For a few hours, it was ‘normal.’ Whatever that can mean, last night it meant relaxed socializing with family and friends over a shared dinner and program. Had you walked into the room, besides all the men wearing the same color clothes and ID badges and the CO’s lingering in the background, you would not have know you were in a prison. I was wiping tears.
Most of you have probably never stepped foot into a prison and there’s no problem with that if that means you have no family there. For 18 months of my life that was not the case for me and I GLADLY made the bi-monthly trip to visit my youngest brother who was taking responsibility for something and growing by leaps and bounds in the process. The visitation room I was in last night was the same one in which I saw him transformed before my eyes in those 18 months; the same one in which we pulled off 3 different surprises on family members (including a 50th birthday surprise for me); and one in which I saw a life changed as a result of the Kairos retreat program. It was also the same visitation room I never expected to see again…BUT GOD!
It’s been over a year since my brother has been home, and just about a year when God laid on my heart to contact his first Bunkie and dear friend, Wes. As a family we had already said how we wanted to keep in touch with Wes but last Christmas Wes popped into mind and the burden was strong. So I took a leap of faith – with my stomach in my mouth – and reached out to Wes via email. Little did I know God had been working to make that happen. Within a couple communications – cautious though they were at the start – Wes shared something incredibly humbling: “you are an answer to prayer.” Wow. Blown away. Just because I sent an email?!
Wes went on to share some things he was struggling with, particularly around the holidays, and said he was praying for someone to be like family for him….to help ease some of the aloneness and isolation that was wearing him down. Wes is a strong believer and a leader among his peers. And he has a tender heart and gets lonely like the rest of us.
Fast forward through 2015. After a month or so of emails Wes invited me to be an authorized visitor on his visitation list. That went through after a couple hurdles and we had a video visit which led to our first in-person visit. And the visits have continued.
Which leads us to last night. Wes is part of the First Steps Discipleship Program sponsored by Brice Rd United Methodist Church. It is a one-on-one 12 week discipleship program designed to build relationships and ‘make disciples’ (hmm…I think I read that in Matthew 28:19-20) so that they, in turn, will take ‘the mantle’ and pass it on to the next person by discipling one person, who will then in turn, when finished with the program, take the mantle and disciple one person. Are you seeing the concept of multiplication here? Wes was one of the first disciples to graduate the program and has since discipled another man, who is now preparing to disciple someone…while Wes is getting ready to disciple another. In that room were about 15-20 men who had been through the program or are going through the program now.
Wes and Dan, one of the other men who had been through the program, got a chance to speak and share what they learned through the program. Dan shared how he realized simply through the weekly homework and accountability that he has a problem with procrastination. And as he told his discipler, ‘we’ll get to that.’ LOL Wes shared how he learned about the power of prayer…not only through God bringing our paths together but also by opportunity to see extended family that night whom he hadn’t seen in 25-30 years. He had been praying for closer family relationships and the aunt and uncle were there to visit Wes’s cousin. God ways are not ours.
I met a number of the leaders who are involved in Kairos as well as a few of the prison staff. When they heard the story of how Wes and I connected they remembered my brother and without fail, every one of them asked how he was doing and celebrated the joyousness of the report. And then one of the men from the First Steps program said something to me that leaves me wiping a tear even now. It was simply this: “Thank you for being a light in a dark place.” That blew me away.
I thought of a lighthouse shining through the storm on shore. One glimpse of the light brings hope, relief, new found strength. And I saw that last night.
I saw a group of 6 men who comprise the Praise Team all getting to play instruments….a sense of normalcy! Electric guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, two vocalists. And I saw them giving a little concert and I saw total strangers (to each other) thoroughly enjoying and worshiping with them. I saw the joy on their faces at getting to share their talents and gifts to encourage others. I saw all the men in the program so relaxed and happy to be able to share with family and friends something that has been a lighthouse to them. Dan, the gentleman who shared, was enjoying a visit with his parents who came in for the event FROM ANOTHER STATE!
No one wanted the night to end. Little things made it so special – so ‘normal’ for the men….I should say ‘normal’ to us is special and a treat to them. Hard wood tables with table cloths. Outside food instead of cafeteria food (Walmart Fried Chicken and stir fry with rice, potato salad, rolls and cake). Sitting on the same side of the table as their guests (in the visit room you have a small 18″ square plastic table in front of you and the inmate sits with his back to the COs facing outside and the guests sit on the other side facing the COs and you get 1 hug at the start and at the end). As many hugs and kisses and hand squeezes as you wanted. I thoroughly got weepy watching a young man enjoy a night with his 2 small kids, sitting on either side of him, crawling all over Daddy’s lap. What an immense treat to spend a special holiday time with his kids! I watched the Deputy Warden for Special Services go around to each table and meet the guests and talk for a few minutes. I watched one of the Chaplains take pictures of each table to forever seal that night (we had to sign releases for pictures). This was the first time they have ever done a dinner like this.
Most of all, I saw such utter respect for each other. I was called ma’am so many times last night by total strangers. All the men – from the food service workers to the program participants – had such a spirit of service. They served us and they served each other. I saw Christ in action.
So why do I share all this? Because I was so profoundly affected by it I needed to find some way to share it. And to challenge all of us….you and me. It is SO easy to write off those serving time in prison. I confess I had until God opened my eyes through my brother. Then the light went on. In Matthew 25:34-40 Jesus talks about ‘the least of these:”
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
You…..me….WE….have opportunity to love ‘the least of these’ right now. You say you don’t know how to get started. Maybe your church doesn’t have a prison ministry. You know what…neither does mine! But I unexpectedly found one that did (a different church than the one mentioned at the start) and I got involved through it and now a couple other people in my church are involved in it as well. And in that ministry ‘all’ we do is we each write a couple women at a women’s prison 90 minutes away. That’s all – we try to write at least once a month. And you know what….those ‘total strangers’ have responded and are so encouraged and now we are pen pals. All for the cost of a little time and a couple bucks in postage a month. I heard from one of my ladies this week and though I have been terribly unfaithful in writing she said I have been a great encouragement and blessing to her. And I thought I had failed in my commitment!
Here’s my challenge to you: if you have EVER wanted to do anything to encourage someone, if you have EVER thought of trying to get involved in some way in some type of prison ministry, GO FOR IT! Check out Bill Glass prison ministry – they go into prisons in every state every year and need volunteers. Go to your state’s Dept. of Corrections website. You know how to Google. Look up the various institutions / facilities your state has. Then look up ‘religious services’ and find the Chaplain’s name and contact information. And make contact. The Chaplain’s office is probably the most overworked and understaffed office at any institution, and they have the greatest impact. Maybe you don’t want to go ‘inside.’ That’s fine. I’m confident they have a list of folks who would LOVE to simply be a pen pal. Maybe you know of a nearby church that has a prison ministry. Call them up. Get some info. I HIGHLY doubt you need to be a member to get involved. I got involved with the ministry of just writing ladies through a church 30 minutes away from me. And God is doing INCREDIBLE things through it. As a result 2 other women in my church are involved in writing other ladies at the same prison through the same ministry. Through getting to know the Chaplain at the prison I was at last night the Ragamuffin movie was shown last year with powerful stories coming from it. They are interested in showing the new movie Brennan at the prison with an equally strong message….to an audience that is hungry to hear. And there is a possibility for the same thing to happen at the Women’s prison. In fact the Women’s prison ministry is growing to the point that as a group we are planning to go inside to mentor the ladies once a month. And it all started with sending a card! Oh – that ministry is led by a former inmate…..God uses experiences in our lives to multiply what He wants to do. She started it as a personal ministry, her church got behind it, and in a year it’s grown to about 15 folks involved and getting trained as volunteers at the prison. All from a card!
Don’t let your lack of knowledge stop you. The enemy wants it to. The enemy wants the inmates to believe they have been cast aside, have messed up beyond God’s reach. You and I both know that is NOT true. He reached out to us when we thought we were beyond His grasp, and when He was still on earth He made sure we knew He wants to reach out to ‘the least of these.’ And maybe He wants to us YOU – me – US – as His hands and feet. Are you willing to obey?
When my brother was leaving a dear friend, Billy Sprague, wrote something that has stuck with me: “God has a history of using prisons and prisoners for His glory.” I challenge you….be a part of what He is doing. It will blow you away. And I guarantee you will be blessed and changed in the process.