Rethinking Incarceration and the Church’s Role in Restorative Justice

Lee Buckley, Community Reentry Coordinator for the MNDOC

While ministering to prisoners behind bars, Lee Buckley got to know a serial murderer who was serving a life sentence in solitary confinement.

The man asked her, “The Bible says even I can be forgiven, do you think that’s true?” Buckley spent time praying with him, and after he chose to put his faith in Jesus, this convicted murdered, who was dying of cancer, asked to tell others this good news.

Due to the restrictions of solitary confinement, he wasn’t allowed to share his testimony in chapel, so Buckley encouraged him to write down his testimony.

Shortly thereafter, the man died of cancer, and at his funeral, his testimonial letter was read aloud. At his funeral, 15 prisoners made the choice to put their faith in Jesus.

Do we really believe that God can redeem and restore criminals and use them to further the Gospel in the world?

Dominque Gilliard, Author and Featured Speaker of Rethinking Incarceration

“How many of us believe that someone who is incarcerated today could pastor us back to faithfulness?” asked Dominique Gilliard, the featured speaker at the Rethinking Incarceration leadership forum.

Gilliard reminded participants of Paul’s fervor when pastoring the people of Colosse, who were drifting from Orthodoxy, back to faithfulness from behind prison walls.

“The early Church believed that God had the power to speak through incarcerated people. Do we really believe that God can redeem and restore criminals and use them to further the Gospel in the world? I don’t think we believe that today.”

Through the Monday night Rethinking Incarceration forum at Crosstown Covenant Church and the Tuesday afternoon leadership forum at Sanctuary Covenant Church, more than 350 people showed up to learn how Christians can help create a more restorative justice system.

Christians must support a justice system that rebuilds community, affirms human dignity, and seeks God’s shalom.

Lee Buckley, the community reentry coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Corrections encouraged the Church to have a “we” mentality, not an “us and them” mentality, “It’s just all of us,” said Buckley.

“Instead of supporting a system that merely punishes; Christians must support a justice system that rebuilds community, affirms human dignity, and seeks God’s shalom,” said Gilliard.

Dominique Gilliard taught about the America’s history of mass incarceration from slavery to Jim Crow to our current massive criminal justice system built on racial and social control. Then Gilliard  highlighted multiple Biblical mandates in which Christians are called to be present behind bars (Matthew 25:36) and remember those in prison as if we were in prison (Hebrews 13:3).

This type of thing can be hidden in some areas of the Twin Cities, so churches aren’t doing a whole lot to step into community conversations.

“As a former convict who has been in prison, and as a new believer and follower of Christ, it’s good to know there are people in our community who are reaching out to help guys get back on their feet: get housing and jobs, and acting as mentors. It’s good to see there is a big forum like this for churches to get involved and understand that there are people who need physical and spiritual help. I think it’d be really powerful if the churches got involved,” said Joseph, who attends Substance Church.

“Being aware is the first step, often the Church isn’t even aware of what’s going on. This type of thing can be hidden in some areas of the Twin Cities, so churches aren’t doing a whole lot to step into community conversations. It’s a challenge to try to present this information in a way that actually transforms and doesn’t just polarize,” said Pastor Luke from Hosanna! Lutheran Church.

“For far too long, the Church has functioned as the state’s tool. Unwittingly, we have theologically legitimated mass incarceration and conceded our prophetic zeal. But we (Christians) must reemerge as the moral conscience of our nation,” said Gilliard.

“I could choose to dig my heels in and ignore this, or I could lean into the discomfort and be a part of the solution. This forum was an opportunity for me to learn and overbalance my ignorance with knowledge,” said Jonathan, on staff at Substance Church.

Gilliard urged the Church to harness their collective power and belief in the dignity of vulnerable people, and  to advocate for the least of these by helping to transform the criminal justice system.

“If reconciled communities are ever to become the true aim of our justice system, the Church must lead the way in advocating for a system that gives opportunities for authentic rehabilitation, lasting transformation, and healthy reintegration,” said Gilliard.

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