Release to the Captives

There are currently 2.3 million men and women incarcerated in the United States. They need your prayers and the love of Jesus.

By Shannon Vowell –

Prison Ministry: Kairos Training” reads the hand-lettered sign on the upstairs door. Inside, the smell of coffee competes with the smell of bacon in a crowded space that is surprisingly silent. A woman moves toward me on tiptoe. Her eyes are full of tears. She blinks them away as she smiles at me and gestures for me to come in. Two little girls with long braids akimbo sprawl on the floor with coloring books and crayons. They are right in front of me; I step over them, carefully. The circle of adults, chairs clustered in a circle and heads bowed, don’t look up when one of the children erupts in high-pitched giggles.

“Mama,” she chirrups, “Mi cabello es morado!” (My horse is purple!)

The teary-eyed woman nods, putting her finger to her lips. Quiet fills the room for a few more minutes. Then someone says, “Amen,” and the space instantly gets loud. The adults – mostly men – stand to stretch, grin, and trade jokes; the little girls – liberated to laugh – make a soprano background track. Someone starts tuning a guitar; someone else comes in with a tray of fragrant cookies.

A Kairos training day, I quickly learn, is a truly rich sensory experience. Participants eat, sing, pray, laugh, cry, and practice together, from early morning to late afternoon, fueled by caffeine and a level of passion that initially mystifies me. Their objective: preparation for a Kairos weekend.

During the Kairos weekend, some of these trainees will go inside a prison to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to incarcerated persons. Others will work as the “outside team,” preparing meals, covering the proceedings in prayer, sending the “inside team” out in the morning and welcoming them back in the evening with worship music and celebration. A few here won’t be serving on either team, but will provide “agape” in the form of home-made cookies, personalized paper placemats, or other prison-approved tokens of love. Collectively, they hope to bring light into the some of the darkest, most forgotten corners of our society – and offer freedom and hope to those who have lost both.

God’s special time. The Greek word kairos means, loosely, a time of favor, opportunity, or propitiousness. In scripture, “kairos” often indicates a time of grace – God’s timing (see, for example, Romans 13 or 2 Corinthians 6). Team members here define Kairos simply as “God’s special time.” Frequently, kairos is posited as the counterpoint to chronos, the Greek word for sequential, calendrical time. Kairos ministry helpers point out that these distinctions in ancient language have urgent application for incarcerated persons; Kairos represents the only freedom possible for people literally locked in chronos, “doing time.” In prison, time is both currency and debt. Locked away from the world to “serve time,” prisoners – ironically – have nothing but time on their hands, yet even their time is not their own.

Invisible, unlovable, disposable. Listening in on this Kairos training, I am startled by the raw power of various trainee’s words. A retired cop testifies to the healing power of being in ministry to people he formerly saw as “perpetrators.” His own redemption, he says, depends on this redeeming work; his own freedom consists in offering Christ to those who are locked up. A big, burly man, he lets tears fall unashamedly as he speaks. Other retirees – an accountant, an IT exec – nod as the ex-cop talks. Through Kairos, during their retirement years, they say, they have found their life’s work.

But even more striking are the testimonies from the ex-offenders who received Christ through Kairos while in prison. These men – now free – volunteer their time to go back into prison to offer Christ to others.

The husband of the teary-eyed woman (also father to the little girls coloring purple horses on the floor) describes his life before Kairos as less-than-life, and himself as less-than-human before he met Jesus. “I was an animal,” he says into the microphone. “And I lived like an animal. But no more. Now I am a son.” (No wonder his wife’s eyes are perpetually streaming, I think, wiping my own.)

Other ex-offenders talk about being imprisoned by their addictions, secrets, and alienation long before they were actually in prison. A common theme in their stories is the sense of having been invisible, unlovable, and disposable, until they encountered Jesus. Without evidence or counsel to the contrary, these men lived for decades convinced that what they did – good or bad – had no significance, because who they were had no significance. To a man, they claim “freedom in Christ” as a spiritual reality – a changed identity – that pre-dated freedom from incarceration and that changed their notion of “freedom,” forever.

These testimonies punctuate rehearsals of assigned talks which will be delivered in prison during the Walk. The talks must follow a prescribed format but also feature the talk-giver’s unique perspective. Critique – sometimes jovial, sometimes sharp – follows each run-through. More laughter; more coffee. The moderator reviews prison rules – lots of them – as the day progresses. There is more singing; there is more food.

At the end of the training, I watch interactions. Men who have been together all day linger to pray in small groups; nobody hurries to leave. Habituated to other church meetings, during which folks multi-task with their phones and from which folks speed to their cars, I marvel at this group who focus so fiercely for hours and can’t seem to get enough of one another’s company. Many here have travelled from other cities, most won’t see one another until the next training day; their intimate ties clearly transcend geography, socioeconomic parity, or personal history. I realize that I am watching people love one another the way Jesus commanded, and I tear up again.

Principle of pilgrimage. Some of the language used to describe a Kairos Walk sounds familiar to those who have been on a Walk to Emmaus. That’s because the movements are siblings – both descendants of the Catholic renewal movement begun in post-civil-war Spain. At the heart of Cursillo was a principle of pilgrimage: “Pilgrimage is a spirit of restlessness, a spirit of dissatisfaction with spiritual lukewarmness, a spirit of moving onward. It is also a spirit of brotherhood – of the brotherhood among fellow pilgrims who are striving together to reach the goal” (www.cursillond.org).

Where the Walk to Emmaus movement seeks to revitalize local churches by igniting individual pilgrims, Kairos envisions “a Community spiritually freed from the effects of imprisonment reaching all impacted by incarceration, through the love, hope, and faith found in Jesus Christ.” Both the Walk to Emmaus and Kairos are volunteer, laity-led movements. Both are global in scope and local in leadership.

There is, however, a critical distinction: where the Walk to Emmaus seeks to fill a void within the Church, Kairos seeks to bandage a wound that affects civilization itself.

In America, ever-increasing levels of incarceration mean that ever-increasing numbers of children lose one or both parents for critical years. Statistics suggest that a child with an incarcerated parent will be six times more likely to become incarcerated themselves. And the expectation of recidivism – not just among parole officers, but among prisoners – undergirds the deep cynicism that such statistics foment.

Kairos posits that cynicism simply cannot address the reality of incarceration and its effect on society. The prison population in Texas alone numbers 140,000 men. Of those, 95 percent will be released back into society. Given this statistical reality, Kairos asks the question, “Are you really willing to write off all these people as inevitable criminals?”

Miracles of transformation. The difference between criminals and Christians, in a Kairos understanding, is access – access to scriptural truth, access to encouraging community and Christian accountability, and access to the power of prayer. But to give incarcerated people access to these life-changing resources, one must first gain access to the incarcerated people. Kairos offers both kinds of access: a proven, trusted methodology and structure for access to populations in prison – and a proven, trusted methodology for giving those populations access to the truth and life of Jesus Christ.

What happens when Kairos gets access to prisoners and prisoners get access to Jesus? In a word, miracles.

“I’ve seen a former grand wizard in the Aryan Brotherhood embrace a black table mate,” says Mark Vowell, senior pastor of First Frisco United Methodist Church and Kairos participant. “I’ve seen a man known on the inside as an ‘enforcer’ kneel, sobbing, when he received love letters from people he’d never met. I’ve seen miracles of transformation.”

The power of Kairos proceeds from a disciple-making pedagogy that borrows straight from the Master’s playbook. One example is the process of ordinary decision-making.

Vowell explains, “In normal life, people typically make hundreds of decisions each day. Everything from what to put on in the morning, what to eat for breakfast, what radio station to listen to on the way to work. Most of us make these decisions automatically, seamlessly. But in prison, decisions are primarily made for people. Ironically, that means you have folks whose poor decisions have put them in prison, spending years without the chance to learn to make better decisions. Jesus changes that.”

How? “When you claim Jesus as your Lord and Savior, suddenly you have all these decisions to make, every day: how to follow him in this situation? How to honor him in this relationship? How to keep your mind on him? Jesus is the great disciple-maker, even in prison.”

Jesus famously used bread and fish, multiplied, to sustain followers who wanted more of his teaching. Kairos uses homemade cookies for similar purposes. “These guys haven’t had cookies in years. They have been eating institutional food – no fresh vegetables, no fruit, everything processed or from a can. When we show up with chocolate chip cookies, fried chicken, salad – all of it fresh and home-made – it totally overwhelms them. God’s agape love by the plate-full – literally!” Steve Whatley, a Kairos Team Leader, enthuses. (Whatley points out that baking cookies for a Kairos walk is a great way to participate in the ministry if one is unable to commit to being a team member. Typically, a walk gets through forty dozen cookies – or more.)

Cookies. Prayers. Talks. Handshakes. Then hugs. Each component of Kairos contributes to making the miracles happen.

Re-making the world. Gary Currie, the 32-year veteran of Texas prison management and the Warden at Bridgeport Correctional Center, outlines the way those miracles are re-making the world.

“In Texas, as we have embraced faith-based volunteerism in our prisons, we have had something very rare happen: we have closed prisons, because there weren’t enough offenders to fill the beds. We have closed units, for the same reason. It works like this: Faith-based volunteers offer these guys the most valuable commodity in the world, their time. They tell these guys what nobody else has ever told them: that they matter, that they really can achieve something with their lives. And they show them that they mean it by showing up. They believe. And it changes everything.”

Based on his long career in corrections, Currie articulates a choice: “We can do nothing today. We can ignore the prison population and think to ourselves that we don’t want that convict living in our neighborhood. But that convict is going to be our neighbor. So, if we choose to do nothing today, we are going to have choose to do a whole lot tomorrow to keep ourselves, our property, and our children secure.”

Based on his own faith, Currie puts it slightly differently: “We as a Christian people have to share our faith and belief in the best of mankind. Where better to do that than where the worst of mankind is on display?”

Real transformations. Whatley and Vowell both see Kairos not just as a transformational gift to incarcerated persons, but also as a critically important mission for the life and health of the local church.

“When we go to prison to love people, as the scriptures direct us to do,” Whatley says, “We are blessed as much as the prisoners are. We are changed as much as the prisoners are.”

Vowell concurs, “This ministry puts people in place to see the power of the Holy Spirit at work. Real transformation, real impact, up close and personal. My experience is that Kairos transforms prison populations. And Kairos transforms congregations, too.”

Caring for the prisoner. The Methodist movement began with John Wesley’s call to transform communities through social holiness, and Wesley’s life-long devotion to prisoners and prison reform is well documented. But it’s worth reviewing the scriptural basis for this priority of Wesley’s, particularly as Methodists work to stay true to their scriptural heritage.

The Bible contains dozens of references to prisoners and the mandate to care for them, and chronicles periods of imprisonment for many heroes of the faith (Joseph, Daniel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, and the apostle Paul, to name just a few).

And Jesus book-ended his ministry with teachings that specifically directed care for prisoners. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus inaugurated his public ministry by reading from the prophet Isaiah:

“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…”

When he had finished reading and handed back the scroll, Jesus told the perplexed crowd at his home-town synagogue, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:18-20, excerpted).

And in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus concludes his public teaching with a vision of the Judgement of the Nations, when people will be divided into two groups – the saved and the damned – based on their service to Jesus as disguised as “the least of these.” Among those singled out as priorities by Jesus are the prisoners.

John Wesley and Methodist tradition have clearly prioritized the prisoner, in obedience to Jesus’s teaching.  Kairos offers individuals and congregations today the means to do likewise.

Shannon Vowell writes and teaches on loving Christ and making disciples.

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