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.