“My initial thought was one of disgust and disdain ... Now I count these men among my friends.” How do we reach the outcasts of our society? Today Jordan Kauffman, who works at New Person Ministries, a halfway house for released and paroled prisoners, talks about frustration, unlikely friendships, and a change of heart.
Isaiah 11 paints a beautiful prophetic picture of restoration and redemption. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard with the goat, the calf with the lion, and the cow with the bear, all being led by a child. The image is clear and intentional — the predator and the prey will be reconciled. Those who once caused harm and fed upon others will do so no more. And it doesn’t look like the predators are being coerced against their will; in this prophetic image, they each lay down their aggression voluntarily.
I have the privilege to work at New Person Ministries (NPM), a halfway house in Reading, Pa., for men coming out of prison. The vast majority of the men who come to have no place to go when they are released from prison or eligible for parole. On a daily basis, I interact with many types of wolves, leopards, and bears, but I realize that in almost every case, these men were at one time powerless themselves. People who hurt other people are almost always wounded inside. I offer this not as an excuse, but as the reality I see on a regular basis.
Anyone who works in the prison ministry field can tell you this work comes with plenty of disappointments and heartaches. I feel this pain as I learn about a resident who relapsed into alcoholism without our knowledge and now is looking at a much longer prison sentence. I beat my fists against the wall with frustration about the man who will not take all the necessary steps to recovery. I sometimes wish that the Biblical call to “greet one another with a holy kiss” might have been mistranslated, and instead should read “holy kick.” I sigh as I watch when words are just words and do not signify true change. After all, many will say whatever needs to be said to get out of prison.
I am aware that I work with a difficult segment of society. At NPM, we do not automatically rule someone out because of the type of crime they have committed, so we are one of very few halfway houses in the state that take paroled sex offenders. I understand the stigma, and I see the danger, but my reality has been challenged and changed by these men. I no longer see wolves, but broken men covered in shame, longing to have some semblance of a normal life. For the vast majority, this is impossible. The tasks of finding meaningful employment, a place to live, and positive social relationships will prove daunting for most of our men, and their lives are made more difficult by the constant reality of shame and desperation for forgiveness. I truly work with the lepers of our society.
Before I started working at NPM and was simply trying to find my niche, I was told multiple times that I should work with sex offenders. My initial thought was one of disgust and disdain. Knowing what I now know, I shudder to think that at one point in my life, I thought castration for certain types of offenders was just and appropriate. Now I count these men among my friends.
In spite of many frustrations, I see God moving. I see Him in the interaction between a former inmate and his group of supporters as they meet for the first time since his decade-long incarceration. I see Him moving in the soul of a man trying to do everything he can to raise his son in a different environment from the one where he grew up. I see Him in the care between residents, and the gratitude and tears shed at not having to spend Christmas behind bars.
Jesus paints a picture of a banquet feast in multiple gospels. The invited guests come up with excuses for not attending, so the host instead fills his table with outcasts. I see this as the fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah. Imagine the beautiful scene where all these guests sit down to break bread together. There is no longer predator and prey, rich and poor, powerful and weak; there is just the master and his feast. This is the scene I yearn for, and I beckon the day of its coming, on earth as it is in heaven.