Growing up, I was afraid of prisons. That seems like an obvious statement; of course I was scared of prisons. That’s what a prison is supposed to be – scary. They build those formidable walls, and fences lined with razor wire, and cells with cameras always watching, and guards with batons and guns to punish – all to instill fear.
But that’s not what really scared me about prisons. Strangely enough, those parts of the prison are the securities that actually make people like me – on the outside – feel safer. It’s the people inside of the prisons that I was really afraid of.
And when I imagined prison ministry it was just as scary. What I had in mind was a lonely minister entering a prison to sit, one-on-one with a restrained criminal in an orange jumpsuit trying to convert them to Christianity. That’s what I imagined. And there was nothing about that that appealed to me.
Then, for some reason, (maybe it was divine) I decided to take a class by Project TURN at the divinity school that took place in a maximum security prison. Every Friday, for a semester, 10 guys from the divinity school would drive to Raleigh central prison, and take a class with 10 men incarcerated there. It was called “Spiritual Autobiographies,” and, academically, we were going to learn how to hear other peoples stories and how to write our own. But this class had a deeper goal and it was not written in our syllabus. It was a goal we just had to be there to discover.
Entering the prison that first day, I was excitedly afraid. At Central Prison, our classroom was three floors up in the very center of the prison. It sometimes took 10 minutes to get all the way to the classroom, with two check-ins, a metal detector, two elevators and three long and dark hallways. We even pass by death row on the way to class, where all the men there are distinguished by their bright red jumpsuits. But the question I couldn’t get out of my head while we walked towards our classroom was: What are these men going to be like?
When we finally arrived to the classroom, there, standing, were 10 other men with huge smiles excited and waiting for us with hands extended to introduce themselves. They had been waiting a long time for this class and were pumped for the opportunity. As I sat down, I realized that these guys weren’t as scary as I thought they would be and once introductions and the regularities of class started, the real goal became clearer.
Us from the divinity school were not there to help them at Central. Us from the university were not there to teach them in the prison. Us from our gothic chapel were not there to convert them behind the bars.
No, the class was set up so that We all had the same reading. We all had the same assignments, and We were all graded the same. We were classmates. We were peers. And after a few classes, we became friends. We learned from each other and bonded with each other. We all listened to each other’s story and gave input to each other to help us tell our stories effectively.
And that listening and storytelling and bonding…was healing. It was life in the midst of a place of death.
On our last day of class, the government even gave us the okay to eat together. For that lunch, the men living there requested biscuits, corn bread, banana pudding, McDonalds cheeseburgers and Bojangles fried chicken. We all ate and drank together around the table. And after we had stuffed ourselves with one too many chocolate chip cookies, Frank, a man living in the prison, reclined back, closed his eyes and breathed out in his loose southern accent, “I feel like a free man again.” – healing…life.
After we said our goodbye, we all walked out of the classroom together – but then 10 of them went right, into their cell block and 10 of us went left towards the exit.
Walking out of the prison that last class, I realized that I was still deathly afraid of prisons. But it was no longer the people inside that scared me. Now it was those lifeless walls, and imposing fences and cameras and guns that scared me. I am scared of those things now because those were the things that prevent bonding, storytelling, the breaking of bread, and healing.
In Matthew 25, Jesus famously says, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
I think differently about prison ministry now. There are still those who march into prisons and believe they are bringing Jesus to a dark forgotten place. Many of those folks do a lot of really great work. But if I am hearing Matthew 25 correctly, I am not necessarily supposed to bring Jesus into a prison. He’s there in that dark forgotten place whether I want to visit him there or not. I don’t go to bring Jesus, I go because he’s already there.
I am excited as the prison ministry here at All Saints will finally be taking its first steps this month. The prison we have wanted to enter is a minimum security prison in Hillsborough named Orange Correctional Center (OCC). But in July of this past summer there was some bad wiring that caused a fire in the kitchen. No one was hurt but all of the men had to be moved to other prisons to fix everything up. They all finally arrived back at OCC in November and regular scheduling started early December.
The ministry we will be taking part in at OCC is called Yokefellows. It happens every Tuesday night and is an hour every week where volunteers come and just hang out with the men living there. I have been attending Yokefellows since they restarted in December. The awesome thing is that there is no real goal other than simply developing relationships. Just being together, as peers.
Besides myself, there are six others from All Saints who attended the volunteer training (held only once a year) so that we can regularly attend these gatherings. Since OCC is a minimum security prison, the training certifies us to sponsor some of the privileged men for a day, to take them outside of the prison – even to come to an All Saints church service. In time, I’m sure you will hear some awesome stories from our volunteers. And who knows? Maybe others of you will gain an interest to participate in this ministry as well.
This is just the first step in a prison ministry – there are many other things that can be done. But for now, as we take that first step, I ask that you pray for us, and the men at OCC – that relationships will grow and we all meet Jesus.