What I Learned from a Weekend of Prison Ministry

I’m standing at the far end of cell block H of a maximum security prison on the second level looking down the rows of 5×8 rooms on either side of me.  The windows of the doors are filled with faces staring at me.  I’m alone with nothing but a bag of chocolate chip cookies in my hand.  My heart is racing.  What if the officers forget I’m here?  What if they open the doors to the cells?  Is this how I’m going to die?  Scenes from every prison movie I’ve seen race through my head as I try to look as calm as possible.  I try not to listen to what’s being yelled at me through the doors.  I don’t make eye contact.  I just need one more bag of cookies from my team mate to leave for the last cell and I can get out of there.  How did I get here?  What in the world am I doing?

KAIROS is a non-profit, non-denominational ministry dedicated to serving those in prison.  Twice a year they do a weekend inside the penitentiary where provide an intensive spiritual retreat focused on openness, acceptance, and forgiveness.  We’re not there to proselytize.  We’re there to share hope and love; and cookies.  So many cookies!  We roll in with over 92,000 cookies baked by volunteers.  The tables are piled with them all day long.  Every night when they leave, the 42 inmate participants get two dozen cookies.  Then we distribute them to all 2600 residents in one gallon baggies filled with two dozen cookies each.   The rest of the weekend is indescribable.  The almost 40 hours spent with the men is filled with testimonies from the volunteers about their struggles and journey with God.  One man shares his recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.  Another shares his conversion while doing 12 months straight in solitary in that very prison.  I’m there to lead music.  I’m not at a table leading discussions or to give a testimony.  It’s my first time and many of the other volunteers are veterans having done this at least 3 times already.  The whole weekend is a blur as I listen, watch, and wait for my queue to play some more songs.

Monday morning is what they call the “fourth day”.  It’s the hardest day for the 42 residents who participated in the weekend.  It’s the day where they will be faced with the challenges of going back to their regular lives with us there to support them spiritually.  However they were changed and impacted by the events of the weekend, they must now face other inmates and guards who will mock them and discourage them and try to pull them away from what they found.  I learned afterwards that after the first meeting several of the guards pulled the participants aside, confiscated their cookies and strip searched them before throwing them in their cells with no showers.  It’s an intimidation tactic to scare.

It’s my fourth day too.  I don’t want to go to work today.  It has nothing to do with my job, my coworkers, or my employer.  My heart’s not there.  My heart is back in the gymnasium of the prison where I just spent three days.  Last night as I sat down with my wife for the first time since the weekend started and explained the change I saw in the men is when the enormity of it settled on my like having a king size mattress laid on top of me.  What did I just do? I was emotionally and physically exhausted when I went to bed, but sleep was restless.  My mind was on John, a 300 pound enforcer for the Aryan Nation who three days before the event beat a man so brutally they had to hospitalize him off site.  John stood before 200 other inmates and volunteers sobbing like a baby because he no longer wanted to be that man anymore.  My heart is on Richard, a convicted child rapist serving back to back life sentences with no hope of parole.  Richard hated Christians and questioned whether God even existed.  As we finished he shared he now knew God was real because he felt Him and saw Him over the weekend.  Henry simply wanted to thank us all for the hand written letters we write to each participant (one from each of the 42 volunteers) because he hadn’t received mail in over 3 years and given up that anyone on the outside cared about him anymore.

The stories are too many to list.  The power of the weekend is hard to put into words.  Even now as I attempt it I’m overwhelmed by the events and their impact.  I’ve been doing ministry for a long time.  I’ve built churches and preached on three different continents.  I’ve served food at homeless shelters.  I’ve stayed up until the wee hours of the morning counseling students with thoughts of suicide.  But there was something about this weekend in the prison that I can’t shake.  I don’t want to shake it.  I don’t want to log into work or life and do what inevitably happens after every mission trip or spiritual retreat.  You know what I’m talking about.  It’s that moment several days later where the power of your spiritual high has faded and you’re right back in the comfort of your own life.  You forget the fatherless children you reached on that mission trip.  You forget the conversation you had with the man who has been locked up since he was 18 and will never be released.

No, I don’t want to forget.  I can’t forget.  I can’t forget the change I saw over such a short time.  The blank, defeated, dead look in the eyes of the men on the other side of the glass as I delivered cookies.  That same look I saw the first morning as the participants came in only to be replaced with life by the third day.  They were alive.  They smiled and laughed.  Their souls had been reignited with the simple motto of KAIROS; listen, listen, love, love.  They knew someone cared for them regardless of what they had done.  We didn’t ask and we didn’t care.  We listened as they poured their hearts out for the first time in who knows how long.  As they told their stories with their hurt and their fear, I didn’t see criminals who sought to harm anyone anymore.  I saw broken men not unlike myself, who through circumstance and poor decisions had wound up where their loved ones, their identity, their ability to make decision had been stripped away from them.

This experience was entirely different from anything I’ve ever seen.   Both the change in the participants and the change in me was unlike anything I’ve experienced.  And I didn’t even realize it was happening.  I understand more clearly why Jesus said ministering to those in prison is like ministering to Him. You can’t minister to those in prison without finding Jesus.  Many people would say “We brought Jesus to the inmates of the prison”, but as I see it; Jesus brought me there and met me on the inside.

What do I do next?  I’ve been asked that question so many times and I’ve always had an answer for people how to keep the spiritual high going.  But now I’m asking for myself.  So many fourth days are followed by a fifth day and sixth day and inevitably that moment of change is a memory because let’s face it, it’s so easy to slip back into the comforts of this life.  But I don’t want a fourth day.  Not this time.  I’ve watched too many people rush right through their fourth day back to where they were like nothing happened.  I’ve gone through too may fourth days to know I won’t let this one go.  This one means too much for me.  How long can I make my fourth day last?  I don’t know right now.  I’ll let you know if I figure it out, but I can tell you one thing.  I’m going to try harder than ever to keep it going.  If you want to join me, please visit http://kpmifoundation.org/index.php

(the names used in this post were changed to protect the confidentiality of the men and the families of their victims)

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