Jon Kelly grew up in a tough, crime-ridden Philadelphia neighborhood. It wasn’t long before he got involved with the rougher elements around him. Eventually sentenced to prison at the age of 19 for third-degree murder, Jon was handed a Bible by a corrections officer and introduced to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. With his eyes opened and his heart changed, Jon chose to live for Christ behind bars.
When Jon was released on parole, he once again faced an uncertain future. Only this time, he had his faith in Christ and a few essential resources waiting for him on the outside.
“More than anything, God changed my heart, but there were three resources that I had that most [formerly incarcerated] men and women don’t have,” he says.
THREE RESOURCES EVERY RETURNING CITIZEN NEEDS
A SAFE ENVIRONMENT
First, Jon was able to leave prison for a safe environment. During his time behind bars, his mother moved to a better neighborhood than the one of his childhood. Without the temptations of his former relationships, Jon could stay away from his old habits and lifestyle.
“I no longer had to live in the ‘hood,’” Jon explains. “So, I didn’t have to come home to an environment that was drug-infested, [with] people getting shot, and where there was temptation everywhere.”
“Before I went to prison, people all around me were drug dealers and killers. [After prison], I was in the church mostly. My friends were engineers, lawyers, construction workers—my environment was totally different.”
Second, Jon got a job within his first week of freedom. His employer had gotten to know him when he volunteered at Jon’s correctional facility and offered Jon a job as a painter once he was released.
For many returning citizens, finding a job can be almost impossible due to their criminal records. Every day, former prisoners face more than 48,000 documented legal restrictions, which block their access to r housing, education, and employment.
When returning citizens are unable to work, they are unable to meet their parole and probation requirements and can end up returning to prison.
The third resource Jon had was a church community willing to stand with him. This strong group of Christian men held Jon accountable, helped him along, and refused to let him fall back into his old habits.
“Before I went to prison, people all around me were drug dealers and killers,” Jon says. “When I came home from prison, I was in the church mostly. My friends were engineers, lawyers, construction workers—my environment was totally different.”
Jon’s church could see past his criminal record and acknowledge his God-given potential. And it made a huge difference in how Jon thrived in his second chance at life.
THE CHURCH SHOULD LEAD THE WAY
Today, Jon is the pastor of Chicago West Bible Church. In the years since his release, he’s had his fair share of struggles. He can’t tell you how many times his job applications were rejected—he stopped counting after 67—but even so, he’s managed to pursue both his education and his career as a minister.
He recognizes how his reentry got off on the right foot because he had people who cared about him—but not every returning citizen is so fortunate. Because of this, Jon works hard to advocate for the needs and rights of the formerly incarcerated.
And he believes the Church today needs to lead the way.
“The Gospel is relational, and it’s uncomfortable because it means you’ve got to see all my mess”
“I often say that if you’re not letting a man or woman sit at your table, you’re really short-changing the process,” Jon says. “There were people who accepted me into their homes and there was a plate for me at their dinner table whenever I wanted it. … I had never seen a godly family before, I had never seen a man lead his family in prayer,” he explains. “I’ve never seen a guy act like an idiot and then have to go and ask his wife for forgiveness! But I learned all of that because I was around people enough that I was able to see their [lives].”
Jon’s story isn’t unique. Every year, hundreds of thousands of prisoners are released and return to society. And like Jon, they need a second chance. The Church should be a place where they can easily find support and encouragement.
“The Gospel is all [relational],” Jon says. “And it’s uncomfortable because it means you’ve got to see all my mess— you’ve got to give access to my heart in very vulnerable ways, but that’s what men and women who are coming home from prison need.”