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Two Student’s Perspective on Returning Citizens, Restorative Justice, and the Reformed Church

Don’t miss part one where Prof. Kevin den Dulk explains the origins of the returning citizens project.  

As student researchers, we have spent long hours compiling organizations to be transferred onto the Returning Citizen project map. We have connected with organizations across Michigan and presented our map to get organizations involved. Beyond just finding organizations, we have spent time diving into literature about mass incarceration, reentry, and the prison population to better understand the needs of the returning citizens. Working on this project has given us new perspectives on restorative justice.  

The philosophy of restorative justice has incredible implications and convictions for the reformed community. It outlines a more comprehensive and inclusive view of justice, complementing the reformed mission to bring restoration to all aspects of creation. It focuses not on paying debts to the state, but on bringing healing to human relationships, complementing the reformed cries for redemption and renewal. If we are called by God to make all aspects of Creation new again, then restorative justice is not an option but a necessity. To remember those in prison (Matthew 25:34-40) is to continue to remember them when they return. 

Randall:  Before this project, I had a limited grasp on the complexities of the criminal justice system. My first real introduction to the criminal justice system was through the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.While reading the book, I began to understand the interconnectedness of crime, race, socioeconomic status, and discrimination within the system. Not only do these things affect prisoners while they are in prison, but they continue outside of prison as returning citizens are stigmatized for their criminal history. 

What I have learned from working on this project is that being an agent of renewal can take many forms. Sometimes it is in the quietness of learning, when you decide to open up a book or read an article about an injustice that ignites a spark of change within you. Sometimes it’s through spending hours looking online for resources that force you to step outside of yourself in order to think of the needs of others rather than yourself. And sometimes it is through the tangible interactions with those you are serving. An agent of renewal isn’t confined to simply actions that you do, it is also through the posture and openness of your heart to care for and empower others. 

Anyone can be an agent of renewal or justice seeker. I am a college student from Grand Rapids who is just beginning to scratch the surface of injustice within the criminal justice system. I started with educating myself about what’s going on around me through reading books, articles, or the news. Learning about what’s going on around you is a vital step to breaking ignorance and awakening a sense of wonder about how things could be better and what role you can play in the redemptive process. Don’t be afraid of the unknown. Being a justice seeker involves learning, asking tough questions, and not knowing every answer to every problem. It’s about wrestling with issues and reaching out to others for different perspectives and support. All you need is a curious spirit, an open heart, and a desire for shalom in the world. 

Entingh:  In 2016, over 600,000 prisoners were released in the United States, a population equal to that of the city of Baltimore. In the same year in Michigan, just over 14,000 prisoners were released, a population comparable to that of Traverse City, and twice that of my hometown of Hudsonville.

I joined the work of the Returning Citizen project this past June, after finishing my junior year at Calvin University. Up until that point, I had been completely oblivious to these numbers. The criminal justice system had not been a part of my life experience; I don’t recall ever meeting someone who had been incarcerated, much less setting foot inside of a prison. I’d never given much thought to prisoner reentry, mass incarceration, or restorative justice. Admittedly, I consider all this to be a sign of my privilege – privilege that had allowed me, like many Americans, to turn a blind eye to one of the most pressing social justice issues in the United States. 

I’ve been blessed by the opportunity to work on this project; I’ve learned the value of asking questions, and lots of them. I’ve learned that working in the realm of social justice requires humility and the ability to understand the perspectives of others. Most importantly, I’ve learned that justice cannot be reserved for universities and non-profits; it requires whole communities to come together in a spirit of love to stand with those who suffer. As I enter my final year at Calvin, I’m entering with a new set of convictions and perspectives on what it means to seek restoration in all things. I’m excited for where this project will go, and how it has already challenged me to realize the tension implicit in the broad and inspiring yet complex and difficult nature of seeking social justice. My hope is to live into that tension in the years to come.

(P.S.) If you’re interested in learning more about restorative justice and prisoner reentry, we highly recommend reading When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Reentry by Joan Petersilia, But They All Come Back: Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry by Jeremy Travis.  


Photo by Praveesh Palakeel on Unsplash

The Reformed family is a diverse family with a diverse range of opinions. Not all perspectives expressed on the blog represent the official positions of the Christian Reformed Church. Learn more about this blog, Reformed doctrines, and our diversity policy on our About page.

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