In this edition of Frontlines we spoke to Emma* – who spends her working life helping to rehabilitate ex-offenders.
Solas: Please could you tell us who you are and a little about your job?
ES: Hi, I’m Emma and I work with ex-prisoners, helping to rehabilitate them into the community on their release. We have several aspects to our work, with women, families, children and with people who are caught up in the criminal justice system themselves. My team mostly works with men coming out of prison, many of whom are aged between 16-30, who are often released with some of their sentence still to be served in the community. They have to work with a probation officer, but we are put alongside them as extra support. In practice my job looks very different with every client I work with; but it usually starts with me picking someone up from the prison gates as they are released. I don’t have statutory reports or targets to meet; we are very flexible and work towards goals the client want to achieve. The aim is to reduce the rate of re-offending in that age-group. I studied social work at university, but ended up working in the voluntary sector for many years, but my first exposure to this kind of work was when I was sixteen, helping in the kitchen of a probation approved hostel, and I just loved it.
Solas: Of all those things, what’s your favourite bit? What gives you job satisfaction?
ES: I have friends who work in formal social work settings, and they have a huge amount of legislation, and paperwork to navigate as they take responsibility for clients. And while I have a responsibility to report any criminality, clients only work with us on a voluntary basis, and so the guys really open up to us. When you pick someone up from the prison gate, you find them a meal, take them to the housing authorities to get accommodation, apply for ID, register them with a doctor – they realise from day one that we’re on their side. I love getting to know the clients and I have a case load of about ten guys at any one time, which means I can be quite creative about what I do. One client might want to revisit somewhere from his childhood, another might want to try to repair a broken relationship with a grandparent, and I get to do that with them. I love working with people that society has largely written off. Many of them are in a cycle of re-offending, and prisons, hostels, and substance abuse – chaotic lives stemming from negative childhood experiences. If they miss appointments with me, I don’t write them off, I can give them another chance. It’s all about the clients for me!
Solas: So what are the challenges of this job, and how does your Christian faith help you to navigate those?
ES: The truth is that there are not a huge number of clients who make it. I’ve known clients fall victim to suicide and drug-overdoses. Some of my colleagues might say; “have you heard who’s out of prison again? I just don’t know what to do with him this time?” Despair can creep in for some people, but I take a different attitude because I genuinely believe that if I can introduce this person to who Jesus is, there could be a complete breakthrough and a total change in their life. My boss is supportive of my stance here – while obviously you can’t ‘preach’ at work; their attitude is that if the subject of faith comes up I do not have to shy away from saying what I believe. I worked recently with one older man with learning difficulties who was quite vulnerable. He was released on a Friday afternoon and had nowhere to go – or the capacity to find a solution. He fell between the cracks of all the different government agencies, and so it was left to me to find somewhere for him at 4PM on a Friday afternoon. A lot of people want to forget about these guys and say that they are just suffering the consequences of their own bad life choices. I understand that, and many of them have made dreadful decisions. However, many of them have been born and raised in circumstances that were very, very difficult to break out of. So, there is a huge challenge there in the messiness and sadness of peoples lives; but as a Christian I get the opportunity to pray for the clients and my colleagues too – because the work can be exhausting.
Solas: And how does your faith affect the way you go about your work?
ES: Well I’ve found a job that I love! It doesn’t feel like a chore but an absolute privilege to work with these clients.
Solas: You talk about it more like a ‘calling’ than a ‘career’..
ES: Yes, 100%! Now of course in this work I get lied to or manipulated sometimes, but I get to give people another chance. They might have burnt their bridges with everyone else; they might be homeless, wanted by the police, breached parole, but I am the person that gets to give them another opportunity, another chance. I think that is an outworking of the deeply Christian idea of “grace” because I get given umpteen chances by Jesus. I find myself asking forgiveness every day for the same thing – and he gives grace. So when a client says to me “Emma, why are you still here?” I can say that my faith tells me that I am loved even when I don’t deserve it, and I want them to know what that feels like. Sometime they say, “Oh you’re off on one again!”, but there are other times when that makes a real impression on them. I’m constantly inspired by how Jesus was with people. He stopped, had time for people and went to their level. And so I count it as a huge privilege to walk with those who society sees as the very least.
Solas: So both colleagues and clients know you are a Christian. What have reactions to that been like?
ES: I’ve never had a hostile reaction – which I am thankful for. Apathy is more common: “I’m happy for you, but it’s not for me” type responses which are difficult to navigate, because that just stops conversations before they have gone anywhere. However Covid has given people the opportunity to “see” church. When people have asked if my church is still going I’ve said, “Yes – do you want to see it, here’s the link!” I’ve been able to show them videos or things on my phone and that’s been helpful. There aren’t many Christians in my workplace, which is fine, but that gives me more of a responsibility. The reaction of colleagues has varied. One colleague has been really searching for years and I’ve had all kinds of conversations with him and his wife, which has been lovely. I have offered to pray for colleagues when they are struggling, and sometimes they laugh that off – but sometimes they say they’d appreciate that. What is so important with both clients and colleagues is the relational aspect, if any of them are ever going to see that Jesus is real, then he must impact all that I do, so that they see that reality in me; how I speak, how I listen, stories I tell about family life, how I work; everything! Similarly when I get something wrong, I confess it and don’t pretend to be better than I am.
Solas: So the conversations you’ve had about your faith, do they come up spontaneously or have you set out to have them intentionally?
ES: I find they happen quite spontaneously. There are over 100 of us in the office and we hot-desk, so you never know who you are going to be sitting next to – so conversation is spontaneous; but that suits me! The only times I’ve had significant conversations which have been intentional have been when a colleague has asked me a question, and I’ve had to go away and think about the answer and get back to them. But relational and spontaneous is how I work best!
Solas: And have you ever had much push-back or objections raised to your faith?
ES: Well a few years ago there was a very high profile court-case to do with sexuality – it was all over the news, and some colleagues picked up on that. I felt quite burdened about that because I wanted to speak the truth, but do so in a way that speaks of love and justice and forgiveness, grace, mercy and kindness. So I do a lot more listening than speaking when those sorts of topics come up. It’s the same with the question of suffering, because we see a lot of kids who are brought up around criminality and chaos with their school reporting that they are smelly, unkempt, hungry, and that no homework being done. And it’s so important to listen and acknowledge the reality of suffering and not rush in with answers about what I think or believe. I’ll see where the conversation goes and where I can share that I believe that Jesus loves these people and can transform any life. The problem with hot-topics is that if you say too much too soon, the barriers go up and you lose the whole conversation. I’ve learnt that through my own family experience too, where my family has got it wrong and relationships have broken down because we jumped in too quickly. Listening to people, meeting them where they are at, and walking with them, might give me the opportunity to introduce them to Jesus.
Solas: You are obviously motivated to share your faith? Why is that?
ES: Well, God saved me as a child, in a challenging enough upbringing. And since I was seven God has been my constant companion, He has never let me down, never failed, always lets me come back – always forgives; and there’s something about that that I can’t keep to myself. I think in the work that I do, it just spills out. Because I am motivated to be with people who really have nobody else, and I want other people to have what I have been given. If I get to be just one small seed in their lives; then that is just such a huge privilege.
Solas: What advice would you give to a young Christian starting out in your workplace, who wants to stay faithful to Christ there?
ES: Well, start by reading the Bible as much as you can, and prioritise time alone with God – so that you know how loved you are by God and can share His love with people who have perhaps never known love. That way you’ll be able to show others how loved they are by God, by the time you give them, how you listen, and the way in which you speak to them, and how you forgive. If you try and do all this while you’re spiritually running on empty, the cracks with show. Then practically, find another believer who works in a similar sector to yourself, who understands the challenges. My job can be tough, because of the many sadnesses we experience, but I’m very grateful that my boss is a Christian, and that’s helpful. Then don’t be afraid to have a sense of humour about the work, even if that can be a little dark! And then for me, I always remember that this work is a privilege – to serve these people who so often get written off.
Solas: Thankyou for speaking to us Emma
ES: I hope that’s useful!
*name has been changed for reasons of professional confidentiality