From a numbers perspective, for every American church, there are about two people returning home from incarceration annually. Yet, just 1 in 5 churches (22%) that average 250 or more attendees have formal ministries for people leaving correctional facilities according to a LifeWay Research survey of 1,000 evangelical and mainline pastors conducted earlier this year.

Many pastors just aren’t aware of how dramatically incarceration affects their congregation, says Dominique Gilliard, a pastor at Convergence Covenant Church in Oakland, California.

“Churches have created a cone of silence around this issue. It becomes so stigmatized. I can’t tell you all the times I go and preach or teach at a church and the pastor is completely unaware that people are dealing with this,” said Gilliard, who is writing a book about restorative justice. “People are lined up after service to come to talk to me because this is the first time that they heard their church talk about this.”

Once church leadership and attendees decide they do want to address the issue, they should start by educating themselves.

“I always tell people that they have to examine their internal biases because we all have them,” said Miea Walker, the Second Chance Alliance outreach coordinator for the North Carolina Justice Center. “It starts with understanding the landscape of mass incarceration. Often times people will want to just come in and help, Oh those poor souls, they need us. We really miss the big picture. We are not reading and learning how we got here.”

(CT told Walker’s story in its September cover story.)

Gilliard and Walker join Morgan and Katelyn to discuss the nitty gritty of supporting families of those incarcerated, why the church must work with criminal justice reform beyond prisons, and why not all Christians’ work on this issue will or should look the same.

Additional Reading

Adding Criminal Justice Reform to Prison Ministry

Christian Community Development Association White Paper Mass Incarceration 2015