When my friend asked me if I would be willing to go into the prison and work with 42 men in white for a weekend, I answered immediately and plainly: “No.”
The 2nd time he asked, I responded in a similar fashion. It wasn’t until the 3rd time that I reluctantly accepted and didn’t know at the time why I agreed. Maybe it was the feeling of guilt that I was perhaps being selfish or the fact that 3 members had dropped from the team at that point. What I didn’t realize is how much of an impact the weekend would make on the inmates lives and ultimately, my own.
The schedule was grueling and equally rewarding. Each day started at 5 AM and ended at around 11 PM. We stayed in the Samaritan House, a outdated non-profit hostel for family members of the incarcerated. After spending the first night on a paper thin mattress, my back was in knots and we couldn’t find the thermostat the first 2 nights. By the last night, I was sleeping on the couch. What they lacked in accommodations, they made up in friendly staff that knew many of the team members by name and were eager to help whenever.
Each team member was assigned a participant to mentor for the weekend. My assignment was a 6 foot 2 inch, 300 lb guy with arms the size of tree trunks. We called each participant by name and greeted them by placing their name tag on and shaking their hand. By the end of the Kairos, my participant would replace the neutral handshake between strangers with a hug meant for a brother.
We arranged the chairs in such a fashion that we could sit across from the participants and ask them a series of questions. They in turned asked us a similar set and we called it a night.
They left with a challenge to not judge the weekend by that night. Every single one of them met that challenge.
Friday & Saturday
The next 2 days were filled with talks ranging from God’s love for them, forgiveness and ultimately that they were not alone. We encouraged them to build a community within the prison unit and not lean on us as we were transient in the whole process. Their fellow inmates would need to form the foundation of a Christian community within their walls.
Between talks, servants passed out refreshments of cookies, fruit, lemonade, & coffee. The servants were fellow inmates who had previously went on a Kairos and had an understanding of the nature of the weekend. They considered it an honor to serve and I was blessed by the persistent smiles on their faces.
We provided lunch & supper each night as well, which was funded by the donations of friends and family of team members. Inmates were given meal tickets that explained that there were others outside of the team that cared for them and were relentlessly praying for them.
By Sunday, the whole room had changed. It went from hard faced inmates who spent most of their time trying to prove their worth through intimidation to soft hearts who understood they were loved. Strangely, we all came down with a case of “allergies” as the hugs became more frequent and they tore down the walls, built by self-preservation.
By the end of the weekend, I did not want to leave. I held back tears as I said good bye. I felt like was I truly leaving family members behind, feeling the ache of the free world and being reminded of the justice that brought them there. It was a good thing they were incarcerated, but that was not their identity. Society would tell them differently.
I learned the value of a hug and a smile. They go a long way.
I learned the value of telling someone that they are not worthless and that I don’t care about their past mistakes.
I was reminded of how far the church has fallen. One of the inmates said, “How can you not want this every day of your life…to feel this much love and for it to be so easy to love others.” I don’t feel that when I walk into the church building. Personal space gets in the way.