This post on Under the Overpasses, one of the most fab blogs out there IMHO, really moved me when I read it this evening. The post itself and some of the comments also chimed in with a whole range of things I've been thinking about this week to do with how society and in particular church society views, treats and welcomes (or otherwise) the marginalised or odd or just plain weird. The author of Under the Overpasses works in a homeless shelter. I too have worked in one in the past (a long time ago and not for long but it was a powerful world-view-altering experience) and I know that prison clientele has a certain similarity to the homeless shelter clientele.
What I've been thinking about is to do with Christian prisoners, i.e. prisoners who are (now, even if only of late) professing practising Christians rather than those who register as Church of Scotland or Roman Catholic on their admittance to jail and in reality are atheists or agnostics. In the course of the relationship I form with them I often talk about church. I explain that right there in our crappy surroundings we are a church congregation and we're part of the worldwide body of Christ that is the church, brothers and sister of Christians all over the world. I also tell them, and I truly truly believe this, that their "chances of success" as Christians are vastly greater on release if they find themselves a church and start going to it. I know lots of people say you can be a Christian without going to church. I'm not convinced about that. If you CAN'T go that's one thing, but if you WON'T go, I think that's not good. And certainly if you don't have the years and years of churchgoing under your belt that those of us who grew up in the church gained (willingly or otherwise!), if you're the only believer among your family and friends, and if you're still to face the challenge of living a life away from crime and addiction, I have no question in my mind that (a good) church is a crucial part of the best strategic action plan for your future.
However, how do we bridge the gap for our guys who've found faith during their sentence from prison chapel to church? If you're a national rather than local facility that's even harder.
I am really exercised in my heart about it this week. Our guys who come to the chaplaincy services talk the talk about wanting to go to church on the outside but as one of them freely admitted (privately of course) to me today, it's a really really scary prospect.
I think this may be a wider issue than just prisoners though. I spoke to a woman one day last year, I forget where but it may have been at the hairdressers, who asked how you went to church. I didn't understand at first but it became clear she didn't realise you could just turn up on a Sunday at service time, go in (without a ticket) and take a seat. And of course why WOULD she know that?
But for prisoners there are added difficulties. They worry about the potential response if they reveal their past. They worry about the church being full of middle class people. They worry about not knowing how to behave and what is expected of them (prisoners worry about that a lot actually - they worry about coming to events held in the jail - I think it's to do with insecurity and losing face and then appearing weak - unless you explain at GREAT length exactly what will happen at the event and what the expectation will be).
And that's only the gap-bridging problem from one side. How do we get our churches to cope better with the odd, the weird, the marginalised, the ex-offender and the recovering addict? Some do it really well already. Some less so. But Under There's post which I referred to above just makes my heart yearn to feel surer that our churches are full of people who want to love unconditionally, at the possible expense of having to leave, or at least invite challenging people into, their comfort zones. It's hard in both directions this gap-bridging and I have no answers.
My Catholic colleague and I are planning to hold services in the jails during Prisoners Week, to which prisoners can come if they want, and to which local churches will be invited to send folk. As the date approaches I now find I'm wanting to engineer and stage manage these. The purpose of the services is to encourage the churches to pray for the prisoners and to show the prisoners that the churches love them. I also want to cause the prisoners to feel that after all church people aren't so very different from them. So I'm now seriously considering (whilst realising how ridiculous - and discriminatory - it is) that I want to minimise the proportion of middle class grey haired old ladies (that's me out then!) and maximise the number of cool dudes and dudesses.
I want the guys to FEEL that the church folk love them. Some middle class grey haired old ladies loving them would be fab. But I don't want to confirm them in their suspicion that ONLY middle class grey haired old ladies go to church, with the implication being that it's not for them. So I find myself (feeling totally false and devious) in the ludicrous position of trying to engineer and stage manage a designer congregation of working class younger males. I realise sadly of course that the truth is that most congregations are short of working class younger males and that in so doing I'm maybe not being totally honest. And in any cases one of the most beautiful things about church which I personally appreciate every Sunday is that almost the whole point of it is that this random collection of people who on the surface would seem to have nothing in common in reality are family with the deepest possible bond of all connecting them. So maybe I should worry less about it. On the other hand if I manage to crack the job of creating my ideal congregation for those services maybe churches all over will start hiring me to do tailor made bespoke designer congregations for them in the style of their choice...