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Live Justly for Lent: Welcoming Returning Citizens

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? (Isaiah 58:6)

Why do justice during Lent? Isaiah doesn’t mince his words about the kind of fasting that makes “your voice heard on high.” Refraining from eating and drinking in a self-interested fast while you oppress your workers doesn’t please God. “Sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house” does (Isaiah 58:7).

In East Harlem, our church neighborhood, over 40% of residents live below the poverty line, unemployment is 12%, and approximately 400 parolees are released on parole each year. Coming home to the community is no cakewalk for them: over half of formerly incarcerated individuals sent home to Harlem are rearrested within 18 months of their release.

Every Thursday morning for the last five years, volunteers from neighborhood mosques and churches have offered hospitality to returning citizens. Parolees sit in the chairs down a long hallway at the Harlem Community Justice Center waiting to see their parole officers. While they wait, volunteers offer hospitality in the form of a cup of coffee and a danish. The message is simple: You are welcome home. Your community needs you.

Here are five ways you can help formerly incarcerated reenter and give back to society:

  1. Find out where the prison facilities and prisoner releases take place in your county or state. For example, here is the map for Michigan
  2. Work with the Corrections Department of your state and your congregation to find out if it is possible to meet individuals coming out of prison.
  3. Collect basic toiletries, undergarments, and if relevant, public transportation cards and map. People leave prison with very little. Consider an offering of new socks to be gathered up on the collection plate on Palm Sunday—the “original” prison ministry Sunday when Jesus encounters Rome’s “criminal justice system.”
  4. Write a letter to someone who is incarcerated.
  5. Consider hiring someone who is formerly incarcerated. Learn how here

Freedom means choices—a tough order for the men and women coming out of prison and used to having no choice about anything. Decisions about juggling work, family responsibilities, health, and community obligations are difficult for all of us. They are particularly daunting for those coming out of prison. Our Lenten fast calls us to fight for freedom and “undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free” and to assist those coming out of bondage into freedom and all the new challenges that come with it.

Editor's note: This post is part of our Live Justly for Lent series. As we follow our suffering Lord to the cross, how can His example empower us to engage with a suffering world? We hope that the ideas for practical Lenten justice activities in these posts will help us to act justly, love sacrificially, and rejoice in the triumph of God’s justice in Jesus at Easter. Instead of giving something up for Lent this year, which of these activities will you take up? To make sure that you see all these posts, subscribe to our weekly Do Justice digest.

[Image: Flickr user OuadiO]

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