When I got home, they threw me a party.
It was a surprise. I had just come home from a 1-year county bid, with six years to walk off on paper. They knew I was coming, but I didn’t know they were going to throw me a party. There was a banner across the door inside the vestibule with my name on it, and “WELCOME HOME” in big letters. They had food, a cake, and champagne. Of course, it was non-alcoholic bubbly. You don’t serve the real stuff to an alcoholic like me. In fact, it was drinking that got me locked up in the first place. I’m allergic to alcohol–when I drink, I break out in handcuffs.
Truthfully, the drinks would be non-alcoholic no matter who they were welcoming home. “They” were my church family, and the party was at Praise and Glory Tabernacle Family Worship Center in Southwest Philadelphia. My pastor, Apostle Philip Whiteside, had arranged for the church to welcome me back with open arms for another chance at getting things right.
A lot of guys I know got parties when they came home, just not the kind you could have in church. Some of those parties would have been instant violations if their PO had found out. And then some of us come home and there is no welcoming committee. Our arrival often signals responses somewhere between indifference and hostility. Some people wish we had stayed locked up.
But my experience of coming home rocked. Smiles and hugs. “We’re glad you’re back!” And their joy in my return mirrored their care for me while I was away. I received letters and cards from church members. When I got work release, several families brought hot lunch to my job so I didn’t have to eat those d$#@ baloney sandwiches and drink the red sugar water pretending to be fruit punch that they handed me as I walked out of jail each morning to catch the bus. One church lady even wrote me a letter every week with the basic points of the sermon Pastor Whiteside preached that Sunday so I could keep up and be encouraged. My church family was there for me.
Some of you reading this wish you had that kind of support. Others of you go to churches and mosques that do welcome home the formerly incarcerated. Still others reside in “Haterville,” struggling with the hostility bred by how we treated you before we left. But here’s what we know: inmates who get support while incarcerated through their reentry to society are less likely to re-offend and go back to jail or prison. We need support while gone, and support coming home. And increasing numbers of church folk are taking seriously the fact that forgiveness is part of why they’re in business, and saying “Welcome Home!”
In Charlotte, NC, the Exodus Foundation, under the leadership of Rev. Madeline McClenney-Sadler, throws a Welcome Home party every three months for people returning from incarceration and their families. I remember attending a Welcome Home barbecue in Harlem led by Rev. Darren Ferguson a couple of summers ago. The state of Georgia is working to have churches in every county serve as welcoming stations for women and men returning from state prison. I know some religious folk live in Haterville, but that’s changing. More and more houses of worship are saying, “Welcome Home.”
When I’m not writing this column or teaching at my university, I oversee a network of congregations around the country called Healing Communities USA. We specialize in helping congregations get ready to be there for the transition home. There may be one in your neighborhood. If not, we can come and teach a church or a mosque how to be that support we all need when we get out. If you are interested in finding or being a house of worship that will say “Welcome Home,” shoot me an e-mail through our web site (www.healingcommunitiesusa.com). We need more parties like the one I got, so we don’t have the ones that’ll get you violated quick and in a hurry. Let me hear from you.