By Fr. Dustin Feddon, PhD, Executive Director of Joseph House
Being released from either prison or jail in the middle of a global pandemic highlights the already existing challenges of reentry in America. You might say the current scourge exposes the already stark realities that await the incarcerated upon their release back into society. Harsh realities like limited housing options, an inhospitable job market, minimal access to medical and mental healthcare. These realities become all the more severe as social services are limited in their access to the people they aspire to serve. Organizations that serve those reentering are worried that as these services are reduced or simply nonexistent, those reentering will end up in homeless shelters or back on the streets. Both of these options are likely portals back into the prison system. What increases the pressure for those being released at this time is the fact that their families and communities who would otherwise be preparing for their release are now isolated and distressed by uncertainties in a post-coronavirus world.
Think about how so many women and men have been longing for the day of their release. Many probably had already put pen to paper and had started a list of things to do when released. Their dreams of post-incarceration required a lot from them as they hope for a better life after prison. Then think about what it is like being told upon release that they can’t come home for fear of exposure to the virus that their aging parents must now consider. Imagine being told that the family reunion they were daydreaming about for the past few months was now cancelled and in fact no family member would be present to pick them up outside the prison gates. These are the new realities many are already experiencing. The twofold blows of a depleted and overwhelmed social service industry as well as families facing new hardships means that those reentering back into society now face an even steeper hill to climb in their journey. All of this begs the question, where will the Church be.
We have heard about Pope Francis’s field hospital metaphor for the Church. Francis’s view of the Church is not one that is set apart from the messiness of our anxious world. Rather it pitches its tent right alongside those ravaged by war, poverty, survival immigration, and incarceration. I think this image of the Church is all the more meaningful in the context of today’s new world where an illness has halted the global economy. In his field hospital metaphor, Francis speaks of how when nurses attend to the wounds of a sick person, they don’t ask about the status of their moral or religious lives. Instead, nurses simply want to stop the bleeding or prevent the spread of the infection. We too as a Church centered on the needs of the human person must become adept at finding where specifically we can best accompany those in need. Imagine if we as a Church, as local parish communities with access to much-needed resources, combined our efforts to assist the wounded among us. In the case of those reentering society during the uncertainties and dangers brought on by this pandemic, perhaps we as communities of faith can ask our fellow parishioners in what way we can make their reintegration more stable.
In this season of Easter, we as a community are meditating again on the mysterious encounters surrounding Jesus’s resurrection. We are reminded of Mary Magdalen’s devotion and courage as she braved the early morning hours to visit the tomb of a condemned man. A man who had been imprisoned, sentenced to death, tortured, and executed just three days prior. But it’s what the angel tells Mary that I want to emphasize. The angel tells Mary, “go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him.” It’s as though to say Jesus is already on the move now and so go and meet him out there as he lays the groundwork for building up the kingdom. Where is our “out there”? Where is our Galilee? It’s out there that Jesus will meet us as we seek to bind up the wounds of the afflicted, preach freedom to captives, share good news with the poor.