of the Prodigal Son the father received the disobedient son with joy, while the elder brother received him with disdain. I think we'd want to be more like the Father than the brother.
Some inmates will live with state-imposed restrictions the rest of their lives. Churches must respect these restrictions and sometimes put safeguards in place depending on the offense, but other than this, every church ought to be a place where prodigals can come and worship and feel safe.