While sitting in a church service recently, I realized just how much religion has in common with twelve-step programs and other community groups. The sermon was about the meaning of churches and what it means to be a part of a church. I gleaned the following highlights: If you do not feel a sense of family at church, it means that you are not fully experiencing the church. If all you do is go sit in church for an hour a week, you are not building community.
Church is so much more than sitting in a pew—or more commonly in modern day times, a chair—each Sunday. Church is about worshiping God, loving one another, and serving each other. Church is about creating a family. The fellowship aspect of church is just as important as attending the church services. It is important to be an active participant in church life instead of being a passive spectator on the sidelines.
Similarly, twelve-step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous share common core values. A member of a twelve-step program can attend multiple meetings a week, but still not receive the full communal experience. For instance, a person who shows up right on time for the meeting, takes a seat in the back, and then walks out of the room the moment after the closing prayer concludes most likely feels as if he is an outsider. While that individual did hear the message, he did not get to know anyone and no one had the chance to get to know him. He will remain anonymous in Alcoholics Anonymous unless and until he forms a community amongst the meeting goers.
After all, there is so much more to the program than the meetings. There is the fellowship and the importance of having a chosen family that unites over a common enemy—alcohol. There is service—helping others. Whether someone serves coffee, acts as a greeter, talks with newcomers after the meeting, or gives someone rides to and from church basements, that person will quickly learn that what is critical for his own continual sobriety is getting outside of himself by helping his fellows.
These same core values—fellowship, service, and community—transcend all successful societal groups. Whether you are a yogi, a golfer, a dancer, an academic, a cook, or an animal lover, having a healthy community of like-minded people fosters success. Loving others, serving others, and learning to accept help yourself are all important human experiences. After all, humans are social creatures. Relationships with others are what keep us going during both the good and the bad times.
Truly belonging to a community is of great benefit to everyone. Not only do communities provide support and companionship, but also members are able to use their experiences to help others. For instance, if you are struggling with wanting to drink alcohol, a member of your Alcoholics Anonymous community can walk you through the situation by sharing his or her experience, strength, and hope. If you are going through a contentious divorce, a member of the community has likely had a similar experience and can share his or her account with you. Always someone can provide guidance to you no matter the situation. We can all learn from those who have trudged the path before us.
The same is true for the incarcerated population. Those who want to reform can best learn the necessary tools from hearing the experience, strength, and hope of likeminded people who have overcome the same obstacles. Those previously behind bars who are now productive members of society are in the best position to mentor those currently in custody. Such individuals possess firsthand experience about the transition from prison to the free world. Such individuals know the trials and tribulations you face behind bars and how to grapple with the stigma of the criminal label.
All jails and prisons need to introduce regular groups led by former inmates who clearly demonstrate the concept of rehabilitation. In church, members oftentimes meet in small groups and attend counseling sessions with spiritual leaders in the community. In twelve-step groups, individuals attend regular meetings, meet with sponsors, and sponsor other individuals. In athletics, players attend practices and oftentimes hire individual trainers who are experts in the sport. The same goes for those in custody—they can acquire a wealth of knowledge from those who have been in their shoes.
Additionally, these jail and prison community meetings need to occur multiple times a week, not merely when convenient for the prison or jail staff to allow outsiders into the facility. The meetings need to be a regularly scheduled occurrence that the inmates can depend on attending. Such groups will bring so much value to society that jails and prisons should not preclude those behind bars for attending as a form of punishment or institutional control.
Of course, jails and prisons should not force anyone to attend small groups, as society never forces individuals to attend other community gatherings. However, it is crucial that the option exists and that inmates can easily access the groups once they have cultivated the requisite willingness.
It is so easy to overlook the lack of resources behind bars. Many people regularly comment that those behind bars do not deserve special treatment. However, building a community and learning methods to rehabilitate are extremely important. It is imperative that our society demands such programming in jails and prisons. Providing those behind bars with appropriate and sufficient resources can hardly be considered special treatment. Society as a whole will immensely benefit.