(EDITOR'S NOTE: Faith Matters is a column written by the social concerns committee of the United Churches of Lycoming County. The monthly feature will include local faith-based comment on significant social issues facing us today. Letters reacting to the columns should be brief and clear and may be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed in the columns are those of the writers and the social concerns committee, not necessarily the Sun-Gazette.)
We can simply state to begin, "But for the grace of God, any of us could be here." Who are we to meet at the door? And once we meet them what are we to do with them?
The alarming rate of men and women incarcerated in our country continues to increase daily. In Pennsylvania alone, 95,000 children have at least one incarcerated parent. Even as I write this article, about 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the United States, and 90 percent of them will be released back into our communities.
For us, the community of faith, we are the ones who can make a difference, we are the ones who can step up first and "meet them at the door." This is simply not a nice suggestion, but rather our Father's heart. Even now, there may be those in your own family, church and social circles who come to mind. ... Begin right there. Are there ways to pray for them, visit with them, visit with their families and help to make a difference in their lives?
"But aren't these the same folks who 'preyed' on our communities, and now we are to pray for them?" you ask. Yes! It doesn't end there, though.
"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 invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me, and I got out and you helped me (italics mine)." Matthew 25:35-36.
"Meeting them at the door" does not mean we do not hold them accountable, but rather we love them by helping with structured guidelines. It means that we have helped listen to them and respect them as a person and we continue to reach out to them and their families (who by the way are sentenced with them).
Upon their release, we don't shun them or wish they would attend services elsewhere, but we welcome them into our congregations and help to establish healthy and safe relationships. We help to re-establish them as citizens of the community once again and network with others who may have the necessary tools to help.
Rome was not built in a day, and it takes a lot of time, patience, forgiveness and commitment; but the end result with God's help is that we have helped shape and transform lives even to generations to come.
Meeting them at the door is just not the job of the criminal justice system but the job of the community of faith - where our faith is put into action.
So, get involved, step out and help to "meet them at the door."
Whaley is the director of Yokefellow Prison Ministry, president of United Churches and member of CityChurch, Williamsport.