If a stranger entered your church and told you they had been released from prison, how would you respond?
Many of us might respond with fear, hazily recalling characters portrayed in films or news headlines. But the truth is, people who have left prison are just people – people who have struggled, perhaps, but who are usually just desperately hoping and dreaming for a better life.
Each year, 12,000 people leave prison with a strong and active faith. Often, faith has been a saving grace throughout their sentence, providing a source of hope and meaning, supported by guidance from Prison Chaplaincy.
Sadly, 80% of these individuals do not go on to join new faith communities upon release, primarily due to fear of rejection or negative experiences. Inclusion within supportive churches is shown to help reduce reoffending but, for people like Andrew, missing out on such connections can leave them alone, vulnerable and lost.
Andrew had a difficult start in life. Growing up in an abusive home, he spent his nights on the streets, avoiding the violence back home. On his estate, trouble with the police was worn like a badge of honour, so he became steadily more involved in crime – anything to fit in and find distraction. He ended up in prison, and recalls an overwhelming sense of darkness, a certainty that “if Hell was real, I was definitely going to go (there).”
He began attending chapel and remembers a “penny-drop moment”, a realisation that God was real. “I was just filled with the Holy Spirit. I felt this rush of power from the bottom of my feet to the top of my head. I was in God’s presence and it just transformed me.”
He continued to grow in his faith and looked forward to a new life beyond the prison gates. The first Sunday after release, he entered the first church he found, expecting to be welcomed, as they were connected through shared faith. Sadly, this didn’t happen… “It was a disaster. I went in there, and it was as if they thought I was going to rob the offering! I was so uncomfortable; I never went back there. After that, there was nothing. I started drinking again, and in the end, I went back to my old life.”
He felt the only friends he had left were the people he used to commit crimes with. He found himself right back in the darkest of places, immersed in violence, afraid for his life, and on the verge of breakdown.
At this time, he stumbled across a leaflet for a local Alpha course. He tentatively enquired and was overcome by the welcome he received. “I went, and it was just amazing. In that church they were grateful for every person; in fact, having a colourful past was an asset. They loved me for it!”
With the support of his church, he left his old habits behind. There were ups and downs along the way, but Andrew remembers the grace he was shown, and the way his community continued to show up to guide him and to walk alongside him in faith.
20 years on, he is still actively involved within his church. “I really am a different person. I’m married, I have a job, four kids, and a normal life. I am saved! I gave my life to Jesus, and now I’m just always busy serving people and loving people.”
I asked him what his life would have been like without that connection, and he said, without a doubt, that he wouldn’t be alive today without his church.
Right now, 9,000 people are missing out on those life-changing connections each year. At the same time, countless churches are missing out on the God-given gifts of those individuals, who could uniquely enrich the congregations if given a chance.
The Welcome Directory works to make that possible. We maintain a directory of faith communities who are ready to welcome people leaving prison. Our resource is used by prison leavers, prison chaplains, and probation teams, to forge positive connections beyond the gates. We have 197 registered communities in England and Wales so far… Could your church be the next?
We invite you to consider:
· Is your church willing to welcome people like Andrew, the same way you’d welcome anyone else who walked through your door?
· Would you like to join our free online course, to learn more and see if you feel called to explore this further?
If so, please check out our website at www.welcomedirectory.org.uk, or contact us today at firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by: Serena Bailey