I am chatting with my friend Terry in a small prison yard on the outskirts of the prison where Terry has spent his days for the last three years. The yard sits on the edge of a river valley, and Terry and I watch the valley’s criss-crossing roads and bridges. As we speak he busies himself raking spruce needles into piles. “So that the ground can breathe,” he explains.
I ask Terry how he’s doing—a couple of days after having been granted day parole and another chance at life in the community.
“Pretty good. Not bad. Just waiting, I guess, for the next step.”
Terry’s answer masks some serious apprehension. This is his third time being released on parole. The first two attempts ended in a slow spiral of substance abuse, unhealthy relationships, and thoughts of suicide. Both times Terry breached his parole conditions and was sent back to prison. He feels like this third time is his last chance. He constantly weighs his hope for a positive future against his memories of previous missteps.
With the watchful eyes of the community and his own checkered history in the back of his mind, Terry is understandably nervous.
But I am excited.
I first met Terry three years ago on one of the many visits I make to the prison where he is incarcerated. In my role as a chaplain for men leaving prison, I meet dozens of men on the cusp of their release into the community after long prison sentences.
Terry quickly stood out among the others. His honesty and earnest demeanour were at odds with the tough-guy posture many prisoners adopt. He always asked how my family was doing, was interested in my life despite his own struggles and frustrations. We shared a love of music, and when the prison took his guitar away because of noise complaints, Terry would spend hours in my office playing my guitar. Music is Terry’s “soul food,” and I had the privilege of listening in on his feast each week.
Terry quickly got involved in the men’s group I led at the prison. For the first several months, he would sit quietly in a corner, refusing to participate for fear of rejection or judgment. But before long we saw glimmers of newness breaking through Terry’s shame and anxiety. He would share pieces of his story with other men in the group, or offer insights after we watched a film together. At our summer barbeque, he spent the entire evening singing 1980s praise songs with a volunteer, prompting equal parts smiles and eye-rolling by the rest of the group.
One night, after a year of attending the group, Terry shared his story—the childhood bullying, the substance abuse, the failed burglary and accidental murder, the prison time and the failed releases. He concluded his story with words that I’ll never forget: “I know that nothing I do will bring back that man’s life, so all I can do is just ask God and everyone else for a second chance. . . . All I can do is trust and ask.” After a year of accompaniment and welcome, Terry came to sense that maybe, just maybe, he is worthy of another shot.
So while Terry struggles with new anxieties and fears before he steps outside the gates, I am excited.
In many ways, after two failed paroles Terry is a candidate for the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” approach to crime and punishment. How many chances should one person get? But I’ve come to believe that a second chance for Terry is not just good for Terry and for society. I’ve come to think that our decisions about prison and release say something about our common life and our vision of God’s kingdom of shalom.
As citizens, extending a second chance to Terry—or, in his case, a third or fourth chance—shows our commitment to a unique vision of the common good. Often, in an effort to make ourselves feel safer, we define someone by one of the worst decisions they’ve ever made. We label them a criminal and decide they need to be locked away, in some cases for life. And in doing so we strip these folks of the chance to be a great mechanic, a nurturing mother, a creative chef, a respected elder, a gifted worship leader. Our communities lose the opportunity to be blessed by these folks’ gifts and skills, wisdom and character.
For followers of Jesus, the idea of extending second chances should be nothing new. Since its early days, the church has been committed to new beginnings. We know that “all have sinned” and fall short of God’s glory, and that all of us rely on God’s mercy. We are all on our second chances. The Bible offers multiple examples of second chances extended to lawbreakers and hospitality offered to rule-breakers and oppressors: Paul (who, as Saul, was involved in the murder of Jesus’ followers) urged Philemon to welcome fugitive law-breaker Onesimus. Jesus offered a second chance to a prostitute and invited himself over to the local tax fraudster Zacchaeus’s house, to name just a few.
Steeped in these stories, we are reminded that it is a mistake to define anyone by their worst moment, because not one of us measures up to the kind of humanity Jesus modeled: loving God and loving each other. All of us need second chances and the welcome of a forgiving community.
And yet, when it comes to public discussions of crime, punishment, and second chances, we rarely share this biblical wisdom. Second-chance people that we are, we rarely speak up when voices in local media decry the release of a former prisoner into our community. Rarely do we voice concern when politicians mandate longer sentences, deny voting rights to those with criminal records, or make the possibility of parole more difficult—all subtle ways to say “No second chances here.”
Of course our concern for our personal safety is understandable, and so is our sense that folks who transgress or ignore the established boundaries of our communities should take responsibility for their actions.
But the church also holds to the vision of God’s shalom in which all people—victims and oppressors, the harmed and the offender—are offered the chance to begin again, to reconcile relationships and create spaces where everyone can flourish. It is this vision that the biblical prophets held to, Jesus embodied, and the church at its best has kept alive. With this shalom vision, we can balance our concerns for personal safety with a wider concern for community well-being—a well-being that refuses to leave anyone behind.
Whether or not the church puts this vision into practice, hundreds of men and women like Terry continue to work toward their eventual release into society. For the time being, Terry and I will keep chatting in the prison yard. Terry will continue to move from fear to hope and back. As a representative of the church, I will be there with him, keeping hope alive for him until he can hope for himself. And I will keep praying that the community Terry returns to will choose hospitality over fear.