Prison Ministry: A World of Unforgiveness, Isolation, and Pain

I have a confession to make. I can’t make it to the people I really need to give it to, so I’ll start with you, dear reader. I need to apologize to prison inmates who are dads.

Why do I need to do this? In Allendale, we have especially focused on the pains of Fatherless Boys and Fatherless Girls. But I have sinned by not considering the pains of the fathers themselves.

Sure, you could argue (as I have) that it’s the father’s fault for being in prison, and for causing so much hurt to their children. But assigning blame doesn’t eliminate the presence of the pain.

No matter what pain these men caused, the truth is that they are hurting as well. As I took part in a 3-day prison ministry event last weekend, God smacked me in the face with my arrogant and condescending attitude towards incarcerated fathers.

From being able to hear some of their stories, and their desire to do better for their kids’ sakes, God made me realize how hurt I would be if I was separated from my children. God reminded me that I am not called to condemn these men, but to enter into the pain with them.

Who Were These Inmates?

In the weeks of preparing for this prison ministry, I was full of questions. I didn’t know what to expect when I walked through the prison gates at Allendale Correctional Institute. Were they scary? What would these men look like? What would they act like?

They looked like accountants, office supervisors, production workers, and college students. If you saw them in the grocery store (wearing anything but the khaki uniforms with SCDC written on them), you wouldn’t think twice about them. In fact, none only two of them looked intimidating, and that had more to do with their tattooed arms, neck, and head, rather than their rugged good looks.

They acted like any other fun-loving men. They love beef and fruit punch and Rice Krispie Treats. They got a kick out of seeing one of the volunteers lead the motions to Pharaoh, Pharaoh. Most watch football and have favorite teams.

But they had made a series of bad choices along the way. Gambling. Not taking that college athletic scholarship. Getting caught up in the wrong crowd. “And when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.” (James 1:15). Burglary. Selling crack cocaine. Murder. Violence fueled by alcoholism.

But couldn’t any of us had headed down the same path? Is there not one of us who did (or at least thought to do) something stupid in high school or college? I look back, and see God’s gracious hand, protecting me from myself, even before I cared about Him.

And which of us haven’t struggled with forgiveness, or felt the pain of loneliness?

When I sat in the room of these men, I realized that we are more alike than different. We are all broken sinners in need of God’s grace.

“For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son.” Romans 5:10

The Kairos Program

The Kairos program involves a structured, developed curriculum, with personal testimony interwoven by the speakers. The structure is mostly fixed, so that the talks build on themselves. Some of the talks given were titled:

  • Choices
  • You Are Not Alone
  • Who Is Jesus?
  • Forgiveness
  • God’s Grace

After hearing the talks, they discussed them in small groups. Openly sharing feelings was a new experience for many of these men. And if you think that was tough, on Saturday night, there were given a bag of cookies, with the explicit instructions to hand it to someone in the prison whom they needed to forgive. Dorm mates. A guard. The chaplain. A rival gang member.

The Blessing of Jail

Some of the guys shared (either in personal conversations or during “open mic” times) that prison was the exactly what they needed. It was a wake up call, or a rescue from a path that was leading to death and destruction.

This made sense to me, maybe only because I read from the book of Jonah last week. Consider Jonah, who ran away from God. God sent a storm as a consequence for his disobedience. The fish that swallowed Jonah was not the punishment, but the salvation. The fish saved Jonah from drowning in the sea.

Like being in the belly of a fish, prison is not a pleasant experience. But it can save someone from a worse fate.

Leaving . . . for Now

Thirty-five inmates came in lost, confused, curious, scared, emotionally beat down, and seeking. And most left with a new brotherhood and fellowship, peace of mind, wisdom, and love. And some even found Christ and salvation.

On Sunday afternoon, we the volunteers got to go back home. We returned to back to our families, our freedom, our options. But these 35 men will be staying for months, years, or decades more. I cannot fully fathom the pain they are enduring.

But I don’t have to. I just have to be willing to bear their burdens with them. I will be praying for these men, especially the fathers who are separated from their children.

And God willing, I’ll be back to see my brothers in prison soon. (Edit: Read about how I got more involved in Prison, Manhood, and Change.)

My Recruiter

Though he won’t want me to do this, I want to thank Dr. Roger Nunn for recruiting me (and many others) to get involved in Kairos. He begged strong-armed lovingly convinced me to join him (he’s been a part of Kairos for years).

A high-energy man, he also volunteered the last few games of the football season, to be our team doctor on Friday nights, including driving down to Beaufort for the Region Championship game. I tried to convince him that he didn’t need to take that trip, but I’m glad he ignored me; we had at least 3 injured players that he needed to look at.

Couple this with some other ways that he’s served me and my family, and with his wife volunteering in the local elementary school, and we are privileged to know and serve alongside the Nunn family.

“Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself. Remember also those being mistreated, as if you felt their pain in your own bodies.”  Hebrews 13:3

Note: To learn more about Kairos Prison Ministry, or learn if there is an active chapter near you, click here.

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