May 13, 2013

Faith Based Communities Have a Key Role to Play in Reentry

Each month staff and volunteers from the Interfaith Center of New York and the Harlem Community Justice Center host a lunchtime series called ‘Food for Thought’. These monthly gatherings draw a diverse group of service providers, policy advocates, community residents, and individuals returning home from prison together to network and support the successful transition of the formerly incarcerated. Last month’s keynote speaker, Pastor Patero Sabune, Reentry Community Liaison for the Department of Corrections, shared his insights on the role of the faith community in the reentry movement. Here are some highlights from his magnetic speech!

Many times individuals are tempted to think of the formerly incarcerated as bad people who are distinct from the general population, instead of as complex individuals who have made serious mistakes in their lives and need assistance and guidance to make changes in their lives. Pastor Sabune challenged these sentiments by sharing his own realization from his days as a chaplain at Sing Sing Correctional Facility.

“When I started working at Sing Sing I came to realize that [the inmates] are the same as my children. These men were no different than my son and my child could easily be where they are today.” Promoting an understanding that the formerly incarcerated are not necessarily bad people but, people that at one time or another made a bad decision; Pastor Sabune encouraged all stakeholders to adopt a community oriented mindset when tackling reentry issues. Quoting the Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Pastor Sabune proclaimed “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” As members of a community, “we are all interconnected and what happens to one of us, affects us all” and as such, members of the faith community have a role to play in the reentry process.

“To illustrate the reluctance to embrace all our neighbors as a shared community responsibility, Sabune offered an example of his former congregation’s unwillingness to help local children. “When I served as a pastor in Mount Vernon, I saw the kids out in the street with nothing to do and I invited them into the church. Members of the church said to me, those are not our kids. If you let them in, they will break in.” He laughed incredulously as he recalled explaining to the congregation that they “were already invited in. How could they break in?” Sabune’s point was that if we open our arms to all children and give them support, they won’t be able to “break in.”

Overall, he says, communities are safer for all members when individuals have positive supportive networks to promote prosocial behaviors. As central institutions with significant direct and indirect economic and social resources the church is positioned to have a positive influence in the lives of many community members. “Reentry is a movement that begins every morning we rise…” and each of us “has the power to help, it is up to us to use or misuse that power” said Pastor Sabune.

Undoubtedly, the Harlem Community Justice Center recognizes the positive social benefits and essential services the faith community has to offer to persons returning home from incarceration. That is why we have joined together with the Interfaith Center of NY and Harlem residents from a growing list of faith communities to build a coalition of support and friendship to welcome people returning home as productive and valuable members of the community. To learn more about our work with the Interfaith Center of NY, click here.