“I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Matthew 25:36
There are times in our life when we are all alone. Though we may be surrounded by people, we may feel unwanted, unloved.
There are times in our life when we desire forgiveness. In a world full of shallow, cheap apologies we find the liberation that comes from genuine, deep grace to be allusory.
These are two fundamental concepts to the human condition: the desire to be in community, and the freedom that grace provides so that we can “have life, and have it to the fullest” (John 10:10).
Like you I have explored these ideas for many, many years. In my thoughts, in bible studies, weekend retreats and holiday BBQs. To answer the question of the meaning of life one will confront these issues squarely and regularly.
On this side of Heaven we may never fully understand the answers to life’s difficult questions. But an experience I had recently opened my eyes to them as wide as I have ever seen. I saw more in 4 days than I have seen in 40 years.
It was inside the walls of the largest prison in Colorado that I experienced God like never before. I have had moments in my life when I felt God’s presence – but nothing as palpable, as enduring and as real as the 4 days in April 2017 at Sterling Correctional Facility.
In 2004 I was invited to a Kairos Closing Ceremony at a prison in Huntsville, Texas. What I saw there affected me deeply and I swore that I would revisit the Kairos Prison Ministry later in life. In 2017 I felt called back to Kairos and reached out to their local chapter. In no time I was fully welcomed into the Sterling Chapter of Kairos. After some meetings, training, homework, background checks, lots of prayer and support and an all-day training with the Colorado Department of Corrections I was ready to start.
Why prison ministry? Jesus answers the question directly in Matthew 25: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
The inmates I met at Sterling have committed truly terrible atrocities. Some of the most violent criminals you have read about in the paper are spending the rest of their lives in Sterling, Colorado.
Even though their crimes are inexcusable, their stories are often tragic. Childhood stories of abandonment, homelessness, abuse and addiction are common. It’s no wonder that the first meaningful association in their life is often with a gang. Escaping the near certain fate of prison life at that point becomes all but impossible.
But even though they may have committed heinous crimes; even though they may have proven themselves incapable of civil behavior; even though we may have removed them from free society and exiled them to prisons to be forgotten; and yes even though they may have lost their way and even turned their back on God – they have a Holy Father who loves them, forgives them, will never forget them nor leave their side.
Kairos prison ministry is all about reminding them of exactly that. Kairos tells them you are loved; you are not alone; if you seek forgiveness you will have it; you can have peace and you should have hope.
If this sounds hokey or preachy let me be the first to agree – until I witnessed it. Jesus said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26) God was most certainly present with us in Sterling, and he filled that place until it was overflowing with His Spirit. At the close of each day we would sing the following with the inmates:
Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.
I can feel God’s mighty power and God’s grace.
I can hear the brush of angel’s wings,
I see glory on each face.
Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place. (Lanny Wolfe)
During those four days lives were changed. Tough men broke down and cried tears – in heaving sobs – that had been stored up behind decades of hardened hearts. Hatred and animosity made way to love and forgiveness. People were reunited with the God they last encountered as a child, if at all.
And, most miraculous of all, I witnessed man after man after man stand up and confess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. A satan worshipper, two wiccans, a deist and countless non-believers accepted Christ into their lives for the first time. To witness that may be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
A new friend who is a retired Episcopalian Pastor and has attended 13 of these 4-day events told me he has seen more people accept Jesus at Sterling than he did in over 40 years as a Pastor. Another new friend said, “There’s just no doubt about it. This is the most important work I do for the kingdom.”
God was working that weekend in April, and it wasn’t just the inmates He was transforming.