I am praying generally for 35 men in a prison in the remote mountains of SW Virginia. I am praying specifically for four men among them—for P, W, F, and S, which are not their actual first initials.
I know these men, in my estimation quite well. I do not know them in the sense that I could accurately recount for you all the circumstances of their lives.
What we in the free world (outside the prison) consider the major circumstance of their lives is something I know nothing about, except in the case of S. S told me the detail of his crimes, so I have information—as he told it—about why he now lives in prison, and why he will continue to live in prison for many years.
Here is something else I do know quite well about S, and I know this because I observed it occur during the four days I spent recently with him and with the other three men.
I know that S was persuaded by a friend to choose to attend our recent Kairos walk because he was dissatisfied with what Islam offered him. Yes, Islam offered him the satisfying routine of daily prayer, five times each day, but that it lacked grace.
Islam is rules. If you miss a rule, S told me, you are effectively dead—dead to the world of Islam. So S was susceptible to attend our Kairos walk because he had heard that Christ, instead, was love, and forgiveness—part of what I would include under the word grace.
S’s curiosity about Christ was exciting to me, being a man of the free world, because every ounce of my fallen being knows for certain that Christ indeed is love and forgiveness. Chained as I am to my sin, despairingly sometimes, I need divine love and forgiveness—and I get it.
But my reaction to S’s information about Islam’s rigidity is not what causes me to report that I believe I know S quite well.
Among the other men at our Kairos table, W was a man in deep trouble. Part of his trouble was—to all appearances—mental illness, for the control of which he was prescribed a powerful drug, and our Kairos schedule of activities interfered with the proper timing of his taking of his drug. Consequently, his behavior became erratic as the days wore on. Once we understood this, we made what administrative adjustment we could, and the problem was partly relieved.
However, that was only one element of W’s trouble. W is a man who had received—apparently from his parents and from his family at large—as well as from his urgent reading of his Bible while in prison—a strong sense of Christian rectitude. W’s theological understanding of Christianity was all works.
W knew his Bible, but he got it wrong.
W was desperate to be assured of his eternal life.
W has a fluid and articulate vocabulary of Christian thought, and when he was not overpowered either by the drug or by his lack of it, he could deliver emphatic and absolutist statements like a new seminarian.
But he got it wrong.
Who assisted him during our four days? We three Kairos volunteers at our table assisted him—that was our role: listen; listen; love; love.
But it was S who was most persistent in his ministry to W, and—as I interpreted what I observed of this ministry—its extra power was the fact that S shared with W something we others did not share. Yes, it is true that we outsiders of the free world are enchained, but it is not true that we are enchained in the same many-layered and practical sense that S is enchained like W.
S loved and forgave W with a persistent and instinctual grace that was inspiring. S was usually the first to reach out and to engage W in whatever Kairos learning procedure we were assigned at the moment. S was the one who pressed W gently to respond when he was locked inside. “I know you know the answer, W. Please tell us.” Then he would speak to the rest at the table. “We all know that W knows the answer, don’t we? We want to hear what you know, W. Please tell us.”
Sometimes, pressed by S’s love, W would speak. Theologically, what he said usually was works, but at that moment it was—as it were--softer works.
By the last day of the walk, at least two of us from the outside were engaging S on the subject of his instinctive suitability for Christian ministry in the church which has been planted inside the prison. S was hesitant, shy, unconfident about his gift—but my instinctive assessment was that he yearned, also.
S will be in prison for a long time. I think he thinks he needs what I would call a mission. He and I talked quite fully about his crimes and about his perception of our criminal justice system. He seemed accepting of the fact that he deserves to be in prison, though he misses his daughter intensely. He believes his sentence is too long, although he understands how—legally speaking—it was justified. I sense that he is a man who has been gifted by a deep sense of helpfulness and a desire to lead his fellows away from emptiness and toward fullness.
Those qualities exist in prison just as much as they do in the free world. I pray that P, W, F, and S will find fullness, that W’s illness will be identified, treated, and monitored in the best way for him, and that S will give his soul to Jesus Christ, be saved, and with satisfaction—if so called—commence a ministry inside the walls.
He may, then, even become like C, an extraordinary man, to whom I may introduce you later.
I was in prison during four days last weekend, at Pocahontas Correctional Institution in Pocahontas, Virginia.
I was there as a volunteer for Kairos Prison Ministry. I sat at a table with two other Kairos volunteers and with four inmates. Our purpose was to assist these inmates to find—if they needed to find—and to come closer to—which they did need—Jesus Christ.
Our work at our table was Spiritual Listening. Kairos’ refrain in training is “Listen, listen; love, love.”
Each table participated in a succession of spiritual exercises, delivered to the group as a whole—to about 35 inmates seated at the tables with us volunteers. These exercises included listening to spiritually themed talks of about a half hour each during which the volunteer deliverer included intimate revelations from his own life.
These were the times when the prison’s gym—where our Kairos walk occurred—was absolutely silent. There were detailed revelations of missed opportunities, of bad choices, of abuse in various ways. Each talk was riveting to the inmates.
Following each talk, each table group was asked to speak among its members about how the talk had been received by each inmate, and then to do a second exercise. The inmates at each table were instructed to make an illustration with colored markers on poster board that represented the table’s conclusion about the talk.
By the end of Day Four, about fifty of these posters were pasted up on the walls around us—both moving and informative, and in some cases excellent in terms of graphic design.
The sequence of talk subjects is ordered by Kairos for increased Christian impact during the whole walk. The talks alternate with music interludes—we have a guitar player and singer whom we followed in song—and chapel services that included brief homilies, prayers, and also the reading of metaphorical stories.
There was also sufficient unstructured time between planned events for an increased amount of table chat and also of heartfelt intimate personal revelation. This unstructured time sometimes occurred when we were waiting for meals to be brought from the kitchen.
As the days passed, I could feel at our table and see when looking at other tables that inmates’ body language changed.
Day One—some tightness and stiffness, perhaps defensiveness. Day Two—more relaxation, some easy laughter. Day There—earnest two-way discussions for many minutes between an inmate and a volunteer. Day Four—long, full-body hugs.
There were four major high points of the weekend toward which Kairos’ sequence was leading us all. I mean all, not solely the inmates. I believe that we volunteers were affected, too. As a new man, I know I was powerfully affected by each of these high points.
Among my next few posts, I will illuminate these high points.
Spiritual Listening is a discipline of Agape.
Agape is a Greek term for the full, selfless, and self-sacrificing love modeled on the love Christians experience from God. The term has been used actively in Christian spirituality since the early church.
One of the high points of the walk was the delivery to each of the attendees what Kairos calls The Agape Letter.
Each volunteer writes a letter regarding his sense of agape to the inmates, the same letter goes to each of them. At a certain time on Day Three the letters are delivered to each inmate.
As I said in an earlier post, some of these men have scarcely ever received a piece of mail at all—even from family members outside. It can be an overwhelming experience.
I modeled my Agape Letter on one shown me by a volunteer who has attended many walks and who recruited me. I am grateful for his guidance.
Here’s what I wrote.
October 13, 2018
This weekend’s Kairos event will leave me with many memories, and I hope the same will be the case for you.
I don’t presume to understand the challenges you face or how you cope with them, but I do believe that you and I are each men who have made mistakes and at the same time who desire acceptance, forgiveness and reassurance that we are loved.
I hope you have given—or that you will give—your life to Jesus Christ. His is the life through which we receive the enduring love of God. During the weekend, I hope you have felt that enduring love of God. I have.
It is my experience that God provides His love all the time and without testing you or me.
There certainly have been times when I did not feel God’s love, or when I thought He had abandoned me. But that was on me, not Him.
His love was there (and it is there) all the time. I needed to allow my heart to soften. Once it softened, I could again experience the flow of God’s love, as demonstrated to me by the actions of His Son, Jesus Christ.
When I feel alone, sometimes I am sad or frightened (or sad and frightened). There are two things I do that help me recapture my assurance that God loves me. I hope you will do them, too. One is I read my Bible. The other is I pray.
I have two ways when I open my Bible. One is to have a particular passage in mind and turn to it. The other way is simply to open the Bible to whatever page falls open (I think of this as receiving the particular page God wants me to read right then). In either case, I read carefully, slowly, attentively.
Usually reading my Bible leads me into prayer. Often my prayers have a certain order, but sometimes they don’t. I judge that to be okay. God is our heavenly Father. He made us and loves us. He wants to hear back from us. In His wisdom, he answers our prayers—He may say yes, He may say no, He may say wait. Also, He may say nothing at all.
There have been times when I resented it that He didn’t say anything at all. You might have felt that same way. But then I thought about it again.
Imagine it this way. Maybe there was a time when you spoke urgently and importantly to a very close friend of yours. You told him about your most private failures and also about your need for forgiveness and to become a better man. But your friend didn’t answer you directly. Instead, he just nodded to reassure you he had heard you.
If you are like me in that situation, you were reassured and were comfortable that he was taking time to decide how to answer you. You were eager for his answer. And you were confident his answer would come at the right time.
Same with me.
Prayer, really, is a conversation between you and God. Always close your prayers by stating that you are sending your prayer to God through Jesus Christ, who is your savior—or I hope He will become your savior. It is Jesus who passes your prayers along to his Father, the Lord of the universe.
Bible reading and prayer are personal and often private activities. They are wonderful.
There is one more activity which I recommend for you. Find a community of friends who are followers of Jesus and spend time with them. Open yourself to these friends—we are all of us men who have made mistakes but who long to be accepted and loved. Be together with these men who you may grow to love, and who will show their own love back to you, since you are all lovers of Jesus Christ.
As for me, I will pray for you as a participant in our Kairos weekend. I will pray that you have experienced the love of God. I will pray that you will truly and deeply know you are loved, and that you will seek out ways to show that love to others around you at Pocahontas.
May you be blessed!
I have joined the Kairos Prison Ministry. As you read this, I am participating in my first “walk.”
A walk is a four-day weekend visit by about 25 brothers and me to Pocahontas Correctional Institution, which is located in Pocahontas, Virginia—for many of us about a two hour drive from home, close to the West Virginia border.
Pocahontas is a medium-security man’s prison housing just over 1,000 prisoners. A walk occurs twice annually, generally in October and in April. It is followed-up by members of our group who attend once-monthly “reunions,” when we return and meet with incarcerated men who have attended previous walks.
Members of our group have been visiting Pocahontas during fourteen previous walks; this weekend I am participating in number fifteen. That means our group has been working both with the inmates and with the prison administration and particularly with its chaplain for seven years now.
Kairos’ ministry has the purpose of “sharing the transforming love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ,” as Kairos’ Program Manual puts it, “to impact the hearts and lives of incarcerated men, women, and youth, as well as their families, to become loving and productive citizens of their communities.”
No one is forced to attend, and an attendee may leave at any time during the four days. However, if he leaves, he can’t come back in.
Each half year, about forty men choose to attend. They need to apply to attend ahead of time. Therefore, some attendees we are with right now have waited between six months and a year to spend four intense days with us. Just so, we have waited and have prayed about being with them.
A prisoner may attend a walk only once. After that, former attendees can meet with us again at reunions.
The prison’s population changes over time, of course, but during our Kairos group’s seven years visiting Pocahontas, approximately 280 men have had the opportunity--
to learn about Jesus—of whom some of them have scarcely heard except as a curse word,
to hear brief salvation-oriented talks,
to discuss those talks in groups of six inmates and three volunteers,
to share meals with us volunteers,
to be bathed in prayer, by name, not only by us inside volunteers but also by outside prayer-partner volunteers in Virginia and sometimes in multiple states,
to have an opportunity to forgive those who they believe have harmed them,
to receive, addressed to each one of them personally, an agape letter of love and encouragement from each of us volunteers—each man gets a letter from each one of us (some men have rarely received mail at all during their incarceration, and today—Saturday—each man will get more than twenty personal letters).
This shower of written love is powerful. Another shower that is powerful is this. I mentioned being bathed in prayer.
During each four day walk, we divide the 24-hour periods into half hour segments, and we get commitments from our free-world brothers and sisters to pick a segment and to pray, by name, for each of the men attending the walk during that half hour—each half hour segment is covered, 24 hours per day.
A big chart is displayed on the wall—at Pocahontas we meet in the prison’s gym—and the detail of the prayer shower is clear and, for some of the men, almost overwhelming.
In addition, they get a lot of fresh-baked cookies!
We volunteers, and as many of our friends with ovens and freezers whom we could enlist, we have all been busily baking cookies for about the last 10 days
previous to our walk. We entered Pocahontas hauling large, transparent plastic, storage barrels of fresh-baked cookies.
We have six recipes we use—chocolate chip, peanut butter, sugar, oatmeal, molasses, etc. On and average walk, we bring in approximately 1300 dozen cookies!
By the inmates, these are called the Jesus Cookies. The Jesus cookies are a big draw!
Not only do the men attending the walk enjoy a lot of cookies, but during the walk our volunteers go through the pods of cells and bring a bag of Jesus Cookies to every single inmate, whether he has the slightest interest in Jesus or not. Irrespective of Jesus, virtually all of them have an interest in fresh-baked cookies!
To subscribers and others, I covet your prayers.
If you are reading this on Saturday or Sunday, October 13th and 14th, my first walk is moving toward its close. There is an open-mike event tomorrow—Sunday—during which attendees can speak about what has happened to them during the walk.
I am told that sometimes the testimonies are extraordinary!
I’m looking forward to that!
We Kairos volunteers are moved by compassion for the inmates. We are all of us—both the inmates and we men of the free world—we are all men who have made our mistakes, and all the Kairos volunteers and some of the inmates, we acknowledge our on-going sinfulness.
We are all of us “in chains.”
We are here at Pocahontas, moved by the Holy Spirit, to come to, and to visit with those whom the free world sometimes considers the least of us.
What is it that Jesus says of this?
In Matthew 25:40, he says, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers, you did it to me.”
We are here to glorify the Lord, to honor Jesus, and to experience the presence among us of The Holy Spirit. Jesus is the one who is both able and faithful to unshackle the imprisoned and to set all peoples FREE.
(Please note that the last sentence above is not mine. It came to me in a prayer written by one of my Kairos brothers, who has walked many walks at Pocahontas and who has been stirring by many salvation testimonies of the formerly chained.)
We are here to light a candle at Pocahontas. I covet your prayers that we may succeed.
When I was young, I once asked my Christian mother why Christians light candles in their windows at Christmas time. Here’s her answer. “Dikkon, we light candles in our windows so that if the Christ Child should need a place to lie down, He will know by our candles that He will be welcome here.”
Help us light a candle “in the window” of Pocahontas so Jesus will know that He is welcome here.
Pocahontas Correctional Institution