“I was in prison, and you visited me.”
“So, what’re you doing this weekend?”
“Oh, I’m going to prison. . . . It’ll be good.”
Joking banter is endless among Kairos Prison Ministry International volunteers. So, too, is their heartfelt commitment to sharing God’s love. Kairos serves men and women in 350 prisons in thirty-one states and eight countries outside the U.S. No matter why they’re incarcerated, many inmates feel angry, hopeless, forgotten, and unloved. Life on the inside is tough. Kairos volunteers aim to bring light into some very dark places.
Kairos is an interdenominational, lay-led ministry that began in 1976. Members agreed on six commonly-held Christian faith tenets and developed weekend programs that last from Thursday through Sunday. Irv Potts, rector for Bartlett State Jail’s most recent weekend, commented, “[Residents] see people from all walks of Christianity come together. . . . We’re able to leave differences at the foot of the cross and focus on Christ and His ministry.” Typically, thirty to forty team volunteers serve forty-two “guests” on each weekend; over 170,000 inmates have participated over the years, and Kairos fields 20,000-plus volunteers each year. Overall, Kairos has only twelve paid staff members.
Prison wardens and chaplains choose candidates for each twice-yearly weekend. During these weekends, residents and volunteers share meals, fellowship, music, and group activities. The forty-two residents are arranged at seven tables in “families” of six with three team members. Each thirteen-hour day is full: The team gives personalized talks such as “Choices” and “Tomorrow.” Then residents discuss, create posters, participate in prayer circles, and sing enthusiastically with the band. Trust builds as residents feel unconditionally loved.
Certain events deeply touch the residents. Volunteers carry in a paper chain with links naming people near and far who are praying for the group; 1,400 links are needed to encircle the Bartlett meeting room, but there’s always more. Sunday school kids send placemats with hand-drawn pictures and messages. On Sunday, each table gets a birthday cake personalized with candidates’ names, a first-ever for many residents. And then there are the homemade cookies, about 5,000 dozen (yes, really!) per weekend. Given in one-dozen packets to all inmates at a facility, they symbolize forgiveness toward whomever one gives a cookie. Finally, participants receive personal letters from the team. Residents, who often feel forgotten by family and friends, treasure these letters.
Some residents participate in Kairos weekends for “free-world” food and then realize that their spirits were fed, too. Many residents fit “tough guy” stereotypes, yet cry unashamedly as the weekend progresses. Most come back weekly for “prayer and share,” knowing that volunteers will be there, listening and supporting. Yet some steadfastly resist the grace that is offered.
Kairos is a vital outreach, supported locally by over twenty team volunteers and contributions from seven churches representing five denominations. It’s hard and intense work, but Kairos changes lives through God’s words in action. Reb Bacchus, a volunteer since 1996, remembers a man saying, “Everyone who said they loved me hurt me physically until I came to Kairos.”
By Nancy Bacchus
Photos by Todd White