Message from Thack
Many of you asked, “How was your weekend in the prison?”
Our staff of volunteers gathered at Fountain Correctional Center in Atmore, Alabama on the afternoon of Thursday, October 27. Columbus Posey was part of the team and serves twice a week at Fountain as the Chaplain’s assistant. After being processed by the correctional officers, we were escorted to the prison chapel and were warmly greeted by the “Chachos.” These are the prisoners who have previously attended the Kairos weekend and were part of our staff. After we made final preparations in the chapel, the 42 prisoners (“pilgrims”) attending the weekend were admitted to the chapel.
The pilgrims, known as our “Brothers in White,” arrived with mixed emotions. Some seemed happy, some looked anxious, some looked skeptical and most expressed no emotion at all as they met us folks from “the world.” Each staff member was assigned to be the shepherd of two of the inmates. David from Panama City, Florida and Matthew from near Jasper, Alabama were assigned to me. After meeting, we went outside to the food tent and shared coffee and cookies. David liked to talk and was hungry for news from the world. Matthew, a young man in his late 20’s, was very reserved. While he answered my generic questions about where he was from and so on, he made it clear he really wasn’t in the mood for a conversation.
Later that evening we had “open mike” time for staff and pilgrim introductions. The pilgrims were asked to share why they came for the weekend. Most said it was out of curiosity. Some admitted they came for the food. A few said they were non-believers who wanted to learn more about Christianity. A few more said they were Muslims and were there as “observers.” With rare exception, they all admitted they didn’t know what to expect.
The mood changed dramatically on Friday when were assigned to our table groups. I was tasked as the spiritual director for the table of St. Matthew. There were two other lay staff members assigned to my table as well. They were Tony Smith, a Southern Baptist from Georgetown, Alabama near Wilmer, and Jim Backes, a Roman Catholic from Mobile. Both are great guys and committed to this ministry. Six Brothers in White joined us. We had an even racial mix of pilgrims at our table. Though we weren’t allowed to ask why they were in prison, some had apparently committed serious offenses because they indicated during the weekend they would be in prison for a long time. One acknowledged he was serving a life sentence and had already been in the “system” for twelve years.
The flow of the weekend is very similar to the Cursillo weekend. In fact, Kairos used to be called “Prison Cursillo.” Throughout the weekend we had spiritual meditations and talks and then discussed them at our tables. Through these conversations the prisoners began to relax and open up. They discussed their previous lives in “the world.” Their stories were quite similar. Most grew up in single parent households without a significant adult male presence. A couple of them were physically and emotionally abused by their mothers’ male companions. They all began committing crimes as young juveniles and had spent the better part of their formative years in the juvenile criminal justice system. In short, they were programmed early in life to run afoul of the law.
Some were exposed to religion in their childhood, usually through the efforts of a caring grandmother or other relative, but all acknowledged it never took. They did listen to and internalize the talks and meditations, and by Friday evening I could sense a change in some of our pilgrims. They seemed eager to learn more about God and how they could have a personal relationship with Christ.
By Saturday morning all of our pilgrims were on board and participated fully in the table talks. At different times during the weekend, a couple of the pilgrims at my table and some from other tables asked me to meet with them privately. Some had good questions about God, forgiveness, grace, and what it meant to be really loved. Some wondered how God could love them, especially for what they did to be imprisoned. Some just needed an opportunity to unburden themselves of years of emotional baggage.
Sunday was an even better day for the pilgrims and staff. We had grown into a community by then and everyone was engaged, including the self-professed skeptics and the Muslims.
The closing service was a joyful event, much like our Cursillo closing services. Some offered their “testimony” about how much the weekend meant to them and how they had never before experienced unconditional love until Kairos. A few cried and pledged to volunteer as “Chachos” at a future Kairos weekend.
Matthew, one of the two men I was assigned to shepherd, was profoundly moved by the weekend. He was the one who was reticent to talk when we first met Thursday night. We had a nice conversation before the closing service on Sunday. He shared with me that when he came to prison, he didn’t want to talk to anyone or have anyone talk to him. He built emotional walls to protect himself from any more pain than he was already experiencing through his incarceration. He said his table leader Ralph was kind to him and befriended him. He also said my “Walking in God’s Grace” talk on Sunday morning touched him. I asked him what part of the talk made a difference. He said it was when I told them, “Christ never stopped loving them when they came to prison and that their crimes did not define them.” He said I was looking at him when I said this and he believed I meant it.
His “testimony” at the closing service confirmed his feelings. Looking at our staff Matthew said, “No one has ever loved me like you guys from the world. I know Jesus is real and I see him in each of you. I feel so blessed.” I wanted to say, “No, Matthew. We are the ones who are blessed.”
How was my weekend in the prison? I’d say it was pretty good.