Wednesday, November 7, 2012
4 days in prison
We stop by two restaurants and pick up the meals they have prepared and donated to the Kairos ministry, meals to feed the 30 to 40 people who will be there. My breakfast was paid for by someone and after eating we hit the road for the 150 mile drive to Fort Stockton.
In Fort Stockton we drove to the building that formerly housed a church that supported us. The church moved to different quarters but the building is owned by one of the Kairos members and it contains a commercial kitchen we had put in years ago so it is our headquarters during the Kairos events. Arriving we enjoy meeting the others there for this event and spend time renewing acquaintances and catching up on what is going on in our lives. But quickly that evolves into getting to work as truckloads of food and supplies arrive and we rush to prepare to head to the prison on time. There are business issues to attend to first as we make sure people have places to stay, everyone knows their assignments, and the most important part, to pray together for God’s hand on us and on the hearts of those we will be serving during these four days. Then it is time to head to the prison. Everyone pitches in to make sure rides are arranged and we all pile into the few vehicles making the trip and head out.
My heart stirs as the now familiar prison comes into sight and I see the guard towers, 12 foot high fences with concertina wire strung on the tops, and prison buildings. This is home to around 1500 inmates and those whose jobs are to keep them there in good health. It is not an easy job for behind these walls you find every kind of criminal and person. Some evil, but some who are surprisingly good.
Getting all of us and all the supplies through the gates of this prison takes what seems like hours. All the paperwork must be checked and each individual’s approval to enter the prison verified. Naturally there are some snafus but that is the nature of things. Then we all must submit to a careful search of our persons and belongings. Shoes and boots are removed and a metal detector is passed over our bodies, followed by a thorough “pad down” to insure we are carrying no contraband of any kind. Even gum is not allowed as it can be used for nefarious purposes in the prison.
We are all grateful when it finally comes time for us to be escorted to the gymnasium, that also doubles as the church and place for many events that require the gathering of a number of the inmates together. We have been preparing for this day for six months, from the moment we finished the last Kairos event here, so are anxious to get going. At the gym we meet the men in white (the term we use to refer to those in prison, for it is more respectful and the prison uniform is all white) who will be serving with us for this event. They have generally all attended previous Kairos events and have proven to be faithful members of the Christian community we work to establish in all the prisons Kairos is privileged to visit. There are many familiar faces here, people we have ministered to in the past and thus have developed relationships with. As many come to me, calling my name and displaying a grateful joy I have arrived, there is a sadness that comes over me. That sadness is because I have not been able to come to this prison as often as I would like because of the miles, lack of reliable transportation, and financial straits. I told some of them that if I lived in Fort Stockton I would be there every week.
The first day is the introduction day. There are 42 men in white who have been picked to attend this Kairos. Some have put their request in two or three years ago, some just put their request in a month or two ago, and some never put a request in at all. Now the warden and chaplain are the ones who decide on who gets to be a part of each Kairos but ultimately it is God who picks them. We are all assigned one or two men in white that are our responsibility for this first day and the rest of the event.
Everyone has a name tag that was premade. It is about 4 inches by 7 with a yarn string that hangs it around the neck. As the men in white arrive at the gym their names are announced. We are all around the door and clap enthusiastically as if a star just walked into the room. Whoever is assigned to that person goes up and puts the name tag around his neck. Next they make sure that the individual has a drink of coffee or punch, along with a generous handful of cookies. Cookies are a major ingredient in this whole affair as these men do not see homemade cookies while in prison so it is a little taste of the free world they relish. Then we lead them to a set of chairs facing each other.
At this time we work to break the ice and start a conversation. Many of these men come in not knowing what to expect, and a part of prison requires a degree of skepticism and distrust of all around so there is often a wall maintained for protection. It is always a great joy for us to watch as these walls come down during the course of these four days.
There are a few talks that explain what to expect and encourage everyone to keep an open mind. This follows a time of introduction where each person is handed the microphone and tells who he is, what he does, and why he came. There is some chapel time in the area we created on the side of the gym with a wall made from a sixty or so foot long cloth banner that is maybe ten foot tall. At dinner time we serve the first of many meals, on this day simple sandwiches as we don’t get started till close to 5:00.
It is dark by the time we leave the prison but there is still more to do. We head back to the church where we eat the meal prepared by the outside angels (our designation for the women and men who prepare all the meals along with taking care of many other things) and then handle details such as insuring the men’s names were spelled right are taken care of. Then it is off to the hotel rooms, where we hope to get rested up for the upcoming 12 hour days in the prison. In the hotel rooms many of us work on the 42 letters each is encouraged to write to the men in white, a monumental task in itself. The wise ones had already started writing these letters months ago but invariably there are some who were unable to for various reasons so it’s rush time for them.
The next day (Friday) we all get up and get to the church by six in the morning. There we enjoy a breakfast fixed by the outside angels, who got up much earlier in order to prepare it. We may spend 12 hours in the prison but that is nothing compared to these folks who get up somewhere around four in the morning and go till the end of our day. After eating we discuss the needs of the day, load the pickups with cookies and supplies, pray, and head to the prison. It is still dark now with the sun just thinking of coming up. The temperature is in the low to mid 40’s so there is a definite chill in the air. There is only one guard up front to the check in pat down process goes slow, but we understand that and are patient.
Today the gym is arranged with seven round tables, each with nine chairs around it. The tables are all named, with a carved wood sign designating each tables name. They are Mathew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, and James. There are six participants at each table and three of us volunteers. One of the volunteers is designated as table leader, one is the assistant, and we try to make sure there is on ordained clergy at the third seat. All of us volunteers are spread out with two of the men in white between us. On this Kairos the Warden put a person from the high security wing on each table. These are generally the bad boys, or at least someone who got into trouble recently. We don’t know who they are and we really are not worried about it. You see, we all understand that each and every one of them is loved by God. We understand that we all are sinners and it does not matter what we (as in everyone, including you) have done, God’s forgiveness is available to all. So there is no room for judgment.
Soon the men in white are called out of their cells and arrive. We greet each one warmly and show them where they will be seated for the rest of this event, that we call a “walk”. Each table will become their “family” table and we work to create a sense of camaraderie and unity there as the days move on. These are going to be long days so we start out quickly with the program. At this prison we have a core of talented musicians that are not only doing time but are active in the prison church as well. So there is some great music that is played during breaks and at designated times. All of the music glorifies and worships the Lord so augments the overall atmosphere.
Kairos has been around for decades, is an international ministry working in prisons in countries all over the world, and during that course of time has evolved into a powerful and effective means of leading people to Christ and changing their lives. The talks are carefully picked and given in a specific order. But the most powerful part of Kairos is that we do not try to cram religion down anyone’s throat, we simply show the love of Christ. The motto here is to “Listen, Listen, Love, Love”. There are wiccans, Satanists, atheists, pagans, and people raised in every denomination or religion known. That is fine, there is no judgment here. God knows the heart of every person in the world and He knows who will accept His love and who will refuse. He knows, we do not. Jesus simply said “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Understand that love is not simply saying “I love you” for we have seen just how cheap and empty those words can be. Real love is shown through action.
The first talk of the day is called “Choices”. That is a powerful place to start because we are all products of the choices we make, and those in prison are there because of their choices. Each and every day we have choices to make and each and every day we can make good or bad ones. A basic truth of life is that we all will reap what we sow. At any point in life we can start making good choices and naturally we are in this prison to encourage them to think their choices through.
The next talk is “you are not alone” followed with “Friendship with God, The Church, and Opening the door”. These are interspersed with chapel time where there are meditations and shorter talks along with prayers read out loud. Then at lunch time we serve up the first of many meals. There are many who sign up for Kairos just for the food, for it is way beyond the meager low cost meals they get in prison. We know that and are fine with it. I don’t remember what it was now, because I don’t remember things like that well, but I do remember how it was received. Over the next 3 days these men in white will be blessed with meals that are far beyond anything they can get from the prison kitchen. Plus there are the deserts. Real ice cream with real chocolate syrup, homemade pecan pies baked by one of our volunteers wives, cobbler, and a variety of other things. I gain weight at each Kairos because I don’t eat this good at home. Then there are trays of fresh fruit kept refreshed on the tables along with trays of cookies, all of which they are encouraged to indulge in.
By the end of this first full day we are all tired and the men in white are starting to open up. At the end of each talk there is a table discussion. Then poster papers are passed out along with a variety of magic markers. Now is a time for each table to draw a poster that reflects their take on the talk. This requires them to work together and come up with an idea to draw out on the poster.
It is time to head out of the prison. We go to the church where the events of the day are discussed. The individual needs of the participants are made known to the prayer warriors assigned to that particular person so they can focus their prayers. Prayer is the key to this ministry. When we walk into that gymnasium the presence of God is palpable. It was dark when we got to the prison and getting dark when we leave so a long and draining day. Rest is important so we pray and head to the hotels.
Let me tell of some of the little details that mean so much to these men we are striving to reach. Before each meal we sing a song of prayer and thanksgiving. Chapel time is timed so that we are there and away from the tables prior to the meals being served. At this time the table servants, all of whom participated in previous Karros’s, clear the tables and put out placemats. These placemats have been created by a variety of people from a wide range of churches and organizations. Often they have been made by children as young as 3 to teenagers. Usually they are signed with the creators name and age, though the three year olds and other young ones often had help with that. You can never understand the power of this till you see a “hardened” criminal break down and cry as he reads simple “I love you” and “God loves you” messages. I lost count of how many times the placemat contains a name and age that just happens to be the name and age of that prisoner’s own child. There are no accidents here, God’s hand is always involved.
Also with each meal there is a meal ticket placed that shows who it was that purchased that particular meal and what church or organization they belong to. All of this reveals to these men, who have often been abandoned by friends and family, the large number of people out there who care for these people they never met. For many of these men in white love is a foreign thing, something they have experienced very little of in their life. It is this love, the love of God displayed by these many small evidences, that breaks through all the pain and hardness of these men.
Saturday we are up before the sun again and start out like before with breakfast, prayer, and preparation at the church. Then we rush to the prison, anxious again to serve these men and God. The talks today are titled “Discovery” and “Christian action”. This time the chapel meditations are particularly powerful and coupled with it will be a forgiveness ceremony that often leaves us all in tears. This ceremony all of us participate in. It follows some teaching on forgiveness that has been touched on even the day before. The fact is our faith is founded on God’s forgiveness of all our sin. Without that none of us will see God. It is His love for all of us that moved Him to send His only son, Jesus, to pay the price for every evil done. In the Lord’s prayer we read “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” so it becomes clear that God requires us to follow His example and forgive everyone who hurt us in anyway. All of those grudges, that anger, and hate, are big stumbling stones to anyone’s life. The act of writing the names of these people who did you wrong and giving them to God is powerful and sets us all free of these things that often shackle us. For many this ceremony is the turning point during the Kairos weekend.
The Christian Action talk helps many understand what it means to be a Christian. Again talk is cheap. It is not what you say, it is what you do that matters. The man who gave that talk this time is one of the youngest members we have ever had in Kairos. At twenty years of age he touched many of the men in white, who had often lost their youth in the lifestyles that put them in prison. We are not there just to talk about God and leave, we are there to change people’s lives and give them the tools needed to live a life freed from all the chains that bound them. We will be going back next week and there will be regular meetings of the Kairos and Christian prison community every week.
Sunday is the final day of this walk. By now most of the men have opened up and become very active in the discussions and activities. There were times the music team had everyone up and dancing, laughing, enjoying themselves with a freedom seldom found in prison. It was a new experience for many to be sure. The last three talks are Obstacles to God’s Grace, Walking in God’s Grace, and Hang in There. I would love to detail all of the talks we give as they are powerful whether you have been to prison or not, but then I would be writing a book and we don’t have time for that here.
This final day ends with what we call the Closing Ceremony. Just prior to that we go to another room where each participant receives a special cross and certificate. There are sometimes a few who do not wish to get a cross because it conflicts with beliefs, such as Muslim, Wiccan, or whatever else. That is fine, we are not there to force anything on anyone and even if they do not accept Christ the seeds of truth have been planted.
For the closing ceremony the prison allows the outside angels and others to come into the prison. Naturally they are kept separate from the men in white for many of them are women or have not had the training we have had from the Department of Corrections. Safety is always a concern here. During this ceremony each family group comes to the microphone and answers three questions. “What spiritual condition were you in when you came to Kairos? What did you find here? What are you taking with you when you leave?
It is now we see the fruits of our efforts. We watch those who were cold and closed in now openly displaying emotion. We hear those who did not know God talk about their new relationship with God. Then there is an open microphone time when they can individually express anything they want. We have seen gang leaders ask forgiveness of their enemies, we have watched as those who had once known God rededicate their lives to Him, we hear firsthand the impact this program, and God through it, has had on these men.
This is our reward. This makes it all worth the time and effort taken by so many for so long. And ultimately, this will be important on the day we stand before God in judgment. At that time nothing else matters except what we have done to please the creator of all. Read the words of Jesus, who will be our judge, as found in Mathew 25:34 "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, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.