“I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you took care of me. I was in prison, and you visited me.” -Matthew 25:36
Most of us don’t think about the people who are in prison. We read a news story here and there about someone who did something illegal, got caught, and was sent off for a long time, safely locked away from our lives, our family, and our day-to-day thoughts. It’s easy to forget these people. They did something bad to someone like you or me, they did the crime and now they’re doing the time. They’re now simply “prisoners” or “criminals” in the minds of those on the outside. But, what’s easy to forget as we tuck these people away into both a locked cell and the oblivion of the forgotten is that they are still people. They have families, histories, they breath the same air as us, they’ve created and destroyed, they’ve done good and bad, just like the rest of us. Sure, prisoners must’ve done something severe to be locked away for years, but what we should remember is that the heart of the Christian life, what makes the faith unique in all the world, is love, mercy, and forgiveness.
Parishioners at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Mandeville, Louisiana have been participating in the Kairos Prison Ministry International program for five years serving the Rayburn Correctional Center, and are led by Dave Smith. The Kairos program itself has been around for forty years and is strictly lay-led and volunteer operated, with clergy serving important sacramental roles as needed—a multi-denominational group serving to bring spiritual freedom to those who are incarcerated. The main ministry events are three and a half day programs held twice every year in participating correctional institutions. They also rotate volunteers in every Wednesday night for “Prayer and Share” activities and participate in monthly resident-led reunions for Kairos graduates. But, these events aren’t just charitable prayer and preaching, they’re in-depth and engaging ministry sessions that bring new perspective, the light of Christian mercy, and the hope for redemption to some who are nearly forgotten and have assumed themselves lost to the world and their loved ones.
Dave related the story of his own “conversion” while working with Kairos as an “eye-opening experience.” Like many people, he used to have a “lock the door and throw away the key” attitude about prisoners. After spending time with the incarcerated in the Kairos ministry though, Dave came to truly understand that all people deserve salvation, and that for incarcerated people it takes a special kind of involvement to aid in spiritual transformation that hopefully leads to rehabilitation. This transformation that takes place during their stay goes both ways and the Kairos participants say they feel as though they get just as much out of the ministry as the inmates do. Most of the prisoners live in a constant state of defense and reservation in a hostile environment, not allowed any personal possessions or privacy and very little communication to the outside. Kairos gives them a chance to open up, not just to talk about the Gospel and prayer, but also to break down the barriers of their everyday life to feel human again with company that doesn’t pass judgement and allows them to be themselves.
While only the members of Kairos conduct the inside prison events, they depend on involvement from the whole parish as well. Other parishioners help out by baking loads of cookies to send the prisoners and cooking hot meals the likes of which most of them haven’t had in years. Even the children of St. Michael’s Preschool participate by making art and writing letters for the Kairos men to take back to the prisoners, many of whom have children of their own they haven’t heard from for years. Other parishioners write personalized letters with prayers and words of encouragement. Prayer chains are also organized for every minute of the three and a half days of each event, the news of which amazes the prisoners in itself to know that complete strangers are praying for them. All these contributions help to make every ministry event a powerful one that brings new hope through faith and community, while giving many men who thought themselves hopeless a reminder that not only does God forgive, but the rest of us still do too.
Les Bascle, another participant from St. Michael’s, is impressed by the transformation of perception and attitudes that occurs over the course of their visit. The prisoners start the event with assumptions of the Kairos men being judgmental “holy rollers.” By the end of the three days of level interaction though, everyone leaves with comradery, exchanging handshakes and hugs, and feeling like friends. It’s an experience that makes both parties vulnerable and is life-changing for everyone as both sides reach out in a protected environment to open up as equals. As Les recounted the initial chill of being trapped behind locked gates, he also prized how the improvements to his own life in faith were priceless. Many of the prisoners they work with feel abandoned and entirely cut off from their families, but the Kairos program allows them a semblance of home and a reminder that they’re still human beings. Les’ advice to future participants in Kairos is to be careful, because it’s easy to get hooked on the experience of changing lives—a powerful encounter that’s equally rewarding for both the program participants and the prisoners they help.
Some of you might be thinking about how great this ministry sounds and how much work it is to pull it off, but also wondering about the big picture results. Well, that’s pretty amazing too. During the years of Kairos, the recidivism rate (that’s the statistical rate of released prisoners being incarcerated again) actually drops for those who participate in the program from the usual 24% down to as low as 10%. That’s the faith at work, both in the spiritual lives of those affected as well as real results in our community. The goal of incarceration is not just to serve justice and to punish wrongdoing, but it’s rehabilitation and redemption—a chance for those who have taken wrong turns in their lives to get back on track and eventually rejoin the world. The program is always in need of more passionate and engaging volunteers, both lay people and clergy, and Dave Smith encourages anyone interested to contact him by phone at (985) 630-8710 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Kairos participants from St. Michael’s will continue their efforts of remembering Christ’s teaching: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).