Resources for Criminal Justice Ministry

Post a Comment » Written on September 11th, 2009     
Filed under: News
CHICAGO, IL (September 11, 2009) – This is the last in a five-part series on Criminal Justice and the Church. The author is Liz VerHage, an ordained Evangelical Covenant Church pastor and PhD candidate at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary. 
A member of Ravenswood Covenant church in Chicago, she serves as chair of the Christian Action Commission.

By Liz VerHage

The issues surrounding the criminal justice system can seem complex and overwhelming. Where do we begin to understand what all these numbers and facts mean? How do we understand the journey of a victim of crime? What are the struggles of someone labeled an ex-offender, or the struggles within the family of someone who is incarcerated?

The good news is that there are many resources for people who want to understand how the criminal justice system works and where God might be calling us as the church to get involved.

An easy place to start learning about this issue is the Prison Fellowship website, a ministry of Chuck Colson’s “Breakpoint Ministries.”

This website contains a wealth of information about one of the strongest Christian voices that speaks for engagement and reform of the criminal justice system. The organization’s vision is self-described as aiming for radical transformation, remaining “in it” for the long haul, and relying on partnerships with others to transform the justice system and our communities.

“Prison Fellowship . . . reaches out to prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families both as an act of service to Jesus Christ and as a contribution to restoring peace to our cities and communities endangered by crime,” the website introductory page states. “The best way to transform our communities is to transform the people within those communities.

“We believe that at its core, crime is a moral and spiritual problem,” the introduction continues. “Out of distorted character values, people make poor moral choices that cause harm and destruction. Therefore, authentic and lasting change must take place from the inside out – beginning with a reconciled relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Then, as people learn more about the truth and power of Christ, they learn to think in a new way, act in a new way, and relate to others in a new way.”

If you visit their website, you will find resources for prisoners as well as families and friends of those incarcerated, pastors, students, those in media, and advocates within the criminal justice system. New to this issue? Click on “Why PF?” on the top menu bar for an introduction to this organization, or click “Get Involved” to see a few easy options that you can explore to engage these issues (including pray, donate, volunteer, etc.).

The “Stories” link on the top menu bar leads to revealing tales of transformation from behind bars and video clips that give faces and names to the struggles that to some may seem just facts and numbers. Read about 16-year-old Danny Wickam’s multi-year conversion story, or hear how Steve Gass finally turned away from repeat offending, or meet Jill Colon and hear how she struggled on the “outside” after being released from prison.

Prison Fellowship started the well-known Angel Tree program that matches children of offenders with churches who can help provide Christmas gifts in lieu of the parent, as well as several advocacy projects. Sign up to get weekly email updates on current legislation that affects the criminal justice system, or learn what key issues are shaping our courts and sentencing issues by clicking on “Justice Fellowship” under the main menu bar with the heading, “Programs.”

One of my favorite sections is found on the Justice Fellowship page – “Restorative Justice” – and it introduces the biblical and judicial concepts of restorative justice as a way to promote healing and restoration between perpetrators and victims/communities/families. Their list of links on the page titled “Restorative Justice Orgs” is a very comprehensive and helpful one – visit those organizations’ websites to learn more about how churches and states are reforming and advocating around these issues across the country.

A few other resources:

The Sentencing Project – this website tackles the difficult issues of how race, gender, privilege, and power interact with our criminal justice system. Links along the left side of the page (Interactive Map, Race and Justice Clearinghouse, Key Publications) give some of the best information on how devastating current sentencing laws can be on certain populations. Warning: you may be amazed and moved to act after visiting this site.

The Innocence Project – a website that explores cases and causes in search of fixes for people wrongly incarcerated. This is a national litigation and public policy organization and is not a faith-based ministry – but see what you think of this group’s research that uses DNA evidence to help exonerate those wrongly imprisoned. As a place to start, check out the FAQ page, linked on the left tool bar; then click on “Know the Cases” and pick a name – you will be linked to a short summary of someone either exonerated for wrongful imprisonment or a pending case in need of advocacy.

Prison Ministry: Understanding Prison Culture Inside and Out – this book authored by Lennie Spitale (Broadman & Holman, 2002), ISBN 0805424830, explores the emotional challenges of prisoners and those who minister to them, including the environment of fear, the culture of deprivation, friendships between prisoners, guidelines and principles, do’s and don’ts, and many other relevant and essential topics for equipping any individual or church for effective prison ministry.

Editor’s note: During this year’s Annual Meeting, the Christian Action Commission presented a draft resolution on Criminal Justice that will be voted on during next year’s Annual Meeting. Local churches and individuals are encouraged to read and discuss the draft resolution and provide feedback to the commission no later than October 1. Click here to read the resolution. Feedback may be submitted by email to the commission by clicking here. For more information on the commission and its work, click here.

To read previous articles in the series, select below:

Criminal Justice Awareness Week Is Here

How Does Criminal Justice System Treat Inmates?

Prison Not ‘Off Limits’ to Power of Gospel

Helping Former Women Inmates – a ‘Kingdom Assignment’

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