We are writing to encourage clergy members to include the theme of Second Chances for formerly incarcerated persons in their Labor Day sermons, particularly on efforts to Ban The Box from job applications. To assist in sermon preparation, we are providing the following resources:
- Martha’s Story
- A Prayer To End Employment Discrimination For The Formerly Incarcerated
- Sample Sermon: Unbind Him
- Sample Sermon: God Of Second Chances
- What You & Your Congregation Can Do
- Background Information on Ban The Box
We hope you will find these resources inspiring and informative. Our hope is that together this year we can acheive Ban The Box in at least 3 faith groups, 3 local governments and 3 private employers. It can only happen with the involvement of clergy and members of our congregations!
Rev. Angie Wright
by Martha Shearer
Nearly thirty years ago, I made a mistake and for that mistake, I believe that I am being perpetually punished even though I have paid my debt to society, even though while incarcerated I took advantage of every opportunity to increase my chances of being a productive citizen once released. I got my GED, I learned landscaping and horticulture, I dedicated my weekends to help build houses with Habitat for Humanity and so much more.
When released, I immediately gained employment with a company that received an incentive for hiring ex-felons. With my earnings, I purchased a house to provide a safe and stable environment for my three sons and I continued to pursue higher education. Today, I have earned an Associate’s degree, a Bachelor’s degree, and two Master’s degrees and have nearly completed requirements for a PhD.
I wanted to prove to others and convince myself that I am a valuable asset to the community and should be given the chance to prove my worth. Despite the degrees that are hanging on my wall, I am still finding it hard to find gainful employment because of that Box I must check on employment applications. In fact, I was terminated from one job after working there for two years. I checked “the box” but they failed to run the background check until two years after I was hired.
I was judged by “that box” and not for who I am today.
Potential employers have told me they do not consider applications that have “the box” checked. They use it as a way of screening out applicants. I stand here today saying “I am not that Box” and no one deserves to be perpetually punished.
I merely ask potential employers to allow themselves the opportunity to check me out first and stop forcing me, and others, to first check that box.
Prayer to End Discrimination in Employment
for the Previously Incarcerated
by Rev. Carolyn Foster
Greater Birmingham Ministries
Leader: O God, you created us in your image. Yet we have failed to see God’s face in our brothers and sisters.
People: Have mercy on us, O Lord, and open our eyes to see.
Leader: You created us as equals; yet we have not treated each other as equals.
People: Have mercy on us, O Lord, and open our hearts to one another.
Leader: When we had fallen into sin, we were reconciled; yet some children of God are not reconciled into community even after paying their debt to society.
People: Have mercy, O Lord, have mercy.
Leader: Help us, O Lord, to do our part to remove those barriers to creating new life in you and in community.
People: Unite us, O Lord, in justice and in love.
Leader: Through your good example of forgiveness, faithfulness and mercy, help us to:
Leader: Ban the box that can lead to employment discrimination.
People: And let fairness and acceptance be our guide.
Leader: Ban the box that can lead to bias and prejudice.
People: And let impartiality and respect for all God’s children prevail.
Leader: Ban the box that can lead to perpetual punishment.
People: And let your people be restored to newness of hope.
By your power, O God, make us instruments of your peace and reconciliation in the world. In your holy name, we pray. AMEN
Biblical Reflection: Unbind Him
By Rev. Kelley Hudlow
Deacon, The Abbey (Episcopal), Birmingham, AL
Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” 
In the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. As Jesus goes to the tomb, a crowd gathers. At the grave, Jesus tells them to remove the stone. Martha, Lazarus’ sister, protests, stating that there would be a smell because it had been so long since Lazarus died. In spite of this Jesus has the people remove the stone, and he called his friend Lazarus from the grave, saying “Lazarus, come out!”
In that moment a miracle happened. Lazarus, four days in the grave, walked out of his tomb. But the work was not finished. Lazarus stood there, still wrapped in the strips of cloth that made his burial shroud. Lazarus was raised, but was still bound by the grave. To finish the work, Jesus says to the crowd gathered there, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
In fiscal year 2014, there were 18,287 felony convictions in Alabama. In that same time period, 7,770 people were sent to prison for new offenses and 11,504 people were released from custody. For those incarcerated following conviction, they are cast out of society, locked away in the tomb of prison. For those that are given a community sentence, or those released from prison, they face the reality of forever being marked as “felon” in their community.
After a felony conviction, a person faces many challenges, including finding employment. On most job applications they are faced with marking a box that lets the employer know that they have been convicted of a felony. For many people that is as far as they will get in the employment process. They will never get the chance to explain the circumstances of the conviction, the rehabilitation programs completed, or the education and training they have. The answer to this one question is sufficient for an employer to discard the application, and to leave the person bound by their past.
After all the miracle work had been done, Lazarus’ community had the responsibility to recognize the new life that Jesus had given to Lazarus. It was the community that had to recognize that a miracle had occurred. It was the responsibility of the community to welcome their brother Lazarus back and to unbind him from the trappings of the grave.
Every year thousands of people reenter their communities with felony convictions. Their hope is to resume life, to find employment, and to provide for themselves and their families. We as individuals and communities of faith must hear Jesus’ call to unbind them and let them go, we must remove the labels and barriers that would hold them in their old life. By removing the box that asks about felony convictions on employment applications, we are beginning the work of unbinding. It is a simple act, and by doing so we are responding to Jesus’ call to recognize new life.
 John 11:43-44, New Revised Standard Version Bible
 Alabama Sentencing Commission 2016 Report, p.18
 Ibid., p. 21
 Ibid., p. 24
Biblical Reflection: God of Second Chances
By Rev. Angie Wright
Greater Birmingham Ministries
The God of Second Chances is a persistent image throughout Scripture, beginning with the Fall from the Garden of Eden and extending to the end of Christian scriptures. Failure seems to be hard-wired in human nature. We all fall short – over and over again. Thankfully, it is in God’s nature to be “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). Scripture testifies to God’s faithfulness in giving flawed human beings second chances – and countless more. God is forgiving and always offers the chance for us to “reboot” our lives and start over.
The walk of faith is to reflect the forgiving nature of God. It reflects God’s intention to give people who have fallen short the chance to start over. It exemplifies hope and belief in redemption in our personal relationships, and as we live together in community.
Can you imagine how wounding it would it be for our God to deny us the chance to make things right, to start over? What would it be like to experience ‘perpetual punishment’ for mistakes that we made? What if there was no redemption for the damage we bring upon ourselves and others?
This is the experience of many persons who were once incarcerated. After they have paid their dues to society, they come home ready to ‘reboot’ and start over. Many formerly incarcerated persons served their time yet it is as if their sentence never ends. It is nearly impossible for someone with a criminal background to get meaningful employment or a decent place to live. In many states, it is also nearly impossible for them to regain the right to vote.
It’s astounding that God not only gives second chances, but often chooses the persons most in need of forgiveness to bring about God’s purposes. Moses was a murderer. By today’s standards, he would have deserved capital punishment. Yet God gave him a chance to start over and create a good life. God went even further and called on Moses to lead his people out of slavery and into the Promised Land. God didn’t mention the murder but instead embraced the new person that Moses had become.
God also forgave David, gave him a new chance at life, and called him into service of God’s purposes and people.
Joseph, Samson, Jeremiah, Micaiah, Zedekiah, Daniel, John the Baptist, Peter, James, John, Silas, Paul, Epaphras, Aristarchus, Junia, and even Jesus himself were incarcerated. The apostle Paul was a repeat offender, many times over! What if their history of incarceration essentially banned them from being employed or housed in God’s kingdom?
As God says in Hebrews 10:17, “Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” Even the worst sinner and most hardened criminal can start over as a beloved child of God.
On this Labor Day Sunday, these questions we might ask ourselves:
- Do we believe that someone should, in the words of Martha, endure perpetual punishment for a mistake they made and paid for?
- Do we believe that anyone should be sentenced to endure perpetual labor in vain?
- Do we believe in redemption?
- What does redemption mean for our brothers and sisters who were once incarcerated?
Ban The Box is one way that we can begin to chip away at the nearly insurmountable barriers facing people when they return home from prison. Ban The Box is a nationwide initiative that has been adopted in over 100 cities and counties, 24 states, and by many large private employers including Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Wal-Mart.
Employers remove the box from job and housing applications that asks about criminal history. Applicants with a criminal background can be considered first on their merits. If they are granted an interview, they then have the opportunity to share their story. Employers will still run background checks, but later in the process, after they have determined that the applicant is a good fit for the job.
For certain job positions, criminal background is related to the responsibilities of a specific position. For instance, someone with a history of embezzlement should probably not work in a bank! But for many, the Box just serves to block out qualified candidates whose past history does not affect their current ability to do a job and do it well.
We can make a real difference in the lives of people struggling to create a new way of life. We can Ban The Box in our congregations, workplaces, and local and state governments. It’s a first step toward a second chance. We can be a part of God’s redemptive work in our midst.
What You Can Do To Help Ban The Box
- Invite GBM to make a presentation on Ban The Box with your faith community, employer and/or elected officials.
- Ask your faith community to remove the Box from its job application.
- Contact your city council members and ask them to consider a Ban The Box ordinance. Here is a link to model local and state ordinances.
- Ask your employer to consider removing the Box from the job application.
- Ask businesses that you frequent to remove the Box from their job applications.
GBM staff members will provide resources and training, and go with you as you meet with members of your faith community, elected officials and employers.
For more information:
Contact Martha at 326-6821 x 101 or Martha@gbm.org.
Background On ‘Ban The Box’
By Stephen Stetson, Alabama Arise
How long should a mistake follow people through their lives? Should it prevent them from earning a living? The “criminal history checkbox” on many standardized job application forms often keeps otherwise qualified employees from making it to the next stage of the hiring process, where they could explain their past face-to-face. This creates discouraging barriers to employment for people who are looking to rebuild their lives after serving their time and paying their debt to society.
A nationwide “ban the box” movement is urging some simple but important changes to job application processes. Removing questions about conviction histories can level the playing field and give all applicants a fair chance to compete for jobs on the basis of qualifications and skills. The movement already has influenced many Alabama employers to make individualized assessments of applicants, delaying questions about criminal offenses until later in the hiring process, and considering how long ago the offense was committed and whether it is relevant to the job.
Nineteen states [at the time of this writing, now 24], including Georgia, have removed the conviction history question from their applications for state jobs. Seven states have even removed the question from applications for jobs with private employers. President Obama’s executive order in November 2015 will ease the re-entry of former inmates into society by “banning the box” on federal job applications.
Many major corporations already recognize that it makes good business sense to pick from the widest possible pool of employees. Target, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Koch Industries, Starbucks, and Bed, Bath & Beyond no longer ask questions about criminal history on initial job applications.
How ex-offenders can re-enter the workforce and the broader society is an issue with both moral and economic dimensions. People who have completed their punishment deserve both dignity and forgiveness. Ex-offenders need to be brought back into the mainstream, rewarded for their labor and encouraged to play by the rules. Creating a group of people deemed permanently unemployable because of a past criminal conviction is bad public policy and bad economics.
BOTTOM LINE: Employers have every right to inquire about the histories of their prospective employees, but a common-sense rule could help ensure that job applicants are judged on their full merits. Removal of the criminal history checkbox would allow employers to judge each applicant on substantive criteria. That would help former inmates become productive members of society and provide for their families.