When members of local faith communities reached out to offer assistance, a prison inmate discovered he was harboring stereotypes of his own.

Delayno knows all about the stereotypes. As an inmate at the Community Corrections Center – Lincoln (Nebraska), he’s dealt with them for most of his adult life.

“A lot of people think that we’re bad people. I understand that,” he says. “I’m a young man who made a bad mistake at the age of 19 and I’ve been here for nine years now.”

But when members of local faith communities reached out to offer assistance, Delayno discovered he was harboring stereotypes of his own.

“It was like a smack in the face, because I really didn’t believe that people would go out of their way to help people like us.”

Delayno is one of many inmates benefiting from the Lincoln, Nebraska, Reintegration Program (RIP), which provides guidance, encouragement, and education as inmates transition out of prison and return to the community. The program offers 14-week classes taught from a Christian perspective plus mentoring relationships, community volunteer opportunities, small group gatherings, and other support.

RIP is a partnership between Hope Community Church (RCA) and Northern Lighthouse Church (CRC), with additional assistance from Southwood Lutheran Church. At Hope Community, the work is spearheaded by the church’s men’s ministry, the Hope Knights. The Knights host the Monday night classes at Hope Community, and many of them serve as teachers.

“It is important for our church to witness and get involved in different forms of outreach that take each of us outside our comfort zone,” says Russ Plock, a Hope Knight and RIP class co-leader. “The apostle Paul, in Hebrews, commands us to not forget those incarcerated, as though we are a prisoner with them.

“We have progressed from just hosting [RIP sessions] to leading and teaching classes. With each new session, God creates new opportunities that we saw coming—and many directions that we didn’t. It’s a continuing faith-growing process.”

Making it happen

Making RIP successful takes a small army of dedicated volunteers. The program serves about 35 participants per 14-week period. Currently about a dozen teachers lead classes on topics including healthy family systems, 12 steps of Christianity, life skills, God’s awesome world, eight common pitfalls, and grief sharing. Other people serve as sponsors. They sign for the temporary release of inmates and help supervise them at community functions, including Sunday worship and the weekly classes. Many people also pitch in on Saturdays, when participants do volunteer work—including minor repairs on vehicles—at the Northern Lighthouse property.

Why it matters

The Hope Knights view their ministry as one mandated by God, but also as something necessary in what can be a broken prison system.

“We want to help keep these folks from re-offending or repeating a destructive pattern,” says Doug Ivey, a Hope Knight and RIP class co-leader. “We’ve heard from several participants that the prison system essentially sends a person out the door with a check for $100 and says ‘good luck.’ There seems to be a need for post-parole or post-release support.

“And, from some of the testimonies that I’ve heard, a lot of the participants grew up in a dysfunctional home. They may have experienced some form of love, but probably not the full extent of God’s love and saving grace. It’s important for them to know that God’s grace is extended to everyone, not just those of us who attend church, or those of us who obey the law.”

Eugene Butler is currently on parole, but still participating in the RIP program. He says many inmates come to prison with “street skills”—behavior that may have put them in prison in the first place—but are lacking in “common life skills” to serve them well after their release. This, he says, is where RIP can be a light in the darkness.

“[Parolees] will eventually hit a hard spot in life [after release],” says Butler. “And what may be a small challenge to some could be a huge challenge for a person who doesn’t have the proper skills to function responsibly. These situations could cause an inmate who was just released to come back to prison once again. [RIP] gives them hope. And many inmates come from a life where hope is foreign. They feel as if they have no other way to go in life…and this is not true. There is another way, and there are other options.”

Of course, the participants aren’t the only ones benefiting from the RIP ministry. Volunteers from each of the participating churches have seen their faith grow right alongside the participants.

“Some of the guys from our Hope Knights men’s group have really owned this in their heart,” says Plock. “I am excited to see my brothers become leaders, while being passionate and authentic. I can see God’s hand at work in all of us as we serve each other. ‘Baby steps’ is our group motto, and I see that playing out with the participants also, as they are baby Christians. It is refreshing for me to see things from their perspective, and in ways I can’t compare to. This is discipleship…this is fellowship.”

Transitioning back

As Delayno prepares to transition out of life at the corrections center, he says RIP has helped him “organize everything” in order to be absolutely ready to make the transition back into society.

“Joining the RIP program allowed me to be around better people who helped me progress spiritually, emotionally—helped my eyes see what’s really out there, beyond the walls of CCC-L. And I can see transformation in a lot of inmates since they’ve come to RIP and since I first met them. In prison, you can become better or worse; I chose to become better.”

Pray that inmates will have access to the support they need as they transition from prison to life on the outside.

Join an advocacy network to address issues of mass incarceration. Contact advocacy@rca.org for details.

Read about other ways the RCA and CRC are working together in Southeast Nebraska: www.rca.org/nebraskakez.