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Relationships drive prison ministry, NAAF told

PHILADELPHIA (BP) — The number 10002648 is ingrained in the memory of Harold Dean Trulear. Whenever he preaches, he recites the number before stating his biblical text.

“Because that was my number when I was incarcerated in George W. Hill Correctional Facility,” Trulear often says in his outreach as national director of the Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Prisoner Reentry Project of Philadelphia.

Trulear, a Morehouse School of Divinity associate professor and Baptist minister, equips Christian churches to build effective prison ministries.

“The problem is … most of our prison ministries do outreach to prisons, and not to persons. And half the persons that we reach out to are somebody else’s child, while we have mothers and fathers and grandparents that come to church every Sunday with incarcerated children that we’ve never dealt with,” Trulear said at the National African American Fellowship (NAAF) Kingdom Symposium Sept. 29-30 at Nazarene Baptist Church in Philadelphia.

“What if we treated sick people and prisoners the same? They’re in the same list in Matthew 25,” he said. “If you get sick your whole church gets involved, right? Folks visit, folks send cards, they send flowers; the whole church is committed. [But] if you get locked up, you get three volunteers from somebody else’s church.”

He encouraged the 75 pastors and guests at the symposium to build prison ministries based on relationships in addition to physical help. Not only do relationships that are built while citizens are incarcerated help them successfully re-enter society, but prisoners who are visited by pastors in particular have a lower recidivism rate, Trulear said, based on a study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

Most churches have members with incarcerated relatives, he said, pointing to the number of people imprisoned. In the U.S., 2.2 million adults are imprisoned. Among black males, one in nine between the ages of 20 and 34, or more than 10 percent, are in state and federal prisons. Factor in county jails, halfway houses and persons on parole or probation, the number of black males in that age group in the correctional system jumps to 33 percent, he said.

“One out of three black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is currently under the supervision of some criminal justice system,” he said. Churches can help reduce those numbers by changing the church culture to remove the stigma and shame of incarceration, and by discontinuing the use of terms that identify citizens by their past, such as “ex-con.” “Juvenile” is also a term to be avoided, Trulear said, noting that we never use the term in reference to our own children or those we love.

He described prisoners as human beings made in the image of God who must be respected as such.

“We’re trying to say to the church, ‘The prisoner is as valuable as the sick person.’ If we want to distance ourselves from the prison population, we have to distance ourselves from the Bible,” he said, noting Jacob’s son Joseph, the prophets Jeremiah and Daniel, John the Baptist, the apostles Peter and Paul, as well as those who escaped prosecution for criminal acts, including King David. Jesus was a prisoner when He died for the sins of humanity, Trulear said.

In partnership with several Christian-based groups, the Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Prisoner Reentry Project provides training to churches and has been implemented at more than 20 sites nationally. The program was designed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Scripture mandates prison ministry, Trulear said, suggesting churches begin with outreach to incarcerated family and relatives of their own congregants.

“We know the prison population. When I got locked up, I didn’t want anybody to know that I was locked up. … Not only did I not want anyone to know I was locked up, I didn’t want any brother in prison, in the jail, to know that I was a Christian, let alone that I used to be a pastor,” said Trulear, who did not disclose the crime for which he was imprisoned. “And I was pretty good at keeping a secret, until a young man walked down … one day and he said, ‘Pastor.’ I said, ‘Who are you?’

“He said, ‘I used to play the drums in your church.’ I said I don’t know you. And he [told] me his mother’s name. His mother had been on my staff. I knew [her],” Trulear said. “Before I got off that [prison] block I met seven other guys whose mothers I had pastored. And your church is the same. We all have them, but the shame and the guilt keep us from doing anything.”

The likelihood of incarceration as a teenager or adult is directly related to the quality of education provided for children, Trulear said.

“One of the things that I try to let people know is you can’t just reduce the prison population without changing the whole of your society,” he said. “You can’t just let folk out of prison and there’s no work; there’s no space, there’s nowhere to live, there’s no one to love them. And you can’t reduce the prison population without proper education for them.”

Churches must enable the reconciliation, restoration and healing of people who’ve been victimized by crime, he said.

“We don’t use the term ‘crime victims’ anymore; now it is ‘crime survivors,'” he said. “If you continue to use the word ‘victim,’ a person will have a victim mentality, but they need to heal.”

Churches must become involved in advocacy programs that address the disparities in the delivery of justice in the U.S. based on demographics. For instance, he described the “three strikes and you’re out” rule as an intentional bipartisan effort aimed at incarcerating black males. Suburbanites convicted of having two ounces of powder cocaine might receive a two-year prison sentence, while urbanites convicted of having the cheaper rock cocaine might get 15 years to life, he said.

“It is a matter of social justice that more black and brown people are incarcerated, that more black and brown people are policed differently and get longer sentences. It’s a matter of public policy,” he said. “But guess what, you won’t do anything about public policy unless you first start by … loving the people who are impacted by the policy.”

For instance, the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. was fueled by the mistreatment of Rosa Parks, a person, rather than the misapplication of law, Trulear said. Ministries must be driven by a love for people and a desire to build relationships, he noted, rather than simply feeding or clothing people.

“It’s attitudes, it’s relationships, things we already do,” he said. “You can serve somebody and not love them. You can serve somebody and not care about them.”

Trulear is ordained as an American Baptist minister, serves on the pastoral staff of Praise and Glory Tabernacle in Southwest Philadelphia, and is a fellow at the Center for Public Justice in Annapolis, Md.

Healing Communities training resources are available for free download at www.healingcommunitiesusa.com under the “About” tab.