Thank You Day 2021:
The Power of Faith Communities
Thank you day: Celebrating welcoming faith communities
Today, countless voices across the country are coming together in celebration to say “Thank You" to faith groups for the amazing work they have done to support their communities throughout the pandemic and long before.
It's a chance to recognize all that they do and celebrate the unique impact that faith communities can have for the most vulnerable people in our society. As Julie Siddiqi (Founder of Together We Thrive) said: "Faith communities do so much all year round and through the past year we have really seen how important that work is.”
Here at The Welcome Directory, our work to help prison leavers with faith to build positive connections beyond the gates wouldn’t be possible without our 180 registered faith communities. On Thank You Day, we've invited some of our friends, trustees and patrons to offer their insights, forming a rich chorus that celebrates the power of faith communities, and the transformative difference they make for prison leavers with faith.
Beginning with the prison chaplains’ perspective, we asked; why do you think we should celebrate faith communities that welcome and support prison leavers?
Methodist Chaplain Jack Key shared his thoughts, saying: “When a prison leaver can engage with a faith community on the outside, they gain access to invaluable support which can decrease their chances of reoffending. They gain a positive community, which is so important.. I often reflect on the parable of the seeds; if we joyfully welcome and receive people who leave prison into our communities, we can support them, love them and nurture them to grow. Otherwise we leave them to fall on rocky ground, unable to grow the roots they need to thrive.”
Shafffiq Din, a Muslim Chaplain and trustee of The Welcome Directory offered a similar perspective, saying “The sad fact is that in the face of consistent rejection, people are left without a sense of hope, and the only remaining source of friendship comes from negative influences from their criminal past. If we want people to positively reform their lives, we have to offer them a space to do so, and faith communities offer a unique source of practical and spiritual support to unlock that space.”
These reflections echo the message shared by The Venerable James Ridge in his foreword to our 2021 Physical Directory. He explained that:
“One of the joys of Prison Chaplaincy is seeing the way that Faith can change lives. People’s very outlook, character and behaviour can be transformed following an encounter with, and choice to follow a newfound Faith. Within the prison there are Chaplains to support that journey, but when they leave prison things start to get difficult. Finding a supportive Faith Community is a real lottery, but if successful it can make a real difference to their chances of re-offending and settling successfully into the community.”
Digging deeper, we turned to the experts and asked “what’s unique about faith communities that helps them have such a positive impact?”
Our patron Dr Ruth Armstrong has done extensive research into the impact of inclusion within faith communities for supporting desistance. Her research identifies several unique qualities about faith communities which help make them so influential for people leaving prison, including offering a sense of belonging, connection through shared beliefs, access to psychosocial support, spiritual guidance and the affirmation of a positive social identity through opportunities to help others.
These findings were echoed in the scoping research underpinning The Welcome Directory’s model. After consulting with prisoners, prison chaplains, faith leaders and more, we found: "One of the most important things faith communities can offer is normality and a sense of belonging; these simple things make a significant difference and help to combat isolation and loneliness too. Faith communities can also help to inject some fun and laughter into people’s lives, and offer a valuable opportunity to serve others.”
Reflecting on people's individual spiritual journeys, Bob Wilson (Free Churches Faith Advisor to HMPPS, ordained minister, prison chaplain and trustee of The Welcome Directory) added: “You can’t force people to change, but you can encourage them on the way. With support and encouragement, steadily people’s attitudes begin to change, their view of themselves changes, their ability to react positively grows. By helping someone to grow within themselves and in their faith, supportive communities help them reach the point of choosing not to commit crimes, because they don’t want to hurt people any more”.
Having heard such positive reflections, I asked our contributors if they had any anecdotes or stories about faith communities that have had a particularly special impact.
Richard spoke first, describing his first-hand experience. After multiple prison sentences and years without hope, he was able to turn his life around, with the help and support of a faith community. He described the unconditional love and support he was shown, saying “I felt this love, this peace and this joy just washing through me. I felt like I’d been born again. The members of my church were like the arms and the mouths of God to help me, to feed me and guide me on my path. If I didn’t have the support of my faith community, I don’t think I’d be around today.”
Another prison leaver, of Muslim faith, shared similar feelings. “Without the support of my community I would have been lost. I would have been angry. I would feel like I’d been rejected, which would be devastating because my faith means a lot to me and sharing that with other people is so important”. Instead, he was able to connect with really supportive people, and live out his aspiration of doing good to help others.
Finally, Bob Wilson added the story of a man he’d known; “The journey isn’t always straight forward, and there can be ups and downs. I knew one man who went in and out of prison for years. Despite the difficulties, the church stayed supportive, they didn’t judge, they were consistently there to walk alongside him in faith. Although the path was rocky, steadily his offences became less serious, the periods of desistance grew longer, and he stopped committing violent acts. His transformation didn’t happen overnight, but his faith community played an invaluable role, consistently showing up, showing him that he wasn’t forgotten, forsaken or unworthy".
Saying Thank You
Today is all about saying ‘thank you’. We return to Julie Siddiqi of Together We Thrive, who warmly said: “I am so grateful to the places of worship and faith communities who welcome prison leavers to offer support and help and I hope to see even more of this work going forward. As faith groups we can work together so well and be there for those who need us most”
Finally, we at The Welcome Directory want to say a heartfelt thank you to the 180 registered faith communities who have declared their commitment to welcoming and supporting prison leavers with faith, and having this transformative impact. You make such a difference in countless lives, and it’s a privilege to play a role in helping you to forge those connections.
The Welcome Directory is a multi-faith organisation working to help prison leavers to identify welcoming and supportive faith communities through maintaining a directory which is used by prison chaplains, probation teams and prison leavers themselves to forge connections beyond the gates.
If you belong to a faith community are you are interested in supporting prison leavers, please contact us today. We’d love to discuss the ways you could make a difference for prison leavers with faith, and we offer a free awareness course to help you decide the best approach for you.
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