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On February 29, 2004, I walked into Sierra View Presbyterian Church in Fresno, Calif. This was ten days after I walked out of the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, Calif. I had never been in a Reformed/Presbyterian church before, and I didn’t know what to expect. After the service, I asked the pastor if I could call him that evening. I called him that night and the conversation went something like this:

“Pastor Peterson, my name is Mark Casson and I just got out of prison after more than fifteen years of incarceration. Is it OK if I come to your church for worship?” Pastor Peterson took a few seconds (which seemed like a few minutes to me), and his reply shocked me: “Sure; why are you asking?” I explained that perhaps people in his congregation wouldn’t want someone like me, someone who had been convicted of a violent crime, in their congregation. Again, Pastor Peterson’s reply shocked me. He said: “Keep coming back. If people in this church have a problem with it and leave, then they really don’t understand grace and it will be a better place without them.”

I continued attending Sierra View, and my wife and I became members there that fall. In 2006, I was called to serve as a ruling elder, and I served that congregation until my family moved away in 2013. That church family was exactly what I needed when I was released. They loved me and worked with me throughout my five years of high-control parole, the births of my daughters, and my calling to serve the Presbyterian Church in America’s director of prison ministry.

I was the first of many returning citizens who walked through the doors of Sierra View. From 2004 through 2013, the church had no fewer than five former prisoners welcomed into her midst. That may not seem like a lot, but for a church that had between fifty and 120 members, it was remarkable. What follows are a few of the things we learned along the way.

In Luke 10:25–37, we see that the second great commandment is to love “your neighbor as yourself” (v. 27). The lawyer in the story goes on to ask, “Who is my neighbor?” (v. 29). This is a pertinent question we must ask. What if a person comes to church who is an ex-felon? Are we required to simply love a person despite his past? What about ex-prisoners who committed an especially grievous crime such as murder or a sexual offense? Certainly, we don’t have to love those people, do we? I believe the short answer is yes.

Sinners in Our Midst

Reformed believers have long been acquainted with the TULIP acronym. The problem many of us face is that we don’t really believe the T, which stands for total depravity. If we truly believe it, then we should expect sinners to be in our midst, even felonious sinners. People are depraved, after all, and depraved people commit sins, and some of those sins are crimes. So, the first encouragement is for us to realize that we are all depraved and saved by the grace of God. Many of us forget this, and in some cases, we sound like that Pharisee who prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). Let us put away this type of thinking.

If we believe that the blood of Christ cleanses us from all unrighteousness, then this includes felonious unrighteousness.

Some who are reading this may be afraid of people who have been in prison. If we read Acts 9, we see there that fear overcome by faith. In Acts 9:10–16, we read the conversation between Ananias and Jesus. Jesus is sending Ananias to the murderer Saul, and Ananias is afraid and doesn’t want to go. He knows of Saul’s reputation and how many people Saul has hurt. However, his faith is stronger than his fear, and he ultimately obeys the Lord when He tells him to go and lay his hands on Saul (vv. 17–18). However, the story doesn’t end there. Later in that same chapter, Saul goes to Jerusalem, and in verse 26 we read: “He attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.” However, Barnabas steps in and tells them that Saul’s profession of faith is real, and then the people’s fear is overcome by faith. The lesson here is that we ought to accept a person’s conversion as real until and unless he shows us something different. If a person comes into our congregation and he came from prison, we ought not to make him “prove himself” to us. Rather, we must trust that he is converted and wants to worship in a church that teaches the truth. Of course, part of the way an ex-prisoner will show the reality of his conversion is in his willingness to be open about his sin with church leaders and to submit to any policies the church has in place related to the offender’s crime. For more on that, see below.

Along the lines of “proving themselves” is the anticipation of relapse or fall into sin. This, again, is an area where the church tends to treat felons differently. Many times, when a felon sins, it becomes public because the police or other authorities are involved. This isn’t typically true for the average person in the pew. Sure, we all sin, but we don’t all face the same consequences. Nor do we all know how to deal with every sin. We need to ensure that we have a biblical view of discipline and shepherding in order to rightly serve the returning citizen as well as the other folks in the pew.

One question I get from pastors is: “Mark, we are excited to have this former prisoner in our midst. Should we tell the congregation about his background?” My counsel is almost always the same: “Do you normally tell the congregation about the worst sins your new members or visitors have committed? Do you normally ask new members to talk about their sins?” You see, ex-prisoners’ lives have been on display in court documents, online, in newspapers, and on TV. This isn’t true for the average sinner in the pew. We aren’t usually in the habit of looking at each person around us and wondering about what particular sins they struggle with. Talk with the former prisoner. If he feels comfortable talking about his background and salvation story, then by all means let him glorify God with a testimony. If he doesn’t feel comfortable, it is best not to push him into it.

Perhaps the most important thing church members can do is “normalize” the experience for a former felon. For the layperson, this means inviting him to your home or out for coffee. Exchange phone numbers with him. Befriend him. For the officers of the church, it means getting to know the person. If he is on some sort of supervision such as parole or probation, talk to the person and get his OK to reach out to the parole/probation officer. This is an area where church leaders can be advocates for people in a criminal justice system that is severely broken.

Special Cases

Another question I often am asked deals with how we should treat those who have committed sex offenses (registered sex offenders). Given the high recidivism rates of these offenders, extra wisdom is needed to care for both these individuals and the congregation.

My advice to churches regarding registered sex offenders is manifold. First, I ask if the church has any child protection policies already in place. If not, I tell them that they need to develop some.

Next, I tell them to get to know the person. Ask questions that will help your church minister to the offender and to the congregation. What was the nature of his crime, and when did it happen? Did it involve forcible action against another person, or was it something like drunken streaking? After the leadership of the church talks with the person and finds out the circumstances of the crime, they should develop a plan that works with the person so that he can enjoy worship and fellowship but that also protects the congregation if necessary. This will include talking to other churches that have offenders in their midst and working with the person’s parole officer. Invite the officer to the church and allow him to see the layout. Ask if any areas are automatically off limits. Find out what is allowable and what is not.

Leaving Prison and Joining the Church

What is it like to walk out of prison after ten, fifteen, or twenty-five years as a Christian? It is both joyous and fearful. Think for a moment about the things that have changed in the past ten or fifteen years. How would you feel if you had to step into the world without seeing the change from phones mounted on the wall to flip phones to smartphones? There are thousands of things such as these that change over time, both monumental and trivial, and many prisoners miss those changes and are forced to catch up with the outside world the minute they step out. You can love your neighbor by helping them. Ex-prisoners feel the joy of being free from the prison environment, but they fear not being accepted in society and the church.

Finally, in loving the returning citizen, I would encourage you to treat him differently than the world treats them. The world says: “You can’t live here. You can’t work here. You are not welcome here. You cannot vote here.” If we are honest, discrimination against felons is acceptable in the world. Brothers and sisters, it cannot be acceptable in the church. If we believe that the blood of Christ cleanses us from all unrighteousness, then this includes felonious unrighteousness. Jesus calls us to “love your neighbor as yourself,” even if that neighbor happens to have been incarcerated, as I was.

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