Doing What They Do Best

Here is a little secret I have discovered over the years: Government does its best when it lets faith-based groups do what they do best. But, usually, this does not happen until government admits that it cannot do everything on its own.

Hurricane Katrina showed the State of Alabama that churches and faith-based groups know their stuff when it comes to disaster relief. Now, the state is turning to these groups for help with a different kind of disaster-the incarceration boom.

“If we can motivate the faith-based community in the state the way we do during an emergency, then we can make a difference,” Governor Bob Riley told a gathering of 500 religious leaders on May 20.

That is why Governor Riley announced that he was starting a Community Partnership for Recovery and Reentry, which will coordinate, but not fund, the efforts of churches and other community groups to provide ex-prisoners with employment assistance, housing, clothing, health care, and spiritual guidance.

The partnership is encouraging churches and community groups to provide one-on-one financial counseling, host parenting classes for prisoners and their spouses, and help ex-prisoners pay their parole fees. But the group will not actually do the work the churches ought to be doing. It is the churches themselves that will be caring for the downtrodden-in this case, prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families.

Even the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State cannot argue with that. Americans United attorney Alex Luchenitser said, “There’s certainly nothing wrong with religious charities providing care for inmates and recently released inmates.”

Deborah Daniels, an ex-offender with a magnificent testimony-and our Prison Fellowship field director in Alabama-got a chance to speak at the gathering. “We allowed government to come in and take over what God’s people are supposed to do,” she said. “We talk about crime. But crime is sin. Apart from God, every child is troubled.”

She makes a very good point-a point she knows only too well herself. It is a point I have shared with you on “BreakPoint” many times; crime is the result of wrong moral choices. That is something only the Church can address. Thirty years of prison ministry has shown us that the real impetus behind successful prisoner reentry is a changed heart-one that has been transformed by Jesus Christ. That is why only 8 percent of the graduates of the Texas InnerChange Freedom Initiative® program-which we launched in Texas several years ago-return to prison within two years of release. And that compares with more than half of prisoners nationally, who return to prison within three years!

A change of heart-that is what will turn prisoners into productive citizens doing honest work, paying their taxes, and reconciling with their families and their communities.

The role of government-remember, the Bible is clear on this-is to maintain order and to promote justice, not to do the work of the Church. By encouraging faith-based groups like Prison Fellowship to take on the role of helping the least in our society, the government is doing what it does best: governing, and leaving compassion and transformation up to the people who do it so well-the Church.

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  • I’ve long maintained that there are two sides to the admonition, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and render unto God the things that are God’s.” Surely works of charity are things that ought to be rendered unto God, and not Caesar.