By Laurie Power
Director of Lifelong Faith Formation
Holy Child Parish, Runnemede, NJ
As part of the Matthew 25 Project, Holy Child Parish hosted a speaker who volunteers in Camden’s recently launched Welcome Centers, an outreach to the formerly incarcerated to help them secure healthcare, find employment and stay on the right path. As James Rodriguez, a parishioner of St. Josephine Bakhita and volunteer with Camden Churches Organized for People (CCOP), told his story and described his experiences serving returning citizens, the conversation became a lesson in mercy — the mercy described in Matthew 25, the mercy we, as Christians, are all called to share. What did we learn?
- God’s mercy is for all. It can reach anyone, anywhere. James recounted the night he sat drinking outside his house and, from a place of profound sadness, started a conversation with God. He knew something had to change. God answered his prayer, but not in the way he had expected. That night he was arrested and spent six months in jail. God continued the conversation and James took advantage of all the programs offered there. The time he spent incarcerated changed his life. God is now using him to reach out to those who are where he once was.
- Mercy has to be shared. It means meeting people where they are. When individuals come to the Welcome Centers, an immediate physical need is met by getting them enrolled for health insurance. Because of this, James related, they can begin to believe that they are part of society again and not written off as non-entities or “mess-ups.” They are then given an opportunity to speak. At listening sessions, they share the barriers that keep them from thriving in their communities. They are not simply offered advice, but a place to be heard.
- Communities are built on mercy. James felt strongly that it is only through real concern for each other that communities can survive: “It’s when we stop caring about one another that things of a bad nature start happening.” Welcome Centers not only offer practical resources, but introduce returning citizens to people who care about them.
The take-home message was one of hope. Welcome Centers are a small step, but one with remarkable potential, for whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me (Matt. 25:40).
To learn more about Welcome Centers and how you can serve returning citizens, contact Frank Stiefel from CCOP at 856-966-8869 or firstname.lastname@example.org.