Volunteering with Kairos Prison Ministry

Following are excerpts from a newsletter article Priscilla wrote after her first prison ministry weekend.

About thirty women and a cook team traveled to a retreat house near a maximum security women’s prison in Virginia.  The three-hour orientation for the new volunteers was quite informative, and helped me understand the difference between my world and the one I was about to enter.  This facility was tightly run, well supervised—quite impressive.  They explained the rules which must be followed to the letter if you want to remain a volunteer.  Do not give or take one single item from the inmates, e.g. a postage stamp, a letter, even a piece of gum.  Dress code:  no denim,  nothing sheer, sleeveless, above the knee, or tight-fitting.  No cameras, alcohol, drugs or weapons in your vehicles.  No physical contact.  No running. No umbrellas with points.  No cell phones or purses.

At the retreat house we finished preparations and spent time in prayer. We hit the sack about 11 pm and rose again at 5 am.  Breakfast was at 6 and our departure at 6:45 am.

Each morning when we arrived, all visitors and staff were searched by an officer, and then we walked through a metal detector.  Belongings were searched as well.  Some mornings (we were there four days), officers met us outside with dogs.  We were lined up and dogs were given the order “find it!”  This is the environment where the ladies we were coming to see live.  At any given moment they are told to line up for headcount or searches (often invasive strip searches).

I was concerned about how to talk with the residents—if it would be awkward.  I’ve always thought about being involved in prison ministry but fear, and just taking the first step were what kept me from doing it before this.  If you’re in that boat, there’s no need to worry.  Perhaps because I went with a team it made it so easy.  Also, these women had applied to come to the weekend, so we weren’t going in cold and trying to make contacts.  Actually, it was sort of scary how at home I felt.  I didn’t expect that.  I watched as the thirty-six women came in, some of them friendly but many with eyes downcast, looking as if they carried the weight of the world on their shoulders.  There were many white women, many black, and a few Hispanic.  Old and young, and I mean young.  One girl had been there four years and she was nineteen.

Kairos brings cookies.  It’s our hallmark.  Each volunteer like myself brings 100 dozen homemade cookies.  Dear friends and church members lovingly baked them.  The cookies unlock the door to hearts at that initial session.  They haven’t seen anything home baked in a long time.  The cookies also serve other purposes throughout the weekend, I discovered.

Listening to the introductions, I was struck with the varied backgrounds, the ages; most were mothers, some were grandmothers.  I couldn’t help but think “What  brought you to this place?”  For the most part they looked like women you’d meet in the supermarket.  Some were  outgoing; others very withdrawn.  I immediately found myself praying as they talked.  Prayer was continually offered by our team members, and the faithful friends on the outside.  The women were easy to love.  It’s not like trying to talk about God to someone who is “successful”, who “knows they’re a good person,” affluent, etc.  It was like approaching a wounded animal who desperately needed someone’s healing touch.

The next three days were spent listening to a progression of talks, followed by discussion groups and counseling if the women requested it.  The team members were continually driven to God for wisdom and strength.  It was powerful for all on the team to see women receiving the love of Jesus, some of them for the first time.  Barriers slowly came down.  Smiles replaced fearful glances.   Tears flowed.  Friendships formed.

By Saturday, the talk on forgiveness was very timely.  The women learned about asking Jesus to forgive them, and how to forgive those who had hurt them.  That night as the women left, we gave them their usual bag of a dozen cookies to take with them.  But this time we gave them a second bag to give to someone on their list of those they needed to forgive or ask for forgiveness.  We promised to pray for them as they sought to obey Jesus.  You can imagine how teachings like this can change a place like a prison where there is so much hatred, jealousy and bitterness.  These women had new looks of hope and expectation in their eyes as they left, and many had wonderful stories to share the next morning.  Perhaps for some it didn’t go so smoothly.

That same night we were granted permission to visit every prisoner in her cell (about 1200) to take them each a dozen cookies.  I was with the group that went to the building which housed the “lifers” and those with long terms.  I was not at all prepared for two things.  First, most of the girls reminded me of my daughters or their friends, only the look in their eyes was one of depression, hardness or sadness.  And  second, was the place they call home—a large open room, tiled, with a few tables and chairs secured to the floor.  On the far wall was a row of washers and dryers.  Along the two side walls were little cells with metal doors which all mechanically locked and unlocked by a switch in the guard room.  Each cell door had a window in it.  Each inmate bathroom door had a window.  (Nothing is done in private.)  There was a metal stairway up both side walls to a second level of identical cells with a metal railing all around the upstairs walkway.  The officers would unlock one side of one floor at a time and out would come the women to line up for their cookies.  All we could do was hand them the cookies and say “hello” or “God bless you”.  Most were very appreciative.  None were above coming to receive the homemade baked goods from total strangers.  That night I went back to my bed and cried and cried.  I wondered, “How do these women face tomorrow?”  “What keeps them going?”  No wonder many attempt suicide.

Throughout our weekend, we had helpers called “angels”—inmates who had been through the program and were now part of a large fellowship in the prison.  We saw several of them that night we gave out the cookies in their buildings.  They called out blessings to us and words of encouragement.  As I prayed and cried that night, God revealed something truly wonderful to me.  I had come to bring Jesus to the prison.  But I met Him there.  We were standing on Holy Ground.  Prison walls cannot keep Him out.  Many of these women who were already Christians were concerned with reaching out to their sisters.  I saw it in action and heard wonderful stories from my team members who had been coming for years.   It gave me  hope that He could bring good out of the difficult circumstances these women were now in, regardless of how they got there.

At the closing ceremony while the inmates were being seated, we sang “Oh When the Saints Go Marching In” and in marched many of the residents who have completed the program, along with many of our loved ones and other Kairos volunteers to cheer on the new graduates.  I only wish you could have seen the look on the graduates’ faces.  They were so touched and thrilled that all of these people cared for them.  They were each given an opportunity (~2 minutes) to share what the weekend had meant to them.  I kept hearing “I know I’m not alone” and “Jesus can forgive anything I’ve done.”  What a privilege to see healing taking place and friendships forming in a fellowship that would continue beyond the weekend.

Comments

  1. Barbara Moore says:

    I am interested in the ministry.

    • The Control Switch says:

      Barbara, Kairos is an international ministry and, depending where you live, they might have an active ministry in a prison near you. “Near” is a relative term, I should add. Some of us on the team I serve with travel several hours to get to our functions. But it is well worth it! Here’s the link (it’s also on the Ministry page of my website). I hope you can become involved. It will change your life and the lives of others. 🙂
      http://kpmifoundation.org/index.php

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