When I moved to the little, rural town of Cordell, Oklahoma, my picture was on the front page of the local newspaper. Apparently a new preacher is newsworthy. One of the first things I learned about living in a small town is that everybody knows everybody’s business. I would introduce myself, and people would say, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard about you.” As someone who generally tries to stay out of trouble, having a reputation was a bit surprising. But they only knew something positive about me – that I’m a preacher (well, I assume that’s a positive, maybe not). What if people were talking about something criminal I had done? What if (as recently happened to someone I know) my mugshot were on the front page of the paper?
Over the last two years, I have been blessed with the opportunity to lead a Bible study at our local jail every Wednesday. I meet with small groups of men in a concrete holding cell, and we talk about what they’re going through. I try to show Christ to them through the study of Scripture or by talking about their spiritual questions. I’m always amazed at the engagement and thoughtfulness of these men. I suppose they have a lot of time to think. And, after all, they are a captive audience.
How should we look at men like this? Obviously, I know they’re in jail because they’ve made mistakes. Because we’re in a small town, everyone else usually knows what they’ve done too, which leads to feelings of shame. But should we see those in jail as fundamentally different from us? Michelle Alexander, who has written extensively on the criminal justice system, points out that the average Christian has no problem describing themselves as a sinner, but is hesitant to accept the label of criminal. But if you’ve ever broken the speed limit, that criminal label technically applies. How is it that we are fine with being guilty in the eyes of God Almighty but not in the eyes of the law? Perhaps we need to look on those in jail with more humility and grace, as God looks on us sinners.
In fact, we should look even deeper. Christ tells us that when we visit prisoners with care, we are in fact doing it for him (Matt 25:39-40). We should see Christ in the criminal. It happens for me every week, as they speak of their dependence on God, their constant prayer, and their hope for what God can do in their future. I don’t go to jail to be Christ, I go to see Christ.
Many people in jail describe the experience as a wake-up call. Hitting rock bottom awakens them to their self-destructive habits and motivations. The real challenge, though, is not just to wake up to the light of God, but to “stay awake” (Matt 25:13). Here is where the small, rural church has a unique advantage. One difference between jail and prison is that time spent in jail is much shorter. So we’ll be able to see them on the other side before long. And while prisoners are typically sent across the state or country, people in the county jail are usually local. They leave jail and come right back into our community. Some of our most successful ministry has come from maintaining connections with people coming out of jail. Our church hosts AA and NA meetings almost every night of the week. We provide community service opportunities for people on probation or going through the drug court program. We can help them stay awake to God because we know them.
On one hand, we’re simply helping them meet their post-jail legal requirements (as well as getting the church grounds mowed). But on a deeper level, we’re trying to show how service is a foundational aspect of following Christ. One of our church’s greatest successes is a former addict who now serves as an essential part of our children’s ministry. She doesn’t just receive benefits from this church, she benefits us too. When people have spent their lives taking from others, giving them an opportunity to truly give back to the community and to God is powerful. Finding ways for former inmates to contribute sends the message that God hasn’t given up on them and has a purpose for their life. To me, that sounds like good news.
The biggest barrier that churches often put up for those who are trying to start over is shame and a judgmental attitude. As I mentioned earlier, everybody knows everybody’s business in a small town. How can you step inside a church when your sins are the talk of the town? We try to make our church a welcoming and accepting place. Still, the fear of being looked down on remains, whether or not it’s legitimate.
What if we saw this common knowledge of one another’s lives as an advantage? Instead of the judgmental spirit that commonly comes from knowing someone’s sin, what if churches could foster a spirit of confession? If we already know each other’s business, we should stop pretending to hide and be more honest about our sins and struggles. If everyone’s dirty laundry is already on display, we can point to it as a place where we’ve experienced the grace of Christ. Our dark pasts and forgiven sins are no longer a source of shame, they are where Christ himself is seen, whether we are the greatest or the least of these.