Where's the church?


WITH 9,000 to 10,000 people being released from prison yearly in Baltimore, there are an estimated 50,000 ex-offenders in the city at any one time.

Eighty to 90 percent of them need mental health and substance abuse treatment.

All of them need jobs providing a living wage, appropriate housing and advocacy. Some of the most essential things for survival are the most simple: identification and tokens.

More than 400 people attended a recent conference titled, "Urgent Needs of Newly Released Prisoners & Inmates," sponsored by the Baltimore City Health Department. The panel of ex-offenders told the audience: "If it wasn't for you doing what you do, I wouldn't be standing here today."

It was an affirmation, and with each testimony of resurrection there was a burst of applause. Many shouted amen and others wept openly. What began as a secular assembly of governmental groups and agencies that are struggling to meet increasing needs with dwindling resources, became a revival.

Almost to a person, those who deal with the newly released prison inmate told of dreams of a time when agencies would "recruit" those about to be released into a program appropriate to their needs. The client would be met at the prison gate and their progress monitored until they are able to cope with the pleasures and responsibilities of freedom. The aim is not to restore the former prisoner to what they were but to bring them to the place where they should be.

This dream is a reality in some scattered areas and agencies like Baltimore's Prisoners Aid Association and the Enterprise Foundation but is far from universal and uniform.

The featured speaker, Dr. Na'im Akbar, psychologist and author, summed up the concerns of many when he noted that the "prison-industrial complex" almost ensures that one will return.

The almost universal failure of the system doesn't appear to change our policies but rather inspire more spending to keep it going. In no other area, public or private, is this allowed to continue. People demand a better return on their investment.

Dr. Akbar summed up his observations by stating that the system is not intended to change. Moreover, the prison has become the "new plantation" and our politicians are inspiring an environment of fear, thereby setting themselves in the role of savior. "Until everyone of those incarcerated belong to each one of us, nothing will change," he said.

It was the call to personal involvement that kept the revival atmosphere alive.

The Rev. Bill McGill of Fort Wayne, Ind., is executive director of One Church-One Offender, a successful example of partnering human service agencies with the faith community. He urged all churches to fulfill their responsibility as a redemptive society.

His statement, "You can find some ugly religion in beautiful churches," stunned many like myself who are clergy.

Dr. McGill went on to describe the "ugly" church as one that sees suffering and does nothing about it. By contrast, the "beautiful" church is where one finds an authentic religion in attitude and action.

"The whole tradition of biblical theology is wrapped up in the principle of compassion for individuals who are suffering," he said. "Like the lepers of old, those suffering from various social and economic ills have been relegated to the very fringes of modern society, and God holds the church responsible for lifting their spirits."

Although I came away thoroughly convinced of the rightness of church involvement, there is the nagging question of funding.

Are we to make bricks without straw? Is this to be another call to being one of the "thousand points of light," where one is left with all the work and the electric bill as well?

The partnering of our churches and people of faith with human service agencies for the "least of His" will not be painless. It will be costly.

But beautiful things have their price, especially churches.

M. Joanna White, a priest and an associate rector of St. Paul's, Prince Frederick, and an Annapolis resident, is a former prison, hospital and hospice chaplain. She is a member of the Prison Ministry Task Force, Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

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