Prisoners, Families and Houses of Worship


A divinity student stopped me in the hallway at Howard University and asked me about the faith communities’ responsibility to the families of the incarcerated. Specifically, he wanted to know “How do you preach a sermon to the families of inmates?”

He was totally unprepared for my response.

“You already do,” I replied, “You just don’t know it. If close to two million people are currently in state or federal prison, and another seven million spend some time in county jail in a typical year, it is virtually mathematically impossible for you not to address a family member of an inmate every time you preach!”

I added that in the African American community, the math becomes even more clear.

When I go to houses of worship to discuss prisoner re-entry, I try to do two things. First, I demonstrate that it is a current issue within that congregation. On many occasions that has meant giving an “altar call” to families of the incarcerated: inviting those with loved ones in jail or prison to come forward for prayer.

Many are shocked to see their friends and neighbors streaming toward the front of the congregation. Others blow sighs of relief as they make their way forward to seize the opportunity to process their burden through the religious ritual of corporate prayer.

In the years I have done this, I have never seen less than 12 people come forward, and I have seen as many as 100.

These family members come to worship regularly and, often, endure the shared shame, silenced by stigma in church, synagogue, masjid or temple. The message is that re-entry is “our” issue, because it is the sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, grandchildren and siblings of those we see each week who constitute a good number of the 95 percent of inmates who one day rejoin society.

Second, I want congregations to know that they already contain valuable resources and assets which individuals need in their return to the community.

In her presentation “Learning From People Who Succeed Upon Release: Strategies, Approaches and Tools That Can Make A Difference” sponsored by the National Reentry Resource Center and the Bureau of Justice Assistance on August 14, 2012, Nancy Gnall pointed to the “key criminogenic needs to be targeted” in ex-offenders in reentry.

They were: (1) Attitudes, Beliefs, Values; (2) Associates (friends and family); (3) Impulsivity (restlessness, aggression, hostility- especially toward authority).

Religion involves all three by offering religious values, the fellowship of a congregation—and discipline in living that, properly nurtured, will be an important part of the reentry process.

The worship experience brings these together for both the person returning from incarceration, and the families that have been left behind. Most congregations have times of intercessory prayer- prayers offered for what the Episcopal Church used to call “all sorts and conditions of [people].”

Congregations offer prayers for the sick, those in bereavement, military personnel. Adding prisoners and their families to the list of those remembered during public intercession can help create a supportive climate for those returning and their families. Using musical selections that offer a religious response to the burden of separation from loved ones during incarceration enables congregations to reflect a caring attitude toward the families of prisoners.

Sermons, homilies and lessons on incarcerated persons in holy texts such as Joseph, Jeremiah and Daniel in the Hebrew Scriptures, and Sts. Peter, Paul and John in the Christian Bible should not just be spiritualized to represent emotional and mental bondage, but reflect the reality of incarceration itself, and the toll it takes on all concerned.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, wept at the execution of her son; Paul showed compassion to a correctional officer; Ebed-Melech the Ethiopian showed compassion to Jeremiah when he was in solitary confinement.

These should be sacred reminders to the faith community that their histories have moved consistently through jails and prisons. And while well-meaning folks try to point out that most biblical characters were imprisoned for “righteous” deeds, the truth is that (1) they were stigmatized nonetheless in their contemporary setting and (2) characters like David (conspiracy to commit murder), Moses (manslaughter), and St. Peter (assault on a law enforcement officer) would have faced charges in our society.

By developing worship experiences that incorporate prayers for the incarcerated and their families, music that offers hope and healing, and messages which reaffirm the historic connection between incarceration and religion, congregations can create a climate that is conducive to support of inmates, those returning from incarceration, and especially families left behind.

Such worship helps to move engagement of the criminal justice system from the province of a few volunteers to the real business of the entire congregation. And if we are going to mobilize the community to be a critical part of alternative sentencing and reentry, we need its religious institutions to provide leadership in creating a culture that points to rehabilitation, reintegration and reconciliation.

There is actually a religious word for that: it is called “redemption.”

Harold Dean Trulear is director of Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Reentry Initiative, and Associate Professor of Applied Theology at Howard University. He welcomes comments from readers.

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