The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Same table

Unfamiliar faces in the pews are common on Easter Sunday. This past Easter was no different at Redeemer Lutheran Church, Binghamton, N.Y., although one of its worship services was far from ordinary.

After months of preparation and prayer, Redeemer held its first adults-only worship service at 4 p.m. Easter Sunday, welcoming 20 visitors, all registered sex offenders.

Paul (last name withheld upon request) was one of them. He hadn’t been to church for eight years and didn’t expect to go for another eight, when his parole would end. But a friend who attended Redeemer handed him a flier for the adults-only service. 

“I didn’t think I’d be able to go back again until I got done with probation,” Paul said. “This church doesn’t judge. They accepted the fact that some of us had gotten into trouble and were learning from our bad decisions. A young man told his story and it struck home with me. … We had communion, which was awesome. I actually felt a sense of peace come over me. This makes me feel much better about life.”

It began almost a year earlier with a knock on the church door. In this impoverished community, requests for help are common. Barbara Hayden, Redeemer’s pastor, wasn’t surprised when a man (name withheld) came asking for help. Nor was she surprised to not see him again for a year.

What Hayden didn’t expect was his return — and the story he shared. As a registered sex offender, he was required to provide his address to law enforcement authorities. Failing to do so had cost him his freedom. “I wanted to let you know I was in jail,” he told her. “I didn’t just disappear.”

Over the coming months, the visitor became part of Redeemer’s community. Hayden often found him cleaning the kitchen and other rooms for little to no pay. As an ex-offender, he had a difficult time finding a job and an apartment. Hayden often drove him to interviews.

But with no job and little money, he soon ended up back in jail, where he asked a chaplain to contact the only person he could: Hayden.

‘Scarlet letter’

Most modern registries of people convicted of sexual crimes trace their origin to the federal Omnibus Crime Bill of 1994. As of 2012, nearly 750,000 Americans were listed on offender registries, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Originally intended to protect children from sexual crimes, registration is now mandated for a variety of crimes, as Hayden discovered.“If some guy [urinated] behind a bush,” she said, “he could be a Level 1 sex offender.” 

The collateral punishments that follow registration can be severe in some cases. Registered offenders can be prohibited from using computers, evicted from public and private housing, and prevented from attending school-related events — even with their own children. As Hayden describes it, being a registered offender is like having “a scarlet letter for the rest of your life,” regardless of the circumstances of the crime.

Ministry among registered offenders is particularly difficult. Many offenders can’t be in places where children gather. In addition, the stigma following them can be turned against congregations that would welcome all — including offenders. A primary concern for Hayden is that Redeemer could “be targeted” for backlash from its community.

Rightfully so, say many. Churches are supposed to be welcoming but also safe places where members can trust one another and where adults and children are protected from harm. In a 2010 survey, Christianity Today found that nearly half of respondents would oppose allowing a registered offender to serve in a ministry in their congregation. For many in the church, the risk of re-offending is too high.

But researchers have found public perception of the risk of repeat sexual offenses to be much higher than it is, especially when the specific characteristics of a crime are taken into account. In a 2010 study for the Justice Department, researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, found that offender registries and notification systems have little to no effect on recidivism rates and may, in some cases, increase the risk they will commit future sex crimes.

The legal barriers and social stigma that follow conviction for sex-related offenses can leave offenders without the support they need to return to communities following incarceration and can generate fear and suspicion among even the most compassionate of Christians.

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February issue


Embracing diversity