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Jim Liske (Photo by Art Cox/Patrick Henry College)

Liske's lessons

Q&A | What one pastor learned about working with prisoners

Issue: "Effective Compassion," June 16, 2012

Jim Liske is the CEO of Prison Fellowship, the nation's largest prison ministry. He accepted that calling last July after nine years as senior pastor of Ridge Point Community Church in western Michigan. Here are edited excerpts of an April interview.

How did you grow up? I'm a farm boy from northern Michigan. I had the privilege of being raised by a mom and a dad in a family that loved the Lord. I was raised in a wonderful Baptist church that was not too legalistic, was built on grace.

Later, when you were pastoring in Michigan, how did you enter prison work? I had a family member who went to prison seven years ago. White, middle-to-upper-middle class, go-to-church-every-week families don't have people go to prison, right? I did not know how to deal with this personally. I started my own personal wrestling match.

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And you found it wasn't just personal? One weekend I said, "Everyone who has a child or a nephew or a grandchild who is incarcerated, will you raise your hand?" I was shocked. Twenty-five of my faith community raised their hands. The next week I said, "If you have a family member who is incarcerated or if you have been affected by a crime, raise your hand." That was 75 percent of our faith community. We're just the average American congregation, mostly middle class.

How did you get started as a church? We had someone come back to the church who was re-entering culture. He needed a job. He had been a supervising RN at a hospital before he broke the law. When he came back, the barriers to him gaining his life again were astounding. We kept him busy cleaning 166 toilets in our building. Our board and our elders had to wrestle with the business and legal issues in hiring an ex-offender.

Then you developed organizational structures? We birthed a not-for-profit, and then we needed another not-for-profit in addiction recovery because that's an issue for 90 percent of ex-felons. Then we needed to birth not-for-profits in job placement and construction, so we could help ex-offenders find jobs.

Other churches came to you? We became a place, by God's grace, that churches and pastors could come to and ask, "How did you do this?" We would be open with them: It was hard. We had some people leave. I'm sympathetic to that concern.

Did people leave your church because they disagreed with what you were advocating, or because they didn't want to risk sitting next to an ex-felon in the pew? Some have a CSI, Law & Order image of an ex-felon, and the thought of being with that kind of person-they couldn't go there. We had to work very hard to make sure families knew their kids were safe. We even went to thumbprints to get your children out of children's ministry.

I suspect you had some failures? Yeah, we learned some things the hard way. Some individuals, the table was perfectly set for them to succeed and they chose to re-offend. But by and large, once we learned the process and learned from other groups, the success we had was to me a bit miraculous.

If our readers want to help, where might they start? Call your local parole officer and shock him by saying, "Can I help you?" He'll give you one of two answers. He might ask if you're willing to provide transportation for someone who needs to go to a job interview, but most likely he'll ask you if you have an extra bike. Individuals come home from prison without a driver's license. That's one of the major barriers-transportation. I've been a part of giving many bicycles to parole officers so that when someone comes home, they have a way to get to where they need to go.

To take the next step, what should our readers understand? How hard it is to leave the controlled environment. Inmates have been told when to get up, when to eat, when to go to the bathroom, when to recreate. Their decision-making muscles atrophy. When they come outside the walls, they need to make decisions. If they don't have mentors who are able to help them sift through information, their chance of success is very low, because they will default to previous behavior.

Do we have to exercise tough love? If we enter into their world of conning and we're not drawing the proper parameters that we see in the gospel, we're not helping them. One individual didn't go to work Monday. We took him back to work and of course the employer just wanted to let him go back to work. I said, "No you can't. He needs to be disciplined as you would discipline any other employee." So that individual lost a day's pay. He had to understand what's proper and biblical.

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