Reflections from the Prison Fellowship Conference 2021
Working towards "Every Life Transformed"
I recently had the privilege of attending the Prison Fellowship conference on the theme of “Every Life Transformed”. It was a moving, inspiring and thought-provoking day, and I came away reflecting on these 5 points...
“God knows every hair on our heads”:
During the conference we were reminded that God sees and knows us in our entirety; He is present with us in every moment and loves us completely. There is no disclaimer and no fine print – no matter what mistakes we make, God continues to love us and seeks to be close with us. We must strive to emulate this in our own lives, to love and seek connection with all of our fellows. This naturally includes people who leave prison; instead of shying away, we must be inspired to show up, with an even greater desire to forge connection and extend the arm of love.
“The devastation of not being wanted”.
Fran Beckett shared a reflection which I think strikes a chord with all of us, describing the deeply affecting pain of not being wanted or being dismissed as not good enough. Many people who serve time in prison have suffered this pain their whole lives... It’s no wonder that 80% of prison leavers with faith hold back from approaching new faith communities and the potential risk of rejection. If we exclude people who leave prison from our faith communities, even inadvertently, we renew that sense of pain. We have the opportunity to break the cycle, and say once and for all “you are wanted and welcome here”. This speaks to the very heart of our work at The Welcome Directory*; we exist to help faith communities proclaim that message, reaching prison leavers in their most vulnerable moments with the reassurance that they are wanted and welcome.
“God holds us fast, He doesn’t drop us when we make mistakes”.
When we speak of welcoming prison leavers, it would be easy to paint a rose-tinted picture where perfectly reformed individuals happily embark on new lives. Whilst this may sometimes be the case, the journey is not always so straightforward. I was talking with a prison leaver recently who said “When we're young in the faith we make mistakes. Like when we’ve just been born, we mess our nappies and we spit up the food, but the members of the community are like the arms and the mouths of God to help us, to feed us and guide us on the path.” As faith communities, we have the special chance to help individuals through those challenges and questions. By continuing to walk alongside them in faith, even when the journey is hard, we show that hope is not lost and that nobody is beyond redemption.
Throughout the conference, I reflected on the trauma of imprisonment, and the isolation endured during and after a sentence. Prisoners are cut off from loved ones, with restricted freedom and threats to their physical safety, having already sustained the pre-existing wounds which preceded their imprisonment... These are people with heavy burdens to bear. and they need welcome and support more than anyone. We cannot turn away from them, but must actively turn towards them, and offer the friendship and support they truly need to heal.
Hope and inspiration
The final message is that we're not alone. Over 200 people gathered to attend that conference, all of whom share a heart for this work. More than anything else I came away feeling that there is so much potential to be harnessed, feeling inspired by the incredibly positive impact we can achieve through working together.
I'd like to say thank you to everyone at Prison Fellowship for such an enlightening event, and to everyone who came together to demonstrate their passion for this work. I invite anyone who is inspired to do so to learn about The Welcome Directory (see below), and consider whether your community is ready to welcome prison leavers today.
*Serena writes on behalf of The Welcome Directory, a multi-faith organisation working to help prison leavers to identify welcoming and supportive faith communities. They maintain a directory which is used by prison chaplains, probation teams and prison leavers to forge connections and build positive futures.
If you belong to a faith community that is interested in supporting prison leavers, please contact us today. We’d love to talk to you about how we can work together to support prison leavers with faith, including offering guidance and an awareness course to help communities decide whether registration is the right choice for them.
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