Social Lepers: Ministering to the Incarcerated and their Families

By Carlton Cook

In biblical times, lepers were excluded from associating with the people who populated the towns and cities of the Old Testament. Today in a similar fashion, there is another group of social lepers who are routinely excluded from meaningful participation in society.

These individuals and their family members comprise about one-third of the U.S. population, but we hear little from the media about this scourge in our midst.

The numbers speak for themselves:

  • 2.3 million currently in prison or detention facilities
  • 8.0 million estimated to be under parole, probation or court supervision
  • 30 million estimated released offenders living in various U.S. communities
  • 90 million estimated family members of offenders living in the shadows

By comparison, the problems connected with illegal immigration pale under public scrutiny. It has been estimated that there are currently 10 million illegals living in the U.S. Yet this "problem" has long dominated the media's attention while a crisis of faith in government is spreading among those seeking to legally create new lives and dreams.

Mass incarceration is now a way of life in America and little thought has been given to the long term consequences associated with criminalizing more than 10% of the U.S. population. The practical effect is that these families are effectively denied jobs, housing, educational opportunities, freedom of association or the right to choose where they would live as a consequence of the stigmatization process. While offenders have to bear responsibility for their behaviors, the family members of these individuals are bearing a wrongful burden for having loved an offender.

Jesus Christ, Our Savior, died on a cross between two thieves. He died for your sins and mine. The debt has been paid in full. There will not be a special region set aside in heaven to accommodate offenders and their family members. Forgiveness is not parceled out among His sheep. His death of that cross paid the price for everyone who accepts His gift of salvation. There will not be any background checks before entering heaven or none of us would be fit to enter into His presence.

That is why salvation is a gift. We do nothing to earn such gift. In turn we cannot rightfully deny others their privilege of accepting heaven's promise. Those very individuals who raised our ire and disgust will be our heavenly neighbors throughout eternity if they accept the gift of salvation and invite Jesus Christ to come lives in their hearts. Since that is a most private act between sinner and God, none of us can accurately predict those who have made a true confession of faith and repentance.

The Gospel reminds us that Jesus Christ will return and that He will separate the goats from the sheep. He alone knows the hearts of people and He will openly acknowledge those that belong to Him, before His Father in heaven.  In the meantime the wise will be focused upon removing the beam from their own eye, rather than focusing upon the splinter in their neighbor's eye. So how are we to treat those among us who have offended much?

This is a true call to Christian service. We help those lying by the wayside back to their feet and help them along the pathway of life. We show compassion and understanding. And most of all we acknowledge deep within our hearts that "But for the grace of God, go I." Jesus questioned whether He would find faith present when He returned for us. The answer to that question is locked in each of our hearts.

Are we willing to do the things that are tough to handle? Or do we just look for opportunities that are socially and personally convenient? If you see a social leper today or one of their family members, will you embrace them or will you turn away?

Clinical psychologist Kevin J. McCarthy is the author of Surviving the Justice Experience: An Essential Christian Resource for Families of Offenders. McCarthy, who spent more than six years behind bars in California, launched the Dismas Project, a Christian non-profit focused upon service to offenders and their family members.


leper, prison, offender, detention