When we founded Prison Fellowship Ministries in 1976, a colleague raised a critical issue: Yes, we felt a clear call to minister to prisoners — perpetrators of crime — but what about victims of crime? Was there a way to mobilize the Church to help clean and heal the wounds that crime left in its wake?
For fifteen years, Prison Fellowship continued to ask that question. Then our "not yet" finally became "it's time." In 1992 our board established Neighbors Who Care, now an affiliate organization. Its mission: to exhort, assist, and equip the Church in its ministry to victims of crime and their families.
When I first heard the name "Neighbors Who Care," I thought it an odd name, yet a name with a message. There was a time in American life, and certainly a time in biblical days, when it would have been redundant to say "neighbors who care," because by definition neighbors cared. It was what the founders of this republic called the "cardinal civic virtue," that is, people caring for one another.
It was a natural part of American life. In fact, when Tocqueville came to this country in the nineteenth century, he observed that in France there were not ten men who would do what Americans did every day as a matter of course. He was referring to people bearing the responsibilities of civic duty and carrying out the simple tasks of caring for their neighbors.
This is less and less the case in our country today. We have experienced an extraordinary cultural transformation in the last fifty years. A recent Gallup poll asked, "Do you trust your neighbor?" and two-thirds of the respondents answered no. Compare that with a 1964 Gallup survey in which 54 percent said that, yes, they did trust their neighbors. A radical change! Thus, we now have a Christian organization called Neighbors Who Care — as if a caring neighbor were some sort of a phenomenon.
This is due in large part to our deteriorating sense of community. In 1997 the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Chicago released research from a study of 343 Chicago neighborhoods of great racial, ethnic, economic, and social diversity. They discovered — or confirmed — that there is no correlation between the rate of violent crime and the economic or ethnic status of the community. They found no single predicting factor of violent crime in a community other than what they call "collective efficacy." They describe "collective efficacy" in terms of what was classically called a "neighborhood": a place where there is a sense of trust, common values, and cohesion. The more cohesion — the more people who are neighbors to neighbors — the less crime. Because there is trust. There is a sense of people caring for one another.
Robert Samson, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and co-author of the study, said that "cohesion is the product of a shared vision." It involves "effusion of a shared willingness of residents to intervene, a sense of engagement and ownership of public space." What a beautiful description in secular terms of the Christian view of community!
As Christians, we have a responsibility, a cultural mandate, to care about and for our neighbors and communities. When I first founded Prison Fellowship, evangelicals would ask me if ministry to prisoners was the "social gospel" — that being a negative phrase. This goes back to the split in the Church in the early part of the twentieth century.
The conservatives were saying, "We are just going to preach to the lost"; the liberals were saying, "We are going to care for the poor." This was an unfortunate historical break, based on false theology.
Which is exactly why grounding Neighbors Who Care and ministry to victims in solid theology and a biblical understanding is so important. The confusion comes when we make no distinction between what the Reformers understood and knew as "saving grace" and "common grace."
Through saving grace, our sovereign God reaches down with a convicting power of His Word and transforms the hardest heart and brings the lost to Himself with His redeeming love. Through common grace, God reaches down and restrains the consequences of sin and evil. Through this common grace, God provides some semblance of order within His creation.
So we are to be instruments of saving grace as we proclaim the Gospel. We are witnesses to the fact that the Word of God cuts like a two-edged sword and goes right to the heart. But we also are to be instruments of common grace — that is, we are to influence our society so that we are the embodiment of that common grace which holds back the consequences of the Fall.
In starting Neighbors Who Care after founding Prison Fellowship, we realized that if we were to attack the problem of crime, it was not enough to preach the Gospel in prisons. We couldn't stop there. We saw how important it is that we care about the full cycle of restoration: We care about the victim's restoration, the offender's restoration to the community, and the peace of the community.
We care about restoring what has been broken by crime. This is what we at Prison Fellowship now call the "full-circle vision": to reach out with the Good News to the men and women who are lost; to minister in practical ways to all those impacted by crime; to reach out for justice in the criminal-justice structures; to reach out to bring God's healing grace into our communities.
When Prison Fellowship first asked questions about launching a ministry to victims, some of us thought narrowly in terms of what I might call "crime cleanup" — spiritually, emotionally, and physically restoring the order destroyed by the chaos of crime.
But now I see ministry to victims as being redemptively double-edged. As we reach out to victims and rebuild community trust, we can reduce crime — so we have fewer criminal offenders in prison.
What could be a more dramatic witness than modeling to the world what it means to restore shalom — what the Jews understood as the peace and harmony of the community as God had created it?
It is time for the Church to rise up and reach out. To do that, we should take advantage of every opportunity to equip ourselves for effective ministry. And that is what this book does by laying out foundational theological, cultural, historical, and practical aspects of key issues in victim ministry and community healing.
I commend these pages to you as you seek to broaden and deepen your understanding of the need for the restorative work of victim ministry.
CHARLES W. COLSON
Prison Fellowship Ministries