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One parish one prisoner: Every church a local resurrection community

Chris Hoke describes the genesis of a program creating relationships between releasing prisoners and churches.

Trevor, our first applicant, home and preaching at his OPOP parish (a rural Methodist church) four years after they started together. Photo submitted.

When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, what if nobody had rolled away the stone?

I ask this question from the pulpit in nearly every church where I speak – Presbyterian, Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist, Mennonite, Baptist, evangelical, even Unitarian. I’m almost always recruiting congregations for our One Parish One Prisoner reentry program with Underground Ministries in Washington State.

“How would you feel,” I ask, “if you came to life inside that deathly tomb and nothing else happened?”

“Terrified,” someone will say.

“Stuck.”

“Confused?”

“Totally hopeless.”

“All alone.”

“Desperate.”

Bill (center, blue shirt) with Antonio and the Seattle-based OPOP team (Presbyterian) outside immigration detention last month, moments after Antonio’s surprise release by the judge. Photo submitted.

This, I tell them, is exactly how hundreds of men and women have described their experience to me as they are released from prison gates only to face immense “barriers to reentry” in the community.

Where will I live? Who will rent to me? How do I pay “first, last and deposit” fresh out of prison? Who will hire me with my criminal record? If I get a job, how will I get there – not only with no car, but with no driver’s license? I tried to apply for a driver’s license but learned that there’s a hold on getting one. My legal financial obligations – LFOs – are in the thousands now, since the courts charged me fines that have now added up due to 12% compounding interest all those years I was locked up. I guess I’ll drive someone else’s car with no license.

It doesn’t matter if you had a spiritual awakening in prison, opened yourself to God’s mysterious love while deep inside the cinderblock walls and steel doors. It doesn’t matter that you resolved to live a new life. It doesn’t matter that you took classes on parenting, accounting and anger management while locked up. Though you’ve stepped out of the prison gate, the only people who now open their doors in your release community are the old connections you swore you’d never go back to. Driving without a license, making money in the street economy, you’re on the run within weeks and eventually handcuffed by a probation officer for a new violation.

Another question I ask from the pulpit: Do you know the number one charge that sucks men and women back into the legal system after their release from prison? No, not drug convictions. No, not violence. It’s driving with a suspended license.

See how the legal burial system works? With all these heavy, structural barriers to reentry – let’s call them the “stones” sealing millions into a suffocating civic netherworld – you are still locked out of the land of the living, dead to society.

The stones over the tombs are never there by accident.

This is how recidivism works. This is why the best prison ministry volunteers still see familiar faces show up in their jail or prison programs after “getting out,” over and over again. It’s cruel to come alive in the tombs if the stones aren’t rolled away.

Jesus knew this. He called a small community to gather around the tomb and join in the shared work of his friend Lazarus’ full resurrection.

Seven years ago, I shifted my energies away from a decade of weekly Bible studies in our local jail. I found ways to stay in touch with the amazing men I’d prayed and laughed with in the jail, making plans to work with them as they released into our county. Many were sentenced to prison instead—shipped out to spend more years buried in the immense human landfills we’ve built in remote corners of our state.

So we wrote long letters. I took their collect calls, visited their families and learned more of their stories, their childhood experiences, their dreams. They learned more of mine. We built relationships of mutual trust. These letters were the richest form of communion, fellowship or prayer I’d experienced in any community. Selfishly, I wanted to unbury my new friends and help them come home to be part of my life.

So we made detailed release plans together starting a full year before their release date. I learned how to help them come home, navigate the crushing legal and financial barriers they’d face, connect them to new relationships in the community and welcome them into the fragile new life they’d dreamed about in a prison cell.

I started to see reentry work as resurrection practice.

Practicing resurrection

Jesus wept then organized a team because Lazarus was his friend. It wasn’t a professional agency he’d developed. It was personal. It was a relationship. In possibly the gospels’ longest miracle narrative, it is God’s friendship through tomb walls that sets everything into motion.

Through my early jail and gang chaplaincy years I built a unique relationship with one man in particular, José. For seven years, as he was transferred to five different prison facilities around the state, we exchanged weekly letters. I brought his daughter to visit him multiple times. She sang him songs through the bulletproof visiting glass when he was in solitary confinement. We became close friends.

José had spent his life immersed in the gang lifestyle and he spoke vulnerably about how much support he’d need if he wanted to build a new life upon his release. If he was making such a commitment to change his life and trust new people like me, he challenged me to make a solid commitment to be there for him upon his release in two years. This gave me pause. I decided to defer my acceptance to a divinity school on the east coast. My fiancée and I planned our living situation around our friend’s release date. José would have a room in our new home soon after our wedding. For obvious reasons I couldn’t do this with the hundreds of gang-affected individuals I’d served as pastor and chaplain. But I quickly learned I could do more, plan more, offer more and enjoy more if I narrowed my scope to one focused relationship.

I shared José’s prison letters with our wider presbytery. They were refreshingly honest and raw but polite. A flood of affection and support poured into his prison cell throughout his final year in solitary confinement then into our home mailbox. His first day home he opened greeting cards with prayers and gift cards for clothing and for taking his seven-year-old daughter out to restaurants. Families following my email newsletter sent large checks for José’s legal fees and court debt. One couple even dropped off their used sedan for José to call his own after he passed his driver’s test.

An embrace of OPOP participants on release day. Photo submitted.

He was released from the concrete compound ghostly and skinny after two years in solitary confinement, without any exposure to the sun. His many gang tattoos stood out in harsh contrast to his paled skin. Four months out he was so tan from playing and working outside, and eating well, that many tattoos were barely noticeable.

Friends of mine no longer attending church wanted to be part of this resurrection experience too. They invited José to join their local organic farm some afternoons for generous side job cash. He’d shared in his letters from prison a vision to start a garden for troubled kids, to connect with the earth and feel safe. Others invited José and his daughter to join their family on a local hike. Not everyone could do full-time prison ministry. Few neighbors work in professional social work agencies. But joining in the reentry and resurrection adventure for one person was exciting to many in our valley. This was something anyone could do and enjoy.

A new underground railroad

I wrote a book about this ministry and José joined me, along with other men out of prison, in our travels to speak at churches, colleges and bookstores. At each event, there was always the Q&A portion at the end of the presentation. After hearing our stories, our adventures of building trust through prison letters out of solitary confinement, and finding their way out of the underground gauntlet of legal trials and prison politics, someone would always ask, “But what can we do?”

I didn’t have an immediate answer other than to financially support our little mission and to learn more about prison reform legislation in their states. Not everyone can fully dedicate their life to the incarcerated. But at one coffee hour after a sermon, a woman handed me an outline she’d typed with a typewriter, which said (at the time) there were roughly the same amount of incarcerated people in Washington State as there were churches. She called this idea “one parish, one prisoner.” I never saw her again, and we still can’t find her.

As we traveled, I pulled that piece of paper out at every Q&A: “How about this? What if every church were in relationship with just one person releasing from prison?” Any congregation, large or small, no matter the denomination or politics has everything someone needs as they release from prison: someone with a room to rent, rides to appointments, funds for some fresh clothes, friendships, seasoned grandparents who help with childcare, new opportunities like hiking or fishing or funds to pay off fines and help studying to gain a driver’s license. Someone has a used car. Someone knows a local employer who would give this releasing individual a chance. Social capital is everything. If the prison system wreaks mass disconnection, local congregations can be the antidote: a local Departments of Connections in every town.

At first I thought this vision was a way to call the audiences’ bluff, that people didn’t really want to get this close, this involved. But I was wrong. Every time I pitched this “one parish, one prisoner” idea, faces in the crowd lit up. They asked where they could sign up. They called my bluff. I laughed and admitted it was just an idea. We didn’t have a program. Yet.

Then José and I spoke at a conference at Vanderbilt focused on mass incarceration and the future of the church. Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy had recently come out and his keynote address called on the church and academics to move from the safe distance of analysis and documentaries about prison reform into what he called “the power of proximity.” He told his story of a relationship with one person on death row that altered the course of his life and career. He challenged the audience to find ways to get themselves, their communities, departments and families all closer to the real people inside the system.

The next day Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, which ignited the national conversation on the history and scope of America’s prison system, offered a closing address. She called for “a new underground railroad” to actively welcome and integrate releasing prisoners back into our community.

I knew One Parish One Prisoner (OPOP) had to happen. There are churches in every town in America. No matter the race, economic status, political alignment or denomination, these are community groups singing about amazing grace, forgiveness, redemption and resurrection. All they might need is a relationship with one person inside prison – the power of proximity – to make those songs and creeds become flesh. If churches everywhere could even clumsily embrace one person through the reentry process, the same way my community embraced José, we might have the template for a new underground railroad.

A resurrection movement

We returned home to Washington State, founded Underground Ministries, and began piloting One Parish One Prisoner with just three churches. We paired a large Jesuit parish in Seattle, a midsize PC(USA) church in the suburbs, and a tiny rural United Methodist congregation with someone we knew in prison who would be releasing to those churches’ cities within a year. Each church formed a team of seven members, including the pastor, to meet monthly, write letters with their new releasing friend, make prison visits like family members would and gradually build trusting relationships and detailed release plans.

Each team fell in love with their incarcerated friend – Trevor, Leno and Diego – who otherwise would have been invisible to them, a shadow, a generic “criminal” whom the police and the courts keep neatly out of our sight. Instead of voting for tougher prosecutors these church teams were organizing “Roll Away the Stones” fundraisers for their releasing friend’s reentry needs. They updated the congregation on his release process during Sunday services’ prayers of the people and during coffee hour, assembling welcome home baskets of gift cards, towels, hygiene, backpacks and even new shoes in their friend’s exact size.

Paul embraces his father after 17 years in prison, with his OPOP team (Episcopalian) all gathered in the parking lot on release day together. Photo submitted.

But these loving pilot pairings were messy as we didn’t yet have a curriculum or clear program.

Diego was picked up by ICE officers on his release day. But his church stayed in touch with him all the way through the immigration detention and deportation process, emailing and wiring support as he figured out his reentry in Tijuana.

Leno came home to a lavish welcome, living in a team member’s guest cottage by the Skagit River. Unable to express his overwhelming anxiety, he immediately relapsed in addiction and soon disappeared. His team was crushed. I’d never seen a church so sharply aware of their formerly incarcerated friend’s absence in the pews, a Leno-shaped hole they felt in their congregation. As a Presbyterian church accustomed to session meetings concerned with church operations and budgets, these congregants were now asking questions about the mental health and addiction needs in their community. Weeping at Leno’s return to the underworld, this congregation was taking on the shape of God’s heart.

One white-haired lady on the team told me how, for months, she looked down every alley and slowed to see the faces of every rough-looking young man as she drove around town in a constant search for Leno. As a deacon, her duties had been sending regular birthday cards to the same church members year after year. Now she saw her entire town differently, where every shadowy figure on the streets could be the Beloved.

Trevor faced unfortunate sabotage from old gang members in the community, so he stopped writing his team just months before his release. I thought the Methodist fellowship would throw up their hands and regret all the startup efforts but again I was wrong. They wanted to keep meeting and asked if there was someone else who would like a reentry team of new friends. They were paired within weeks with Jaime and a new Lazarus story began.

Now, four years later, we at Underground Ministries have 37 parish teams paired and launched in Washington State. We partnered with a Presbyterian women’s prison ministry and now serve both men and women releasing from all state facilities.

We have a complete two-year program with 24 monthly, online learning modules that guide teams through every step of the journey: starting with how to write your first prison letter; how to build relationships of mutual trust and transparency; how to build a reentry plan together that delegates team members to assemble housing solutions, gaining their ID and driver’s license, a local job lead, and more; how to address the congregation’s inevitable fears and questions in ways that invite them into better knowing their releasing friend and, ultimately, the gospel’s challenge; how to talk together about addiction and mental health and trauma as realities that affect us all, not just the incarcerated.

The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead – one of the longest narratives in all the gospels, other than the Passion – has become our essential guide for resurrection practice: approaching the tombs, facing our fears, rolling away the stone, removing the grave clothes, and learning a new way of life together.

Approaching the tombs

Back to where we started: Lazarus’ resurrection begins with Jesus weeping. Jesus could have normalized death, the countless bodies in the tombs across their land. But he wept because Lazarus was his friend. It’s this friendship with someone in the underground, this heartbreak, that propels the resurrection. We enter into that mystery as we enter into friendship with someone in prison when we know their name. All the shared work ahead is fueled not by a belief system but a unique relationship with someone we now care about.

Bill, recruited by his pastor for our second round of parish teams, found a depth of conversation and friendship with a young gang member named Antonio through their early months of prison letters together. They both had sons. They ran the same streets in Seattle. They both had unanswered questions about God, about what they wanted in life. These letters took Bill from being a passive attendee at Union Presbyterian to a passionate leader of their One Parish One Prisoner team, sending emails out weekly with quotations from Antonio’s letters, moderating their discussion on each module.

Just this week, over two years since their correspondence began, Antonio was released by the immigration judge and his new family was there at the gate to embrace him. Bill just invited me to the celebration barbeque this weekend.

What about the … ?

When Jesus asked the small, gathered community to roll away the stone, some expressed reasonable concerns about Lazarus’ rotted body. A community about to open their lives to someone coming out of prison might ask about the church’s safety or the releasing individual’s crimes. All fair questions. In our One Parish One Prisoner program, we do our best to vet incarcerated applicants for their sincerity, honesty about their charges, desire for new relationships and real engagement. Our learning modules offer guidance about best boundaries with money and the slow art of building trust on both sides of the relationship. We take these realities seriously.

Wendy driving away from the prison gates with her OPOP team (Catholic), after a year of letters, visits and release planning together. Photo submitted.

What’s interesting, however, is Jesus does not assure the person asking this question the miracle would be clean of any exposure to unpleasant realities. He does not pause and order a committee to mitigate foul smell exposure before proceeding. Rather, Jesus lifts their attention to a greater concern: “Did I not tell you, if you believe you will see the glory of God?”

This is what’s at stake, and precisely what we forget in our faith. Do we want the comfort of the status quo or do we want to see the glory of God?

We have a chance to witness firsthand the Divine Mysteries bringing life to the dead right in front of us, to participate in all the forgiveness, healing and redemption we sing about.

When the men’s group at a Presbyterian church in a nearby county chose to become a One Parish One Prisoner team three years ago, their new releasing friend Julio was over fifty years old, a leader and founder of many mentorship and restorative justice groups inside the local prison and weeks from gaining rare clemency from the governor. But weeks after their kickoff orientation, Julio’s clemency petition was stalled. He might not be released. Members of the church started to ask about this criminal the men’s group was writing letters with, Googled his violent crime over thirty years ago, and sent long emails to the pastor. The gossip networks were afire with concern.

The near-retirement-age pastor, John, told me, “I haven’t felt this excited about my faith since I first said yes to Jesus as a young man! It feels like an adventure again!”

Over the last three years, the men who used to gather for mild prayers and weekly commiseration have now read multiple books together about restorative justice, organized with a clemency attorney, wrestled with the wider congregation about what clemency – legal forgiveness – really means, exchanged letters and entered the prison visiting room to learn directly from Julio’s healing journey, as well as helping it advance through these developing friendships. The man who was most worried about exposing the church to a formerly violent man ended up privately confessing to Julio his own secrets, sins and past regrets. He now makes video visits with Julio from his laptop. Unlike his fellow congregants, Julio doesn’t judge this aging man’s moments of weakness. This summer, the men’s group is writing letters to the clemency board about their friendship with Julio and talking to local potential employers. These activities are a new norm at this Presbyterian Church. This is the glory of God.

Rolling away the stone

Rolling up your sleeves to push a huge rock with a few other people may not have felt like “spiritual” work for Jesus’ friends. I imagine it would have felt as discouraging, exhausting and uninspiring as long phone calls with collections agencies, figuring our health insurance, old warrants and rides to probation offices and treatment evaluations. But when you’re part of a team, the stone can move, the reentry work gets done. The team’s sense of bonding and belonging grows. And together, you start to question why a society needs such absurd barriers over the tombs.

Carol, part of a small Episcopal parish’s OPOP team, spent weeks sifting through piles of Social Security paperwork and conflicting state records for her team’s friend Paul, who had just been released after 19 years in prison. She was angry at how sloppily the state had handled the many requests her incarcerated friend has mailed to the departments during his years in prison. The inability to get a national identity number for health insurance and legal work would be enough to push any releasing inmate I know back to despair and the criminal life. But Paul saw his future open up as his new friend Carol pushed against the system. Now he is a lead concrete tester at a local employer, makes payments on his own SUV, is engaged to a woman he met at work and they’ll be married by the team’s pastor, right there at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

Removing the grave clothes

Phillip and family with their (Presbyterian) OPOP team in Bellingham, Washington. Photo submitted.

When Lazarus stumbled out of the tomb into the light he probably looked like a walking nightmare, all wrapped up like a mummy. They couldn’t see the true Lazarus yet—his face, his humanity. Jesus didn’t tell Lazarus to clean himself up. Instead, he invited the community to step even closer, into increasingly intimate contact: “Unbind him.”

We believe Jesus’ invitation today is the same: rather than standing back expecting those released from prison to clean and heal themselves, proving themselves whole and worthy, Jesus’ invitation
is for us to step closer so we can be part of our friends’ healing.

I believe when the community at Lazarus’ tomb unraveled the grave clothes from his body – as they saw a vulnerable, beloved human just like them – they were unbinding themselves of their own invisible, protective layers.

One of our first Lutheran parish teams eagerly signed up for One Parish One Prisoner, ready to engage their social justice values in addressing mass incarceration and poverty. But right after the kickoff orientation, where the team was introduced to Wally, the woman who led the initial organizing told me there was a problem. “I know you told us not to Google their charges, to let our incarcerated friend tell us their story in their own terms,” she told me, “but I couldn’t help it. I saw he had serious domestic violence charges.”

“Ok . . . ” I said, and listened.

“And, well, see,” she paused, “I have experience with those things.”

I asked her if she wanted to meet in person and talk more. Over coffee that week we talked about how she grew up regularly seeing her father hurt her mother. How she and her sisters lived in fear and how her father was a leader in the Lutheran church. She’d been a member over thirty years and had been a leader of many mission groups, Bible studies and committees. But she’d never told anyone about this family secret, this hidden wound. She admitted it felt good to finally talk about it with someone.

This conversation with the Lutheran team leader was a turning point for her, the church and our program. The team helped the congregation host a speaker series on how to address violence inside the church and how to make safe spaces for domestic violence victims to come forward and tell the truth. It led to a young woman on the team writing her first letter to Wally about the severe mental health struggles she’d never revealed to her friends or church community. Wally told her he had some mental health issues as well. Every Sunday they looked forward to a collect phone call from prison where they talked and laughed about their panic and wild paranoias that week. She told me they agreed they were now “mental health buddies.”

Together, we unbind each other from secrecy and shame and enter the tender process of God’s healing.

Learning a new way of life together

This last step in our Lazarus schema at Underground Ministries is our template for practicing resurrection. Release, reentry and resurrection is just the beginning. Every man and woman we accompany home from prison humbly admits they don’t want to go back to what they’ve always done – they want to learn a new way of life. They know the old ways don’t work. They know they need others to slowly unlearn old lifestyles, old financial practices and old numbing habits to walk into a new, resurrected life. Congregants are discovering the same. As they emerge from the first year or two of reentry work together they aren’t sure if they can go back to old ways of doing church, old ways of voting, old ways of thinking about prisons, about justice, about policing and housing and mental health resources and where the church can be part of these new (to them) questions in their town, in their county, in their state.

Some folks released from prison eventually relapse. Despite a phenomenal two or three years of engagement and learning with their “OPOP team,” securing a solid job, leasing a car, coming to church and building new traditions with their estranged kids, the pressures of life can mount up. The constant vulnerability and trust can grow wearisome. Add some drinking in the evenings, small lies, hits from an old friend’s meth pipe, missed work, bigger lies, more meth, and their team stops seeing them around. They don’t pick up their phone. They disappear.

The same thing happens with some church members. Team members who share passionately at the podium about how this relationship has changed their faith and life, when they see their released friend start to struggle, when the initial months’ excitement and “success” takes a turn and there’s a need to come together as a team, come alongside their new friend—they, too, disappear. They relapse into being too busy.

We go back to what we know, back to our familiar, numbing cycles when faced with a new way of living, of following Christ.

But resurrection is a practice. We start over again and again.

Leno relapsed and ended up back in prison. But he reached out with new collect calls. His team started to meet again. After months of silence and an awkward sense of failure and mourning, Leno was back from the dead. He asked if they would give him another shot, try a second round with him. They said yes. Leno took his addiction more seriously, attended recovery classes in his brief new stint in a medium security facility. He married his girlfriend in prison during the pandemic with a heavy plexiglass window between he and his bride. Three of his team members were there in the prison visiting room, tears sliding down their masked cheeks. As his team rallied around his second release process, a team member who’d disappeared went to visit Leno at his nearby address. This person asked forgiveness for not replying to his prison letters, confessed they didn’t know how to feel about his failure or the team’s failure, and Leno smiled and hugged this person. “It’s alright. We’re figuring this out together.”

Churches today, like Leno, are sobering to the reality that we’ve been on the wrong track for some years. In solidarity with those making fresh starts after prison, American churches can also enter the humble work of recovery — recovering our true identity, purpose and direction.

John (Presbyterian pastor) and members of the OPOP team in a Covid-era prison visit with their friend Julio. Photo submitted.

In a previous issue of the Outlook, I shared an Easter Manifesto — a call to recover an earlier imagination of the “church” as a resurrection movement. Jesus’ founding words were clear that his ecclesia, his assembly, his movement usually translated as “church,” would not be stopped by the “gates of Hades:” barriers sealing the realm of the dead into a prison-like existence (Matthew 16:18). Jesus didn’t give Peter the authority to guard heaven’s pearly gates – our most quaint heresy in the west, which we incarnate in our endless obsession with worship buildings and religious gatekeeping. We distorted, inverted the mission. Jesus gave Peter and the disciples the keys to unlock hell’s gates, to liberate the captives and to participate in the salvation saga of emptying the underworld and undoing death itself.

Every church community, large or small, can do this by practicing the greatest mystery of our faith with just one person in a local lockdown facility.

We welcome you to check out our template and One Parish One Prisoner model at Underground Ministries, to help you get started simply visit oneparishoneprisoner.org.

Our hope is this larger vision will inspire unique regional solutions and partnerships in every state so that in an age of mass incarceration we can recover what it means to be people of the resurrection.

The names mentioned in this story have been changed for privacy. 

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