Emerge and Restore

Exploring faith, God, and church in the 21st century...

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Location: Kansas, United States

Thursday, October 13, 2005

I've been in jail

I have a good friend who spent most of his adolescence and early adulthood in juvenile hall and in jail. He was hooked on alcohol and drugs and sex and everything else. But in jail with all the time in the world and nothing to do, he began to read enthusiastically and found his way to Jesus in his jail cell. He embarked upon a genuine journey of discipleship and although lacking an education, he has become one of the most well-read and theologically knowledgeable people I know. He occasionally schools me, reminding me how narrow my spiritual background is and how far I have to go in reaching beyond that. But my friend's life is radically different now: he is married, has a cute little daughter, owns a small business, and is a dedicated man of God.

But he has been yearning recently to go back to jail and he asked me to come with him. And so he started a jail ministry, and I accompany him once a week. This seems to be his calling, what his life has prepared him for, and he is passionate about it. In fact he makes trips to the jail three or four times a week, even though he doesn't live nearby. He does the teaching, I'm simply there for support. Because of his criminal record he need a "legitimate" person to come with him at first.

But this isn't your typical prison ministry. I've done a fair share of prison ministry, venturing into big medium- and high-security facilities with sniper towers and razor wire. I've visited inmates on death row. I've been searched and questioned and had my background checked numerous times. I think everyone should take every chance they get to minister inside a prison. But this is not a prison, it is a jail (Prisons, my incarcerated friends tell me, are MUCH preferred to jails). A small, rural Kansas county jail. If you want to minister in most prisons, you have to be put on a waiting list. No so, here. These men are forgotten by society, by their community, by absolutely everyone but my friend. He doesn't have to compete for time with anyone, and the inmates can't wait for him to come back.

I've been inside several times and it still seems a little surreal. If you watch TV or movies, you've seen prisons that are huge and intimidating, overflowing with burly guards wearing body armor. This is nothing like that. We are let in through a flimsy locked door, up a flight of stairs to "the cage." It is an old iron-barred contraption that was put together inside what used to be a community meeting room. The whole thing is about 50' by 20', including 12 cells that are 7' by 4.5' (double occupancy). The main security measure around here seems to be the fact that most of these men really have nowhere else to go if they were to break out. The entire staff of the jail in the evenings when we are there consists of a scrawny janitor and one guard who happens to be three and a half feet tall. Really. There are no firearms, so if something were to go wrong, our only hope for rescue rests on a midget with a can of mace and a teenager with a mop.

In a prison setting, normally you'd study in a supervised common room. Here, we enter the cage with the entire population and are locked in and left alone (the guards' office is down two hallways, totally out of sight of the cage, where the guard and the janitor play video games). So we sit in the little common area. And as I look around I notice that I could fashion weapons from about 25 or 30 items just in the area of the inside of the cage near me. I'd hate to think what what someone more experienced, like one of those criminal masterminds from TV, would do with it. This place is a playground for Hannibal Lector.

But there's more. These men are hungry for God in a way that startles me. Yes, some of them just want his assistance to get out of jail. But in most of them I find a level of humility and brokenness that puts to shame every single church I've ever seen. It's hard not to admit that you've done wrong when you're forced to wear an orange jump suit and sleep on a steel slab. These men show me on a weekly basis qualities that SHOULD characterize the church, but don't. They crave the Word of God so much that I am humbled. One burly, grizzled guy let us know that our first night there when he growled, "Don't go telling us a bunch of stories, we don't care...we just want the Bible." They ask questions, they communicate their confusions, they argue (although without personal animosity; they know these are the guys they MUST live in community with for the next several months), they never want to stop when our time is up. Their attitude toward the Word is what the Church's should be but isn't. And it still surprises me, but it shouldn't. Once again, God's foolishness has shamed my wisdom, and the least of these have outshined the greatest.


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