At the very center of the Christian worldview is the idea that every person is made in the “image of God” and has inherent dignity and potential. Yes, we live in a broken world, broken by our own sin and rebellion. That means the image of God imprinted on each of us is therefore marred, sometimes grotesquely so.
But what God made is so good that even our efforts to ruin it do not erase completely that goodness. Our work in the world as Christians is to join in God’s plan to “restore all things” to Himself.
This deeply biblical idea is a driving force behind Prison Fellowship’s Second Chance Month.
“Every person has dignity and potential,” says the Second Chance website. “But approximately 1 in 3 American adults has a criminal record, which limits their access to education, jobs, housing, and other things they need to reach that potential.”
The purpose of Second Chance Month – this month, April – is to “raise awareness about these barriers and unlock brighter futures for people with a criminal record” who have paid their debt to society.
If you are a regular reader of this column, you know that prison reform, and the restoration of those with a criminal record to a place of dignity and productivity in our society has been an ongoing preoccupation. Last year, we told the story of Shon Hopwood. After a life of crime as a young man, he was sent to prison. An encounter with Christ was instrumental in turning his life around. Today, he teaches at Georgetown Law School.
Hopwood eventually took on the case of Matthew Charles, a man who as a youth was “reckless and violent and wild.” By his early twenties, he had been convicted of several violent crimes. But in prison, Christ turned his life around, and Charles was the first person released from prison as a result of the recently passed First Step Act, a law championed by Prison Fellowship designed to give prisoners who have been rehabilitated new opportunities to become contributing members of society.
These stories are just two of hundreds I have heard about since we first published them.
Consider, for example, the D.C. Central Kitchen (DCCK).
DCCK is a nonprofit community kitchen and training program in the nation’s capital. Today, Jessica Towers has a management role in the organization, but it wasn’t that long ago – 2012, in fact – that Jessica was coming to the end of a more than 10-year downward spiral that included drugs, jails, and mental health hospitals. During one of her jail sentences, she completed her GED and a long-term drug treatment program. For her community service hours, she worked at DCCK. She discovered many people there in her situation, a situation in which literally thousands of state, federal, and local laws make it hard for ex-prisoners to get jobs.
But DCCK specializes in hiring ex-offenders, and providing training and a job history. Jessica enrolled in the culinary training program and found her niche in the food industry. After working several jobs, she eventually came back to DCCK, seven years ago. Several promotions later, she is now the volunteer engagement specialist, helping manage DCCK’s 16,000 annual volunteers. She is salaried, has full medical and dental coverage, saves for retirement, and enjoys paid vacation and sick time allowances.
“I didn’t have many goals growing up,” Jessica said. “Having a normal life—a decent job, a car, a place of my own—was something I always wanted. But because of the mistakes I made, I never thought that was going to happen for me.”
Second Chance Month is an opportunity to encourage people like Shon Hopwood, Matthew Charles, and Jessica Towers, but also to help the rest of us see that rehabilitation is not only possible, but, for many, a reality. Indeed, for more stories like the ones I’ve told here, go to the Second Chance Month web-site, and bring your tissue, as many of the stories there will likely move you to tears.
When Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke, he was answering a vital question: “Who is my neighbor?” Today, the answer to the answer to that question is: “He (or she) has a good chance of being a former prisoner.” And the question Second Chance Month helps us answer is this: “How do we learn to love these neighbors as ourselves?”
Warren Cole Smith is the Vice-President of Mission Advancement for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.