I wanted to send this report to you about the recent Kairos Prison Ministry Weekend at Hays State Prison in Trion, Georgia. Wow! What a wonderful experience! Though very tired when I got home, I don't think the glow came off of my face for several days. As the song that we sang several times during the weekend says, "Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place!" As most of you know, this was my first experience with Kairos Prison Ministry. I didn't know quite what to expect and since many of you are not familiar with Kairos, I would like to share some of my experience.
As we arrived at the prison, we had to leave everything in the car but our Georgia Department of Corrections Volunteer IDs and Locator Cards and our car keys. We stood outside the gate while the guards in the nearby tower visually checked us over. While we stood there looking at the very high fence covered with razor wire, I began to feel a very ominous feeling and wondered if I had made the correct decision in choosing to participate. As the first gate closed behind us and I looked upwards at the rolls of razor wire overhead, the feeling intensified. I uttered a silent prayer to ask God to protect us and to use us for His Glory. There were signs on the fence warning of a minimum of one year in prison for anyone bringing drugs, weapons, cellphones, or other contraband into the prison. I once again checked my pockets to make sure I had left my phone in the truck. As the next gate finally opened, we were met by a prison guard who escorted us into a room where we had to take off our belts and shoes, empty our pockets and pass through a metal detector. Next, we were ushered into a hallway with a guard post in the center surrounded by a metal cage. I began to wonder how safe it was if the guard was inside a metal cage. There we had to surrender our car keys and Locator Cards. The Locator Cards are so the Correctional Emergency Response Team will know we are in the prison and hopefully rescue us should there be a riot. We also had to verify that our vehicles were locked in case there should be an escape attempted while we were there. On either side of this guard position were large glass windows into one of the common areas for prisoner housing. Lining the windows were prisoners looking at us as we were looking at them. It kind of reminded me of the zoo. Many of them glared at us while a few waived. We tried to smile and nod back. However, I must tell you that once inside the prison, I never felt unsafe.
We were then escorted by a guard down a hallway past their very basic dining area and outside through another fenced area to the gymnasium where we would meet for the weekend. Everywhere you looked there were fences and gates covered with razor wire. There were larger dorms and smaller Quonset type huts that had been added later to house the 1,600 prisoners who are imprisoned in Hays State Prison. Some would make catcalls through multiple razor wire fences as they saw us walking between the buildings. There was a strange odor in the air that kind of smelled like shrimp that had been left in the heat and allowed to spoil, but I know there was no shrimp there. The gym was a large block building with a concrete floor that had three large fans high in the walls. That was the only air circulation and the gym would get quite warm in the afternoon. We were told we could only use the small staff bathroom and had to hang our name tag on the outside doorknob so they would know we were inside. We met the "Inside Team," a group of inmates who had attended a previous Kairos weekend and helped them finish setting up. They greeted us with a handshake and a hug and you could immediately sense the joy that they had about them. They thanked us for coming. We then formed a line and waited for the 28 prisoners who the Prison Chaplain had invited to attend to arrive. We had met the Chaplain briefly on our way in from the parking lot, but he did not attend any of our sessions. The prisoners have to apply with the Chaplain to be able to attend and often have to wait years before they are invited. The number of prisoners who are able to attend is determined directly by the number of outside volunteers on the Kairos team. The Annex where we were is contained within the outer fences of the prison as a whole, but is separate from the main prison were the worst offenders are housed. To be in the Annex, a prisoner must have 13 or less years remaining on his sentence and no longer be considered violent or a security threat. With that said, while we could not ask what crime had been committed or how long remained on his sentence, at least one of them shared during the weekend that he had committed murder.
The prisoners finally began to arrive one by one and walked down the line being warmly greeted with a smile and a handshake by the Kairos volunteers. They were very, very timid and unsure of themselves and didn't know what to expect or how they would be greeted. They would hardly make eye contact and their body language screamed that they were broken and defeated men. Once they got to the end of the line, they were directed to a seating area opposite of where the volunteers were to be seated. Each volunteer then stood one by one and introduced themselves, telling their name, hometown, church, something about their family, and what they hoped to get out of this weekend. I shared that day was my 32nd wedding anniversary, and both my wife and I felt that it was more important for me to be there to share the love, joy, and peace that comes from knowing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior with them than for me to be at home with her. Throughout the weekend I kept having prisoners share with me how much the fact that I cared enough to be there with them on that special day meant to them. Next, the prisoners each shared their name, hometown, something about their family, what their job was at the prison, and what they hoped to get out of the weekend. As to the last item, their responses seemed to be somewhat of a Pavlov's dog response as they seemed to say what they thought you wanted to hear. After that, each prisoner was paired up with a volunteer host who asked if he could place their name tags around their necks. It was explained to us in training that due to the prison experience, the prisoners are very sensitive about their personal space and you have to ask their permission to enter it. Then, we took them over to the refreshment table to get a soft drink and some cake, and then took them to their assigned table for the weekend. The gym was divided in half with one side being the community or family table side and one side was the chapel. We tried to stress that the chapel was a special place to be entered quietly and with reverence. The community or family side was divided into the tables of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul. Each family table had a table leader, table assistant, and table clergy sitting at the table between 6 or less prisoners. Each table also had a table servant that waited on and served the prisoners. I had the privilege of being the table servant of the table of Mark.
In prison the prisoners have absolutely no choice in anything. They are told when to get up, shower, eat, work, and when to go to bed. No one asks or cares about what they would like to eat or drink or anything else for that matter. As one of the forms of agape that the team showed to them, I would ask what they would like to drink and would go prepare and then serve them individually. I would call them 'Sir' and try to cater to their desires even though I am 63 and the vast majority could be my children. These prisoners only get water and milk in prison. With wide eyes like children they would ask, "You mean I can have anything I want to drink?" When they told me what they wanted, I would make a big deal out of writing down their order. As soon as their glasses were empty, I would ask if they wanted a refill. I was surprised that many of them asked for something different just because they wanted to experience a different taste. I would kid them that they were just trying to mess me up and make it hard on me to keep up with their preferences. They would laugh with joy like a little child that someone cared about them and was showing them love - something many of them had experienced very little of in their lives. We also gave them choices of crackers, cookies, chips, candy bars, and cake as snacks throughout the weekend. The only requirement was that everything had to be eaten there. Nothing could be taken back to their dorms as they might try to sell it to the other prisoners. This would cause problems for the administration and might result in the Kairos Prison Ministry not being allowed back into the prison. In the evenings the prisoners would leave for a brief time to go and eat in the prison dining room and then return until about 8 PM. That made for long days for the Team since we arrived at the prison about 8:20 AM everyday. The prisoners were not too fond of the prison food. They explained that it is prepared in the main prison and trucked up to the Annex where they are housed. Consequently, it is lukewarm at best and usually cold when it is served to them. I asked what they had one evening and they said macaroni and tomatoes. That was it. So they were understandably thrilled that during the three lunches we fed them they got large hoagie sandwiches, chips, and cookies, several types of pizza and cake, and fried chicken with potato salad and cole slaw. I'm told that the prisoners go back and tell others of how good the food is at the Kairos Weekends, and this is one of the reasons that many sign up to attend. That is fine with me if that is what it takes to get them to come and be exposed to the Gospel.
Kairos Prison Ministry International is a non-profit, ecumenical Christian organization which began in a Florida prison in 1976. Today, it is active within the prisons of 33 states in the U.S. as well as prisons in Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and South Africa. Kairos is a ministry of Christ's love delivered by his family. Everything we do is done in the spirit of God's love. The Team philosophy of anonymous servanthood is bringing the love and forgiveness of Christ to those individuals on whom society has turned its back. During the Weekend participants are given the opportunity to experience a religious renewal accepting God's call to a life of Christian witness and service to one another during their stay in the institution and beyond. As part of the Weekend, they are encouraged to establish strong Christian communities within their prison in which they encourage and support each other while joining together in prayer and Bible study. This is done through a series of carefully crafted talks which build upon each other. The following is a breakdown of the talks:
Thursday - Know Yourself
I Chose You
Friday (Understand Yourself and Your standing with God)
- 3 Encounters with Christ
You are Not Alone
Friendship with God
Acceptance of Self
Opening the Door
Accepting God's Forgiveness
Saturday (Meet Jesus & the Body of Christ & Find Forgiveness in Him)
- Who is Jesus Christ?
Forgiveness of Others - Part 1
Forgiveness of Others - Part 2
Sunday (Begin Process of Growing in Faith & Community With Others)
- Healing Past Memories
Obstacles to Grace
Walking in God's Grace
Hang In There
Presentation of Crosses
I wanted to share some of the profound moments of the Weekend with you. Each of the Kairos Team members was asked to solicit prayer intercessors for every half hour of the Weekend. Many of you signed up to intercede for us in that way. Each team member had cut their respective prayer lists into the 30 minute strips. These were then folded into a circle and taped to make a link. Each successive strip was linked together to form a chain and each team members chain was linked together to form one massive chain of names. During one of the talks, the speaker was telling the prisoners how many people from all over the world were praying for them at that very moment. Just then we came walking in with this massive chain which stretched around and was taped to the walls of the gym. During the remainder of the weekend, the prisoners would spend their break time looking at the names and places that people lived in and were praying for them.
Many had shared how family and friends had betrayed or turned their backs on them. Some shared how spouses had divorced them or wouldn't allow their children to read their father's letters or even know he had written. Several of the talks had focused on forgiveness - forgiving others and forgiving yourself. The prisoners were given cards and asked to write down the names of those they had not forgiven and needed to forgive including their own names if appropriate. Then, we went into the chapel and they were encouraged to come forward to kneel and pray to ask God to forgive those people. After praying they placed their cards in a large tub of water and watched until they sank out of sight. Then they went to one of the clergy who washed and dried their hands to symbolize their forgiveness. One of the prisoners at my table had asked me if he should keep writing to his children since his wife would not share the letters with them. I told him he absolutely should keep writing to them, that somehow they would someday know he had done so. The next day he came in with a radiant face and told me he had spent the night writing a letter to his ex-wife telling her he forgave her for not sharing his letters with his children. He told her he had become a Christian and that he wanted her and their children to know the joy and peace of knowing Christ as their Savior.
The prisoner that I was hosting, shared with me that he never got any mail or phone calls. He said that the only letter he had received since he was in prison was from his wife telling him that she was divorcing him. He has five children, but he hadn't been allowed to speak to them in years. Each of the Kairos team had written the prisoner they would be hosting earlier in the week, but apparently my letter had yet to be delivered. The next morning when he came in he had this big smile on his face and he came over to me and said, "Guess what? I got a letter and it was from you!" It was all I could do to keep from crying. Some of you had written letters to the prisoners or had solicited agape letters to the prisoners from grandchildren or children in the neighborhood. Each of the Kairos team had written individual letters to each of the 28 prisoners as well. In my letters I told them why I was there - that I wanted them to know the peace, joy, and love I had in knowing Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I spelled out the Gospel and explained how they could be sure that their sins were forgiven. I encouraged them to trust and follow Jesus. On Saturday we presented them with bags that contained all these letters and agape from Kairos brothers in prisons all around the world. We left them alone to read these letters for about a half hour. Then they took the bags with them back to their prison dorms to read that night. This I learned was a major thing for them to do as often the other prisoners would make fun of them. The next day one of the prisoners with tears in his eyes explained he had received a letter from a little boy named Aaron who was 6 years old. The letter said that Aaron loved him and God loved him. The prisoner went on to explain that he was in prison because when he was 17 he got a girl who was 15 pregnant. He had found out after he was in prison that the girl gave birth to a little boy that they named Aaron who would be about 6 now. It is truly amazing how God used the children's letters to soften the prisoner's hearts and make them receptive to the Gospel.
Another very moving time was when each of the four team members laid hands on and prayed for each of the prisoners at their family table. Once we were finished, the first prisoner got up and laid hands on and prayed for each of his fellow prisoners until they had each prayed for each other. This was a very transforming experience for the prisoners who had never touched another prisoner or expressed concern or emotions in the prison environment. I have to tell you about the singing. It was amazing and I'm sure it permeated the prison. It kind of reminded me of a Gaither Gospel Concert. Songs like I'll Fly Away, This Little Light of Mine, Surely The Presence of The Lord is in this Place, Down By The Riverside, Victory in Jesus, Because He Lives, and I Saw The Light. The prisoners loved it! There was no altar call, but throughout the weekend the prisoners were encouraged to talk with one of the clergy if they felt the Lord was leading them to do that. They were free to request to speak to any of the clergy in case they might feel awkward speaking to the clergy who was seated at their table. It is intentional that they must speak with a clergy in case they were to confess to a crime in the course of their profession of faith. If they were to do so with one of us, we would be required to report it whereas the clergy is not required to do so. Several of the prisoners made professions of faith during the weekend. All were strengthened in their faith walk.
Hopefully, that gives you a little taste of what went on. Our team returned to the prison the following Saturday for a time of instruction with the prisoners about building a faith community within the prison. I had the privilege of giving a talk entitled "Have you Shared the Love of Jesus with Someone?" Matthew 25: 36 says, "I was in prison and you came to Me." While you may not have been a part of the actual Kairos team that visited the prison, each of you played a vital part as the body of Christ in what transpired. Whether you prayed, wrote letters or solicited children's agape, or gave money to defer the cost of hosting the prisoners, you each contributed to the eternal changes in these men's lives. I wish there was someway you could have seen the transformation that took place in their countenance from Thursday to Sunday. I pray that God will bless you greatly for what you have done in His name! It is my hope that this email will move some of you men to consider becoming a part of the next Kairos Weekend with us in March. If you are interested in doing so, please let me know. I hope the rest of you will once again consider supporting that effort by praying, soliciting children's agape, or giving to defray the cost. Blessings to you and your families!