Our efforts in the work of salvation need not be focused solely on redeeming those in spiritual prison. My heart has turned toward the incarcerated this year as I’ve listened to the new podcast, Ear Hustle. I don’t know that I would broadly recommend said podcast, as the subject matter can lean mature at times, but I wouldn’t hesitate to say it has helped to adjust my perception of the men and women who are spending time in correctional facilities. The theme that keeps repeating with every episode is the hope of most inmates for obtaining freedom. Freedom can mean being with family again, or getting a job, or atoning in person for their actions, or even going back to school.
Often we think of prison as a place to keep the “bad guys” apart from society. But confinement, when done well, should be the first step toward rehabilitation. Several years ago when reading a book on the human capacity to change I learned of Delancey Street, a non-profit based out of San Francisco “that provides residential rehabilitation services and vocational training for substance abusers and convicted criminals.”
I was so struck by the success of the program, wherein the foundation puts all responsibilities of running the programs and enforcing the rules squarely on the shoulders of the residents. Such programs include operating the adjoining Delancey St. Restaurant, a highly rated bistro in the Bay Area. From hosting to bussing, cooking to cleaning, this hot spot has doubled as the training ground for hundreds of former offenders learning the value of a scheduling, seeking good nutrition, managing finances, addressing the public, meeting expectations, and a myriad of other valuable skills required to lead a successful and productive life.
Delancey isn’t the only program focused on helping people achieve purpose. All around the US there are cafes and coffee shops opening up that support inmates looking to develop skills that would open them up to future employment upon release. Among such programs is Serving Time Cafe. Located in Draper, Utah this public lunch spot is run by female inmates who are putting newly learned culinary skills to use, preparing them for careers in food and service.
When I think of all the ways Christ explained that doing unto others is doing for him, I have often paused at Matthew 25:36, “I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” What an intimidating thought. But I’m learning that showing love and support to our brothers and sisters in prison is not nearly as hard as I’ve thought in the past. Even our church has created opportunities for service to the incarcerated, reflecting the genuine importance of our earthly role, according to our Savior. Through mission assignments and stake callings, members administer to the captive fold by leading Sunday lessons and sacrament services within the facilities. In my own stake there is a unit solely for women in transition after release. Perhaps in your stake or region members are quietly pursuing their duty of serving the least of them through similar assignments.
When you engage in lighting the world today, think about expanding your thoughts on how to literally support those in prison. Consider looking around your area for an inmate-run shop and make a purposeful visit, engaging with the staff, asking questions and complimenting good service. Actively standing as a bridge between the prior paths chosen and the world of opportunity to come is a beautiful act of service, and a tangible way to light the world. Correctional facilities often have programs needing volunteers and donations. The prison in my state is always looking for sheet music, instruments, and yarn to enable their inmates to participate in fulfilling activities. Check with your local prison/jail/juvenile center for ways you can “go onto” the men, women and sometimes children who are not yet lost, but temporarily imprisoned as they work their way back into the communities they so long to enjoy.