Yes, but Will We Welcome Them?

By Rev. Lee Schott, Photo courtesy of Diane Bottorf, 2003

Many of us have hailed the news, over past months, that President Obama has commuted the sentences of hundreds of federal prisoners, most of them incarcerated with draconian sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. President Obama has granted clemency at a rate far in excess of other recent presidents. This reflects, it seems, a growing bipartisan recognition that mandatory minimum sentences have not served us well.

Great news, we might say.

But will we welcome them?

In other news, we are beginning to see the release of juvenile offenders whose mandatory life sentences were declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012. About 2,300 persons were affected by this ruling, but each case has to make its way through the courts, with (usually) re-sentencing, possible appeals, and action by the state’s parole board. Finally this year these releases are beginning to occur around the country.

And how will we respond when they show up on our doorstep? Or in our churches?

In neither situation are prison doors being thrown open without regard to severity, criminality and behavior while behind bars. President Obama’s actions appear to be based on review of individual files.  Juvenile offenders are subject one by one to new sentencing hearings and parole board scrutiny, making foolish the inflammatory warnings from some quarters about the crime sprees we must now expect.

Still, both of these situations—federal commutations and the release of juvenile “lifers”–are raising complicated questions about how these individuals will manage their return to society. Many of these persons have spent decades in prison under the weight of a sentence that said they would die there. Those incarcerated at a very young age missed out on life stages and experiences that have formed the rest of us. It is a daunting prospect, as some accounts have reminded us, to step into a world that has moved on.

It will be tempting for us to do that, to keep moving on, past this moment in history, through this season of—as many of us believe—increased justice in our system of incarceration and release therefrom. We might pause long enough to wish these men and women well. We surely hope they will make good on this second chance that has been offered to them.

But will we welcome them?

The opportunity might arise when they come to the business where we work, and apply for a job there. Will they be asked to mark “the box”—the one that admits they’ve been convicted of a criminal offense? If they do, will their chance of being hired vanish? Our opening might come when we hear about that kid who plays on the same team with ours, who turns out to be the daughter—or, more likely, the grandchild, or niece—of that guy over there, sitting by himself, looking a little uncomfortable and left out of the easy comradeship of us soccer parents.

The welcome I’m most interested in is the one that comes—or doesn’t—in our churches, and among us church folk. If one of these ex-prisoners wends her way into the church where we sit with our family, comfortably joining in Amazing Grace and Christ for the World We Sing, and passing the peace of Christ to our neighbors, will we move over and make room, smiling warmly and extending our hand in greeting? Will that warmth endure ten minutes or ten months later, after we hear her story and realize that she was one of those lifers, or had a long drug sentence commuted? Will we know how to act when we figure that out?

We may find that it’s easier to celebrate the theory of commutation, and mercy, and justice, than it is to live out the relationships that we have the opportunity to form when justice brings her beneficiaries to sit next to us.

It’s worth wondering, though, what Jesus would do. I think he’d welcome these men and women. They are who he’d spend his time with. Or at least not shrink from.

If this feels daunting, there may be some rough consolation in the possibility that these people have already figured out that the church is not going to be a place for them. I found not a single reference to the church in the Washington Post’s lengthy profile of 46 persons released in 2015 after President Obama commuted their sentences, nor in a recent report about some juvenile lifers released earlier this summer. There are a few references to God, and to faith. But not one story (in this admittedly narrow sample) lifts up the church, and relationships with folks there who are guided by their faith commitments, as providing meaningful and valuable support for this path on which their feet have been set. I suppose it’s possible the writers were purposely avoiding mentioning religion. But still. Ouch.

It’s not that we’re called to welcome people as if they had no criminal history. There may be lingering consequences and there are definitely good boundaries that will need to be set into place as we welcome a person from prison into our churches, our soccer bleachers, and our communities. But let them be reasonable, healthy boundaries that aid thoughtful engagement with other human beings whom we will, in fact, be blessed to know. We will be served well to think ahead of time about these possibilities, so that in the moment we can focus on how, not whether, we will welcome these sisters and brothers.

So, let’s practice our answer to the question of welcome with which we began. “Yes, and won’t you sit here next to me? I can’t wait to know you.” It’s a start.

Lee is pastor of Women at the Well in Mitchellville, a church based inside the walls of the Iowa women’s prison. She has been transformed by her connection with women (criminals!) of amazing resilience, faith and wisdom, as they navigate overwhelming obstacles. Lee resides with her husband on her family’s century farm near Prairie City, Iowa. They are the parents of three sons and a new daughter-in-law. She blogs at