When I was about 12 years old, my dad taught me how to shoot a basketball. His instructions were as follows. He told me to make sure that my feet and shoulders were square. My right hand would be placed in the middle of the ball, while my left hand was to be placed on the left side of the ball. I was to focus my aim just above the front end of the rim. I was taught to make sure the ball had plenty of arc on it once I let it go. He stressed repeatedly the importance of follow-through once the ball was released. Once the ball was released, I was to keep my hands extended toward the rim, as if holding a pose. This practice is called follow-through. He stated it does not matter how sound your stance, or how good your aim; you will never get the desired outcome if you don’t follow through.
I believe that lesson has many implications for our Church and for our ministries. Our churches have great stance, our ministries have great aim, but we struggle in the area of follow-through. Whether it is in evangelism, outreach, or community service, many missions never reach their full potential because we don’t follow through.
Our Church has many soldiers of the cross, who boldly walk into centers of incarceration to minister to men and women whose souls languish behind bars. They nobly answer the call of Jesus to take the Gospel where very few are willing to go. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, many souls receive Jesus Christ in an unconventional way. They did not walk down a church aisle with “I Surrender All” playing in the background. They met Jesus in a prison chapel or a cellblock, and all of Heaven rejoiced.
And yet, the transition back into daily life once their time has been served can be debilitating. Many are not welcomed home. As a result of repeated mistakes, some family members actually loathe their return. They have been told to go out and work hard, but the stigma of being an ex-offender makes it very hard to do. Some leave with the aspiration of living a different life, but starting over is harder than it seems. With no car, no employment, often homeless, and without even a Social Security card required to fill out a job application or apply for an apartment, the sense of desperation can be overwhelming.
Often, the only people glad to see them are the former friends whose influence led them into trouble in the first place. It is this confluence of toxic circumstances that create a high likelihood of returning to old life habits, and unfortunately, an increased recidivism rate.
This is where our Homecoming Celebration came in. Our goal was to create an environment where returning citizens would find affirmation, love, tools, and a cheering section. First Church in Huntsville, Alabama, held its first Homecoming Celebration on August 16, 2018. We put the word out through radio, social media, and word of mouth that we would be hosting a special celebration for any returning citizen who was released from incarceration in the last five years.
When returning citizens came on the premises that Sunday, they were met by the sound of festive music, along with the aroma of a barbecue meal prepared by our hospitality team in their honor. When they walked inside the church fellowship hall, they were met by a two-sided reception line filled with smiling faces waving pom-poms, and shouting, “Welcome Home!” Our goal was to celebrate them as people, to communicate that the faith community was not there to judge or stigmatize them, but celebrate and support their transition back into everyday life. After they finished eating, there were a number of meaningful booths set up to help their transition back into society.
First, we had an employment services room. We were blessed to partner with 10 different employers, including Buffalo Wild Wings and McKanite Granite Company, that came to conduct job interviews and begin the hiring process on the spot. We also had three temp agencies.
If an individual did not have appropriate interview attire, they were able to stop by the First Church Clothes Closet, which was set up by our community services team. They were able to get access to new and gently used business attire, so that they could go into the employment services room with confidence, as they prepared for their job interview. Our third room was the counseling center. Studies show that returning citizens are deemed more employable if they can demonstrate that they are involved in some type of ongoing counseling. We were blessed to partner with three certified counselors who were willing to donate time to make major emotional deposits into our returning citizens.
We were also very excited to have a prayer ministry team in place. Individuals were not required to go in, but many individuals decided to stop by to have men and women of faith intercede for their journey back into society.
We were able to partner with the Southern Law Poverty center to establish a voter restoration clinic. Returning citizens are encouraged to fully participate in society, while being denied the basic American right to vote because of their felony records. We cannot expect them to function as citizens if they don’t have the basic rights shared by all citizens. We were also blessed to partner with the Social Security Administration, so that our brothers and sisters were able to begin filling out their Social Security card applications on the church premises, which is a key step in the process of integrating back into society.
We were blessed to serve 140 returning citizens. We had about 12 individuals to gain employment that day, and another seven individuals enrolled in the Jobs for Life program through The Cornerstone Initiative. They graduated from the program in November. We had several families who decided to make First Church their spiritual home, because they were overwhelmed by the loving touch and warm affirmation they received.
There were so many blessings in the room that cannot be numbered. I saw hardened men whose eyes swelled with tears as we shouted “Welcome Home!” I saw the entire disposition of one woman blossom, as she was able to get appropriate clothing to step with confidence into her job interview. I prayed with a man who found Jesus while incarcerated, but had lost hold of his faith through the repeated obstacles he faced once he left. He stated tearfully that, “Today’s program has renewed my faith in God and reminded me that I am still loved by Him.”
This was one of the most meaningful ministry initiatives I have had the privilege of being a part of. My heart is anxious to continue to serve more of God’s children, whose pasts are overshadowed by the glorious future plans He has for them.
is the senior pastor of First Church in Huntsville, Alabama.
South Central | January 2019