Kairos in prison

Brother Rick Harris, O. P., from the Diocese of Alabama posts regularly on this blog. Whe he mentioned recently that he was about to make a Kairos Weekend at a prison in Alabama, I asked him to write about it for us. Click for his engrossing account. (And thanks, Rick.)

Kairos No. 21

Staton Correctional Facility, Elmore, Alabama

March 30-April 2, 2006

“I was in prison and you came to me.”

–Matthew 25:36

“ . . . that the Kingdom of God might be made present to all.”

–From the Kairos Community Prayer

Kairos is an ecumenical prison ministry. Kairos is one of two Greek words that are usually translated into English as, “Time.” The other Greek word for time is, “Chronos,” which refers to clock time or calendar time. I may decide to plant tomatoes next Saturday, April 15, at 1:00 p.m, chronos time. The seed package may say that it will take 75 days to grow these tomatoes, but it would be silly for me to plan now to harvest tomatoes at 1:00 p.m. on June 29. I will eat my first home-grown tomato in kairos time, that is, when it is ripe.

Kairos prison ministry is initiated with a three day program, usually beginning on a Thursday evening and ending on the following Sunday afternoon. It is brought to a group of prisoners by an inter-denominational team of laypersons and ordained clergy. The program is roughly patterned after Cursillo and other “Fourth Day” programs such as Walk to Emmaus and Via de Cristo.

Last weekend was my sixth Kairos. As always, any blessing the inmate participants received from the team members was repaid to us, on the spot, seven-fold. Our blessings started almost immediately. Thursday night, as we were doing brief introductions, an inmate stood up, told us his name, and talked about his son, an inmate at another prison (and an example of an all-too-common syndrome), who had written him a letter after having gone through a Kairos weekend. “He said things in that letter that he had never before said to me as his father,” our participant said. “I HAD to find out what this Kairos thing is all about.”

Kairos programs are offered in over 300 prisons in the United States and 30 other countries. A typical weekend program is offered to 42 inmates. The inside team will consist of 30 to 40 volunteers, who, regardless of past Kairos experience, will have had over 30 hours of team training and team formation exercises before setting foot in the prison. For every inside volunteer during a weekend, there are roughly 15 to 20 outside volunteers who support them in various ways. Some bake cookies. Some make posters or placemats. Some cook meals to be brought to the prison. Some write letters. Some simply pray.

Team members fulfill various functions during the weekend, giving talks and meditations, reading Scripture, offering prayers from the little Kairos prayer book called, “Freedom Guide.” Most are assigned to table families consisting of three team members and six inmates who remain together from Friday morning until Sunday afternoon, sitting together, listening to talks together, attending chapel together, eating together, praying together, learning to see the face of Christ in one another.

The goal of the Kairos program is to create Christian communities inside prisons that will enable and encourage inmates to offer spiritual support to one another. The talks, meditations, and activities used throughout the weekend are intended to present inmates with overwhelming and undeniable evidence of God’s love. As the weekend progresses, this idea that God loves me, myself, personally and not generally, begins to dawn on the participants. As the idea takes hold, everything changes. A sociologist might say that there is a paradigm shift in thinking. I say that the Holy Spirit shows up.

As part of our regular, planned program, on Saturday afternoon we fired a bazooka at prisoners’ long-standing emotional barriers. Each inmate was given a decorated bag with his name on it. Inside the bag were personal, hand-written, heart-felt, prayed-over letters from each team member as well as some letters from outside supporters. It was a very emotional time. Many inmates no longer hear from families or friends. For most, this bag contained more letters than they have received since coming to prison. A participant told me that his bag couldn’t have been more valuable if it had been filled with one hundred dollar bills. Team members retired to the chapel to offer privacy as tears flow.

After we returned to our table families, a team member delivered a talk entitled, “A Christian.” A pledge of confidentiality prevents me from discussing the personal details of the story this man shared. But I can say that it was a powerful story of childhood trauma and healing, personal loss and redemption, and miracles and restoration of faith wrought by the words of a small child. It was a taste of the same unadulterated joy that is promised by Jesus Christ. I looked across the table and one of my fellow team members had his head in his hands, sobbing. Inmates tried to comfort him, only to be overcome by emotion themselves. We were a family. The speaker ended his talk by simply saying, “In all your life you have never had, and you will never have again, a better opportunity than you have at this moment, to accept Jesus Christ.”

Robert Wisnewski, my rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, Alabama, was a member of a Kairos team last fall. He recently described his own experience:

What Kairos prison ministry attempts to do is to illustrate to prisoners that, even though they have made great mistakes and are viewed by society as huge failures, God is still able to make something good in them. Kairos reminds them of God’s power and challenges prisoners to open their hearts to God’s grace. When that is done, a mystical timing of all things can be seen. That which is evil and horrible can be turned around if they will participate. The matter of choice is presented to them. The events in their lives have not occurred because there is some cruel force of causation. What has occurred has been because they, and others, have not opened their hearts to God’s love and forgiveness. If they will do that now, this time will become the turning point for everything. This time can become the place where all things change. Something powerful happens at this point of recognition. Prisoners come to see that God is present. Even more they come to see that God has always been present.

On Friday morning, one of the inmate participants at our table told us that he was a Wiccan practitioner. This caused great consternation among the other inmates at the table, one of whom in particular expressed concern for this young man’s soul. The other team members at this table and I took this concerned inmate aside and explained that, while Kairos is certainly 100 percent Christian and evangelical, we do not operate by EVER disparaging other faiths. We instead present the Gospel message of love and hope, count on the Holy Spirit to show up for these weekends, and let the good news of Jesus Christ sell itself.

The message of Kairos is not just for inmates. It is for you, and it is, especially, for me. The invitation to the Kingdom is extended to us all. We each have a choice. Is my face set toward this world, or is it set toward Jerusalem, and the doorway to heaven at the cross?

Sunday afternoon our Wiccan friend accepted Christ, without ANY explicit urging from the human beings who were there.

We sing a lot of songs during the weekend. Hour after hour, our hearts become filled with love, and our voices grow louder. As I write, I can hear the chorus to a Kairos favorite:

O victory in Jesus,

My Savior, forever!

He sought me and bought me,

With His redeeming blood.

He loved me ere I knew Him,

And all my love is due Him.

He plunged me to victory

Beneath the cleansing flood.

Lyrics by Eugene Monroe Bartlett (Public Domain)

Br. Rick Harris, O.P. is a novice in the Anglican Order of Preachers, a community of clergy and laypeople dedicated to expressing Dominican spirituality within the Anglican Communion.

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