I drive a lot for work. My car and I travel a lot of county roads. Occasionally I pass crews of men or women who are in prison and are out cleaning up the roads. Sometimes they are city or county crews – usually given away by the orange jumpsuits. But sometimes I also see white clothing with the familiar black letters on the back (DOC). Department of Corrections. Many years ago, I just drove by them without a 2nd thought. I didn’t actually think badly of them. No, my attitude was almost worse. I simply didn’t think of them at all. They had nothing to do with me or what I was doing or where I was going. They were “other”, not like me and not a part of me.
That all changed in 2001. One Sunday morning I was walking in the door of my church when I was greeted by a friend who said, “Hey! I’m going to lead a Kairos weekend in September and I’d love for you to help. Are you interested?” I said, “Sure, I’d love to!” I then entered the church and thought “Oh crap! What did I just do??? I didn’t mean that!”
See, my friend was very involved in prison ministry at our state women’s prison a couple hours away. Kairos was the name of the ministry she was involved in. I’d just told her that I’d love to minister in prison! Um, yeah. That wasn’t really my “thing” back then. I’d never even considered the idea. Up until that point, I’d volunteered with different groups of people. Kids mainly. Kids were my “thing”. I’m a teacher and I love kids. I love all kids – but my heart has always been with those who struggle (tough homes, low income, but especially those with disabilities). But adults in general weren’t my “thing” and especially adults in prison. I got nervous. What would I say to someone in prison? How could I relate to them? I thought prison ministry was a good thing for someone else to do, but not me! I had actually sent cards to some men in prison as part of a project before. But to talk to them, sit with them, spend a weekend with them? What was I thinking?! Actually I wasn’t thinking. My mouth said yes before my brain could engage in a debate. And while I generally can say “no” pretty well, I’m very thankful that in that instance, I said “yes”. I don’t exactly know why I didn’t ever go back to my friend and say “hey, I made a mistake and I meant no”, except that I started listening to God. And somehow, this started seeming “right”.
It’s 9 years later and I’ve been in that prison numerous times. Maybe 5 times for full Kairos weekend retreats (3.5 days each), twice for shorter 2-day follow-up retreats, and more times than I can count for monthly reunions lasting a couple hours. Somewhere between a Thursday night in September and the following Sunday afternoon back in 2001, prison ministry became my “thing”. My fears? Irrelevant in the face of what God was doing. You know what I learned about relating to people in prison? They are people. And just like me and you, those ladies are people of great worth. The woman wearing that white DOC uniform and I are the same in God’s eyes. We have the same fears, hopes, and dreams. We have both made mistakes. We have both sinned. We are both in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. God loves me intensely with an amazing love. God loves her just as intensely with just as much amazing love. True, I have not committed a crime that could end me up in prison. But have I committed crimes in my heart? Have I gone against what God wanted me to do at times? Yes, it’s part of being human. But God’s grace is there for me, and it’s there for the women (and men) in prison as well. And because of that, I can relate to the ladies there as sisters..sisters in Christ. It’s a really, really beautiful thing.
It’s a beautiful thing, but it’s not always easy. Kairos’ mission is to “bring Christ’s love to the incarcerated, their families, and those who work with them”. It’s tough sometimes. Because even though God sees us as his children, equally loved, the world doesn’t always see that way. And the world passes that message on to us, and to them. Sometimes I have to fight through a temptation to think that in some way I’m “better than” my sister wearing white who is sitting across from me. More often, I fight the opposite temptation to think that I’m “not good enough” to make a difference. And sometimes our new friends, they struggle with those things too. They struggle to impress us, make us think they’re “better than”, “tougher than”, etc. Or, they struggle with thinking they’re not good enough, don’t’ deserve God’s love, etc. It’s not just the relationships inside the prison that are tough. Our relationships with other team members aren’t always easy either. We’re a pretty diverse bunch: we are young, older, black, white, from big churches, from small churches, and from many different denominations. . We disagree with each other at times. Sometimes we hurt one another’s feelings, even if unintentionally. Sometimes, we just plain irritate and frustrate each other. But God’s grace covers us all and because of that we learn to pray together, listen to each other, forgive, and love. It helps that we also sing together, eat together, and laugh together. God shows up, and lives are transformed right before my eyes, every time. Sometimes, it’s even my life that gets transformed as I learn a little more each time about what God’s heart looks like in the world.
After a couple years hiatus, I will be entering the prison again in a few weeks for a 2-day retreat with Kairos prison ministry. I am very excited about what God has in store for the weekend. Please join me in praying for our team, the chaplain, warden, and officers of the prison, and for the approximately 75 women who will be with us for those 2 days. I know God has great things in store. This is the first time I will have been in the prison since Sadie came home from China 2.5 years ago, and only the 2nd since Hannah came 4.5 years ago. But I’ve been sensing God’s whisper to Go, love, and serve. I go because I love the women there. I also go because I want my children to grow up seeing me use the gifts and passion God puts inside me to serve Him, but I go mainly because God nudges me there and He is there.
My favorite “snapshot” of ministry in that place is that we close every reunion, every retreat, the same way. We all gather in a large circle in that small, simple chapel. Nothing fancy. A cross and Bible on the altar along with a battery-powered “candle” (you know, we can’t have fire in a prison – it’s against the rules!) A circle made up of very diverse women whose only common denominator is Christ. Women who have shared our lives over the past hours or days. Our team of women in jeans and colorful t-shirts interspersed with women in white uniforms. We all join hands together and sing a song proclaiming that there is only one God, only one King, and only one Body (of Christ) and asking God to bind our hearts together with his love. I’m not a big crier. But that moment gets me every time. I feel a lump in my throat and my eyes tear up as I look around that circle while we all praise the God who unites us. I imagine that feeling of unity and peace and love is just a taste of what heaven feels like. Who knew that when I said yes to prison ministry, I was saying yes to getting a glimpse of heaven?
Now, when I pass work crews with those white uniforms and “DOC” on the back, I notice. They are no longer “other” and their lives matter very much to me. And actually, so do the lives of those in the orange county / city jail uniforms. They matter too. I think about them and about the others those uniforms represent. I slow down just a little and as I pass by, I whisper a prayer of God’s peace, protection, and guidance on their lives. Just maybe, next time you pass one of those crews, you’ll sense a little nudge too…to notice them, to slow down just a little, and to whisper a prayer.
** And if anyone would like to help with our Kairos retreat (Oct. 23-24), there are a couple things we need. The three primary things: prayers, cookies and money. We love to take homemade cookies so if you can make a dozen or two, call me or e-mail me at DeEtte530@juno.com (you kind of have to live locally to me for this – so I can meet you to pick them up). Or if you want to make a donation to help cover the cost of the retreat, let me know that too. We will be feeding 75 ladies, 15 team members, a couple officers, and the chaplain of the prison a small breakfast, snacks, and lunch both days we are there. A $5 donation can sponsor lunch for one lady. More is always welcome. Most importantly, we would appreciate your prayers.