Imprisoned by COVID-19

As my social life has ground to a halt these last couple of months, my prayer life has jumped into overdrive. I pray for my wife and her 93-year-old father who lives on his own in Kentucky. I pray for my four sons, my three brothers, and my Sunday school class. But I am praying especially hard for some friends who find themselves surrounded by the coronavirus. It is a group of men I have come to know through a Christian ministry. I have spent hours in their company singing and praying, laughing and crying. I have not been able to see these men since we began sheltering in place. In fact, I have lost all contact with them. No phone calls, no text messages, and no Zoom meetings. I worry about them because there is no social distancing where they live. These guys are incarcerated with more than a thousand men at Calhoun State Prison.

Most people I know believe that people in prison probably deserve to be there. If you are a victim of crime or simply a believer in law and order, you are probably in this camp. Even I believe that if we break the law, we need to accept the consequences. But if we take a step back, maybe there is another way to look at incarceration.

Many of us have experienced that stomach-churning feeling of driving in a car and suddenly being aware of a police car behind us with those blue lights flashing. We have broken the laws of the road, we got caught, and we will need to pay for our mistake—probably with a fine. Or perhaps we have misjudged a traffic light and blew through a yellow only to have it turn red? Remember that feeling of relief when you looked in the rear-view mirror and confirmed that no police car was chasing you. You just broke the law and got away with it.

I have certainly made my share of mistakes. They include the aforementioned traffic violations, accidents with power tools that have almost cost me some digits, and a few mistakes I don’t care to disclose. We have all made mistakes and we all feel we deserve a break—a second chance. Well, so do many of the men and women who crowd our prisons and jails. To be sure, there are evil people who deserve to be locked up and stay there. And there are some who are innocent and shouldn’t be there at all. But the majority of people in prison made a mistake, are serving their time, and will be let out some day to get on with their lives. They will be rubbing shoulders with me and my family in the grocery store, in the restaurant, and in my neighborhood. I would like to do my part to help them turn their lives around. Kairos Prison Ministry International is my vehicle for that effort. We want prisons to reform people so they can come back into society, having seen the error of their ways—to straighten out and be productive members of society. Just being locked up does not do that. Kairos does.

One of the things I like about Kairos is that it is Christ-centered but non-denominational. It cannot be claimed by Methodists, Catholics, Baptists, or AME. The men I volunteer with—my brothers—are black, white, and Latino. When we work together in Kairos, we lay our differences aside in order to focus on what is important, demonstrating that God loves all of us equally. Kairos has been called the best example of the early church in existence today.

The program is centered around the Kairos Inside Weekend that we hold once or twice a year. The weekend consists of carefully coordinated talks, discussions, chapel meditations, and music led by a same-gender team of volunteers. The goal is to build a Christian community that encourages prayer and fellowship together on a regular basis inside the institution. These “Prayer and Share” groups meet weekly. In addition, each month the free-world Kairos community returns for a “Reunion” of the entire Kairos community which, at Calhoun, can include a few hundred men.

The whole Kairos experience is designed to build and encourage positive social character and behavior. Cynics might argue that the men are just pretending. They are, after all, “criminals” and “con-men”. But I have seen lives changed. Kairos Inside creates Christian communities inside prisons that can transform lives, decrease prison violence, and reduce recidivism.

Society spends more than $60 billion every year to keep a couple of million inmates incarcerated, whereas the Kairos program is offered at no cost to State and Federal Institutions. According to one inmate testimony, “It’s been said that it costs the government $1 million to keep me locked up, and a $250 program from Kairos set me free.”

Kairos is a ministry that consists of three programs. Kairos Inside serves incarcerated men and women living in prison. Kairos Outside reaches out to the women outside whose lives are impacted by incarceration, because families “do time” right along with their incarcerated relatives and friends. Kairos Torch encourages young men and women to share their life journey and change behavior through participation in a long-term mentoring process.

 Kairos is active in thirty-seven states and nine countries, including Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. It is active in Prisons all over Georgia including Valdosta, Autry, Lee, and the one in which I serve, thirty miles West of Albany at Calhoun State Prison.

The men are, I believe, selected by the prison chaplain, and approved by the warden. When we go into the prison as Kairos volunteers, we do not know what the men’s offences are—why they are there. We are not there to judge them. We are trying to live by the example of Jesus who taught us to love unconditionally. I was intimidated the first time I walked into prison and had that gate clanged shut behind me. I passed through two guard stations with double electronic doors and into a gym deep inside the facility.

Now that I know what awaits me inside, I look forward the experience of being sequestered a gym with a couple of hundred men in prison jumpsuits because I am privileged to see God at work. I see hope, I feel love and I hear singing of hymns as joyous as I have heard in any church service. I go to serve others and find that I am the one being served. I am still baffled at how difficult it is to recruit volunteers in what we often consider the “Christian bible-belt”. We are doing work that Christ himself admonished us to do. So, why aren’t more Christian men involved?

I miss Kairos and I worry about my Christian brothers, both the volunteers I serve with and the men on the inside. I am not allowed to name them here, but I see their faces. I wish I could tell them I am praying for their wellbeing. I also worry about the Kairos program. We rely on close contact—handshakes and hugs—to convey our friendship with one another.  I wonder what our program will look like when we do return.

Whenever I begin to feel bad about my social isolation, I remember those who have it worse. People are suffering through illness, job loss, business failure, and even death. I also remember my Christian Brothers who are packed into confinement, alone and helpless against a terrible disease from which there is no escape.

In the months that lead up to our weekend inside, we volunteers spend hours planning for the event. The obstacles to our success include finding enough volunteers for the weekend, securing funding for meals and materials, and the logistics of getting everything, from food to musical instruments, through security. We meet regularly, we plan diligently, and we worry a lot. That is what I am doing right now as I think about the Kairos Prison Ministry—worrying. But one thing I have come to appreciate, because I have witnessed it time after time. Somehow, when God is involved, it will all work out. And it always turns out better than I expected. Maybe that is the overarching message for our time.

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