Visiting Prisoners, Finding Jesus

06/16/2015 07:18 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016

"I was in prison, and you came to me." - Matthew 25:36

Recently a federal judge ordered the immediate release of the last member of the "Angola 3," Albert Woodfox, from his decades long solitary confinement. Woodfox has spent almost all of his 43 years in prison in solitary confinement, the longest of any prisoner in the United States. All the while, he has proclaimed his innocence in the 1972 murder of Brent Miller, a prison guard at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

At the time of this writing, Woodfox is still in jail while other judges and courts debate his release. I do not know Woodfox, but I call another member of the Angola 3 "friend." I spent time visiting and writing letters with Herman Wallace after I met him on a prison-ministry trip to Angola in 2006. I talk about what this friendship with Wallace meant to me in an article I wrote shortly after his death and brief days of freedom.

The news surrounding Woodfox prompts me once again to reflect on the way incarceration influences our society in the United States. The United States Bureau of Justice estimates that 6,899,000 adults were under the supervision of a correction institute at year end 2013. (This includes those on parole and probation, etc.) The International Centre for Prison Studies puts the total prison population in the United States at 2,270,000 people. This is the highest number of prisoners in one country in the world. China is second with 1,657,812 prisoners. If one looks at the rate of incarceration based on population instead of total numbers, the United States is #2 at 698 prisoners per 100,000 people. In first place is Seychelles with 868 per 100,000. The United Kingdom is 98th with 149 prisoners per 100,000 residents.

The United States is rife with prisoners. Literal actual prisoners who sit behind bars. You don't have to look far to learn that one's likelihood of being a prisoner at one point in your life is highly correlated to your race, your gender, and your socio-economic status. Michelle Alexander's ground-breaking book The New Jim Crow outlines this miscarriage of justice in terms of what it looks for African Americans to face the Prison Industrial Complex. Between racial profiling, harsher sentences, and the school-to-prison pipeline - there is much room for the church to live into the call of Jesus to go to those who are in prison.

When we clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the sick, and go to the imprisoned, we are acting in obedience to the commands of Jesus. We are loving both God and our neighbor and thereby fulfilling the greatest commandments. There is no room in Jesus' teaching at this moment to differentiate between who is worthy of food, clothing, and a visitor. The words are simple, if the physical condition of hunger or nakedness or sickness or imprisonment exists, then as Christians we honor Jesus by meeting these needs. There is no room in this part of the discussion to debate whether someone is worthy. We feed. We clothe. We visit. We go.

Years ago when I lead the prison ministry at Willow Creek Community Church, I was exposed to several different facilities throughout the state of Illinois. We were involved in more than one juvenile detention center, in jails around the state, and in a few prisons that were scattered throughout Illinois. I became a chaplain at Cook County Jail, and one of my highlights of the Christmas season was preaching the Gospel to men struggling with addictions. Somehow the worship of those who are behind bars reflects the freedom that comes from Christ with a vigor that is not often experienced outside in the "free" world. As I continued to have my heart turned toward the incarcerated, the prison ministry volunteer leaders kept putting pressure on me to take a trip to Angola Prison in Louisiana, the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

The name itself - Angola - has roots in slavery and the oppression of black bodies. In the early 19th century, Angola was a slave-breeding plantation, a place where slaves from Angola, Africa were brought to be bred and then sold into the Southern slave market. In 1901 the state of Louisiana bought the property and it was eventually turned into a prison. Racism has deep roots in incarceration.

I did not make the trip to Angola because of Jesus' call to go to those in prison. I went because I could not believe the stories I had heard about the way the people behind bars lived such a vibrant and compelling faith. When I arrived, I found inmates serving as pastors and leading different Christian communities throughout Angola. I met inmates who took their call to ministry so seriously that they requested to be transferred to other prisons in order to be able to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ.

I went to those in prison, and I saw Jesus.

I know that the majority of the people behind bars are there because they have committed crimes. I also know it is critically important to minister to the victims of their crimes and others affected by the consequences of their actions. They have broken the laws of the land. Yet, even so, my visits to Angola and other prisons force me to ask how God sees men and women who are behind bars. What does the call to Christian forgiveness mean in this context? How do our assumptions and presuppositions affect the way we view the structures and systems of incarceration?

If you are a Christian, I encourage you to go to those who are in prison. Check with local churches or Justice Fellowship to find out how you can be a part of ways that the body of Christ is already ministering to those behind bars. As you come to know prisoners, seek to educate yourself about the data and stories of those who spend time incarcerated. Seek justice, especially when justice means confronting structural inequalities present in our current system.

Go to those in prison, you will find Jesus there.

Portions of this article adapted from the "Incarceration" article in my Social Justice Handbook (InterVarsity Press, 2009).