One of my first activities since I joined Kairos Prison Ministry is to begin reading everything I can about Kairos and about prison ministry in general. For those interested, I recommend Rev. Earl Smith’s memoir Death Row Chaplain which recounts his 23 years as chaplain at San Quentin Prison (the book is not specifically about Kairos). Simply and unhesitatingly written, this is the story of a young thief, drug runner, gang member, and fighter who—after being shot six times in a drug deal—turned his life around and dedicated himself to bringing redemption as a possibility into the lives of incarcerated men jailed on the shore of beautiful San Francisco Bay.
San Quentin is “a dark and isolated place,” as Smith describes it, but there he found “many examples of redemption, kindness, love, patience, courage, compassion, generosity, joy, and yes, even humor.” However, he continues, “I think the primary thing I learned during my tenure was the value of forgiveness” (page 179, emphasis mine).
Friends of mine in Kairos, who enticed me to join with their excitement about their ministry, often said that the most vivid experience they had during years at Pocahontas was closely to encourage and to observe the redemption of men who were otherwise considered by the general population to be the “least of these” (See Matthew 25:34-40).
Forgiveness occurred; redemption happened.
Inmates have nothing that we of the free world prize. These men, though, come to a Kairos “walk” (a four-day weekend, intensive experience presenting them with the possibility of Jesus’ redemptive grace for them) because they hope to gain everything.
During my first walk, I saw men confess, give themselves to Jesus, become saved, and then turn around, bathed with relief, to try and save their fellow inmates. My friends would say words to me like, “I promise you, Dikkon, they have given me far more than I can ever have given them.”
We of the free world, figuratively, we have everything. Yet having everything already, we of the free world sometimes are secretive about what we need to give away—which is not our things but our emotions, that is, our hurts, our defenses, our fears, our selfishness.
As an imprisoned inmate might do, some of us choose to hold onto our hurt. Alas, we of the free world, sometimes we imprison ourselves.
If you are reading this post during the afternoon of December 1, 2018, I was back in prison that morning.
We Kairos volunteers were at Pocahontas State Prison in SW Virginia for a reunion with inmate members of our Kairos #15 walk, which occurred last October, and with other prisoners who desired to attend.
I’m writing this post earlier in the week, so I don’t yet know what Christian theme was explored during Saturday morning, but my personal theme for that reunion will be forgiveness. Not just their forgiveness, but mine, too.
In an earlier post about my new experience of Kairos (see 10/19/2018, under the GOD heading), I stated that there were four major high points for me as take-aways during my first 4-day “walk” inside. In that post, I reflected on one of them, on agape love—and I reproduced the agape letter that I wrote to each of our prisoner attendees.
Another experience of a Kairos walk is the forgiveness ceremony, which occurs late in the afternoon of the third day. By then—three-quarters through the whole walk—attendees have heard many talks delivered by Kairos volunteers. These talks are designed to build a rising tide of awareness among the inmates that they are personally responsible for their condition of incarceration. Their personal choices have incarcerated them. It was not those others whom they may have hated as their enemies. Each talk lasts about 20 minutes and involves confession by the man giving the talk regarding his own pathway through the theme of that talk.
Then the inmates gather in small groups at assigned tables and discuss the ideas of the talk with assigned Kairos volunteers. Their comprehension of the issues is also stimulated by graphics: the inmates draw and color a poster dramatizing what they’ve discussed. Often, throughout the three days, the word forgiveness occurs--choice and forgiveness are among many Kairos themes.
By the end of the third day, inmates have had three intense days of being prepped for an upcoming event. And we’ve all had plenty of singing, music, worship, prayer, and cookie eating (yay!).
So…what is this forgiveness ceremony?
Early on the third day, all inmates and volunteers are given a square of rice paper and a pencil and encouraged during the day to write down the name of a person or of several persons to whom, in their hearts, they now feel they should provide forgiveness. We are challenged to consider real forgiveness, not mere casual forgiveness—real forgiveness of the sort that for three days we volunteers have been attributing during our talks only to Jesus’ glory.
And these rice papers, with the names we write on them, are to be kept secret, until….the forgiveness ceremony.
Since I’d received my paper, I had thought a good deal, and I had prayed some, too. I had put one single name on my rice paper. Sometimes I thought to erase it. But then I thought, no.
I thought, “I’m a spectator here, a helper only. This ceremony isn’t for me. It’s for them, the ones who are in figurative chains and behind actual bars. The ones here on the inside. Not for me. Should I even participate in this ceremony, whatever it is? Well, I suppose so, yes. After all, I did write a name on my paper.”
An hour later, I stood in one of two long lines of volunteers and inmates. Each of us held a paper in hand. All of us were quiet. One by one, we stepped forward and eventually knelt on a mat. Before each of us was a bucket of water. On the other side of each bucket was one of us volunteers, a professional pastor, equipped to pray.
I bent over the bucket, paper in hand. My volunteer brother nodded, “Drop it in.” I did. The paper and the name dissolved. He asked me, “What?” I named the name that had now dissolved and our relationship, and I said only one sentence more. He reached across the bucket and laid his hands on my shoulders and began to pray.
Three minutes later I could barely stand, so shaking was I. My tears were so copious I could not see. One of my Kairos friends saw this and came over and helped me up. We embraced tightly.
“See?” he asked.
I sniffed, wiped my eyes. Soon, I believed, maybe my knees would begin to function again. I embraced my friend a second time.
I thought, “I should have put more names on.”
Then I thought, “I’ll have another chance…during our next walk.”
Rev. Smith speaks about the societal purpose of incarceration. He uses two words, rehabilitation and regeneration. Times change in society and ideas about how best to address public problems come and go. Yes, evil-doers must be kept separate from the general population, for its safety.
Rehabilitation means to change back to the person the inmate was before he began his life of crime—or, if he has been a criminal always, then back into the ideal person he could have been, as he was when he was an infant and in God’s palm. A rehabilitated criminal is able to enter the free world and to live a successful and productive life without recidivism.
But Rev. Smith speaks of regeneration as the ultimate goal. Regeneration comes from, among other things, forgiveness as well as salvation. It comes from forgiving the ones against whom the inmate has continued to stoke his rage, and forgiving himself with the realization that he is not his crime.
He does not need to continue to imprison himself. Yes, he did the crime(s), deserves the punishment(s), is doing the time. But also he is a fallen and a loved child of God.
As Rev. Smith concludes, “Regeneration sets the standard for kingdom choices” (page 201).
My theme regarding myself on December 1 is forgiveness. I’ll be at the prison where we outsiders and those insiders bond. We will have fellowship, some good rockin’ gospel music, some exciting theological talk, a few intense prayers, perhaps the moment of salvation for one or two more of those who are chained.
I can’t wait for Kairos #16 next year in April.
I’ll choose to put more names on my paper. I’ll choose to forgive them. I’ll drop some more of my own chains.
(This post was originally published the week before Thanksgiving last year. Maybe I’ll publish it each year at the height of leaf-raking season. As shown here, I’ve varied its details slightly to accord with 2018 instead of 2017, and shortened its original length, but its metaphor—I hope—remains good.)
During summer, our house swims in shade.
I love shade!
Otherwise our experience of summer in SW Virginia is hot, hot, hot. But our house is surrounded by large oaks and maples, and they keep us in shade, blessedly.
When we bought our house, the woman next door said, “You poor guy, you have no idea what trouble you’re in.”
I wasn’t in trouble—I was in shade!
We are grateful for our trees, which keep our house cooler and reduce our cooling cost all summer long. The trees cool us because they are covered with leaves. Come fall—which begins in November—the leaves turn yellow, and…they fall.
Billions of them.
Billions upon billions upon billions of them.
They inundate our yard, roof, gutters, porch, driveway, patio, and parking area in back.
Our neighbor was right. The raking job is an enormous task. It is an enormous, on-going task, and it lasts through most of two months.
There is a God point to this blather about leaves. The God point is metaphorically about the last leaf to fall.
Here in our valley we get wind storms. We got a big one five days ago. It was a strong, cool wind (thank the Lord!) roistering through the trees from the northwest, sending that day’s billion of leaves before it—like snow. We had a blizzard of leaves.
Have you noticed something about leaves?
They like moving in a gang. They all make up their minds at the same time, and then they do what the others do. When the wind comes along, they all let go and tumble, as though they were the crazy idea of some slap-dash painter, flinging yellow flakes of tinsel down the air.
But—no—not all of them.
Our blizzard died away. I went outside. The day was cooler than before, and the air was still now, with the sun bright and slantways from low down in the west. Everywhere that I could see, I saw inches—even a foot—of depth of yellow leaves.
I had intended to start by sweeping the porch, but I stopped.
High in one tree, way up, there was one single yellow leaf all by itself out on the end of a twig. It hung there, very still. It caught my eye because it was brightly lit against the blue of the sky by the shaft of the sun.
I watched it for a time, standing as I was in the quiet yellow of the aftermath of the blizzard. That leaf seemed almost to be making up its own mind. That leaf had hung on tight while the wind buffeted it, and while all its friends had let go and had flown. That leaf had hung on, waiting, maybe thinking something through.
What was the something that leaf was thinking through?
Perhaps its allegiance to the Lord.
Everyone else among its leaf friends had known what was right—what was manifest—to do. Everyone else had said, “We are a tide of Christian consciousness sweeping joyfully through the air and then covering the landscape of the Lord.” And they had done just that.
I thought to myself, that last leaf is like we were, my wife and I, eleven years ago.
Then I laughed to myself. Of course, that leaf has no soul—it’s a leaf.
But, I thought, I am a writer and a chaser after metaphor. I have a soul. I have a soul, and—like my one leaf—I had hung on tight to my anchoring point during my wife’s and my nine months of soul struggle, whether to press beyond Judaism toward our rebirth in Christ.
We had hung on, battling that stormy struggle through.
Yes or no?
To deny or to accept?
To let go and to go?
Or not to let go?
And—just as I reached this point in the framing of my thought—up there above me, after the end of the wind storm, that last yellow leaf let go.
As we had, too.
I watched that last yellow leaf flutter peacefully all the way down until it nestled comfortably with its yellow fellows.
Finally at one with the Lord.
I was back at Pocahontas Prison last Saturday, for a reunion.
Reunions occur monthly, on the first Saturday. Two church services occupy the first half of these Saturdays, with two different groups of inmates, and then the reunion is over, insofar as we volunteers are concerned. It’s an early-start day for those of us who come to the prison from our homes, many of which are, like mine, about 130 miles distant from the prison.
During reunions, the inmates arrive from the cell pods, are searched and then allowed through the door into the gym, and then they gather their cookies and seat themselves in groups of five or six—randomly: no assigned tables—each group with one Kairos volunteer. A reunion service commences with prayers and songs; then it moves to a homily, and ends with an open-ended study discussion.
While the walks are the work of Kairos, the reunions are the work of the church that has been planted inside the prison and are administratively overseen by the prison chaplain. The masters of ceremony are inside church elders. During reunions, we Kairos volunteers are the guests of the inside church.
Our role is (1) to distribute cookies, (2) to facilitate the study discussion, and (3) as always to listen; listen; love; love.
Upon my arrival Saturday morning at the front-search entrance to the prison, a volunteer friend asked me excitedly, “Wasn’t that a wonderful letter from David?”
“What letter from David?”
“You haven’t seen his letter?”
“No. How did it come? What did it say?”
“David is saved!”
“Oh, yes, I knew that. It’s wonderful! I got a text about it two days ago.” I named the volunteer who had texted me. “But a letter? I haven’t seen a letter.”
“I’ll make certain you get a copy.”
“I have so much wanted to see David, after this news, to give him the hug of a brother. I hope he comes to reunion today.”
“As a newly saved man, I think he will!”
David did attend Saturday’s first reunion service. I hugged him and blessed him on account of his salvation. He sat next to me in our small group, and we had friendly talk about this change in his life during the few minutes of cookie-eating and getting comfortable as a group. Then the service began.
After a prayer, the church band began to sing. They are an enthusiastic group, skilled, and dynamic—eight backup singers, two charismatic lead singers, three electric guitars, and a keyboard. Pretty soon we were all rocking along with them, captured by the southern Baptist-style beat, repeating the refrain over and over again--
I cleaned up
What I messed up,
I start my life
There we were—men of the free world, men of the inside world—some of us saved, I suppose some of us not—we were getting louder and our hands were stabbing upward as we acclaimed that we were cleaning up what we had messed up—as all of us had messed up something—and we vowed to start our life over again.
It was both empowering and FUN!
I glanced at David. He was not standing as most of the rest of us were, and he had a grimace on his face.
I sat down. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
This powerful man gestured to his thighs. “Can’t hardly move,” he said. “Hurts so much.”
Worried, I asked about the pain. While the music faded, he explained to me that something really huge had just happened to him just a few days before.
I agreed with him that something really huge had just happened to him just a few days before.
“No, Dikkon—writer man—not that.”
It turned out that the other really huge thing that had just happened was that he had just won a gold medal in the prison’s weight-lifting contest, doing squats with barbells across his shoulders. His thighs were toast.
We laughed--a lotta huge things had just happened for David!
The theme of Saturday’s prison services was FEAR. The homily for the first service was presented by a Kairos volunteer, the homily for the second by a prison church elder. Fear is a big deal in prison; good choice for our theme. Easy for me to get the discussions going after the homilies, using open-ended questions.
While I was leading prayer during the end of our discussions, the Lord made it clear to me that fear is a big deal outside of prison, too.
C, about whom I hinted during an earlier post, came and sat with David and our group and me during that first service. C provided a dramatic confession about fear—about his fear.
How could that be?
Does not compute.
No, come to think of it, it does compute. Even C.
As David and I were parting, I said, “I heard you wrote a letter.”
“I haven’t read it yet but I’m supposed to get it this afternoon.”
“It’s about being saved, right?”
“I wanted you all to know.”
“Well, God bless you. You know, I sometimes write about this Kairos experience. Would you mind if I use something from your letter sometime?”
“Use whatever you like! I want you all to know.”
Here is part of that wonderful letter from David. David is the man who, in my earlier post, I named S.
(I’ve regularized some spelling, but the sentences are otherwise verbatim.)
My life has changed so much since I took the Kairos 4-day walk. I had made it a habit to pray to God every chance I get. Also I prayed today at 4 pm asking God “What is my purpose in life?” I sat there quietly and sat there. Then something in my heart and soul said to me, “Stop putting all your energy and worries on when you are getting out of prison, and put all your energy and faith in me.” Listen everybody, my stomach got tight, tears came from my eyes, my heart was beating fast, and my mind was clear. And for a brief second I saw myself free. But not out of prison. I saw that I was free with God. I was smiling and helping people find God in prison.
David recounts that he went to supper and spoke to another prisoner about being saved and about his desire to be baptized. That other man said to David that he could be saved while they walked back to their pod.
So guess what? I am SAVED!! I feel more free than I ever felt in my whole life. I still have a long way to go but now I know that Jesus is walking with me all the way.
Thus saith writer man Dikkon.