By Michael Miller, 6-15-23
When I first heard somebody speak of this prison ministry, I immediately knew that I wanted to be a part of it. This three and a half day event, was the 35th weekend that this local Kairos group has offered at Columbia State Prison Annex. It is a calling that few are drawn to. It is a big commitment, including months of preparation and team building, and then the long days in the prison. The process continues with reunions and ongoing sessions to strengthen the small groups that are formed. These deepen the growing bonds between the men, in their relationships with Jesus Christ.
I was a new man on this local team of 21. Some of the men have been participating for many years. I knew at the kickoff dinner several months before that these were men that I wanted to work with. I was assigned to give a talk on “Choices”: Understanding the origin of choices that have led to our circumstances in life. Meditating on this for six weeks was an enlightening exercise for me. I re-lived childhood and the many painful and failed attempts at life that comprise my history. These were the basis of my bond with these men; many of whom experienced similar, or worse childhood experiences in their families.
Arriving at the prison, I was confronted by a perimeter of tall fences with rolls of barbed wire, punctuated by imposing guard towers. It was a foreboding image. Entering the prison is a lengthy procedure. After keying my volunteer number and hand print, I passed through a succession of steel doors that lock behind before the next one opens. After emptying pockets of the few items permitted to enter, I passed through the metal detector and on to be frisked. Finally, I exited the last steel door and into the prison grounds.
The residents of this prison are here for a variety of offenses, up to life sentences for murder. Prison life is stressful, dangerous and de-humanizing. Men become mere numbers in their bleak, faded blue prison garb. There is little trust or vulnerability. Many are forgotten and do not receive a letter or a visit. Surprisingly to me, many are in their second and third terms here. I thought that once would be more than enough.
The term kairos is said to mean God‘s time. Some other synonyms include: moment of truth, defining moment, turning point. After spending four days in with 24 inmates as part of the Kairos Team, all of those terms have great meaning for me. “The mission of Kairos Prison Ministry is to share the transforming love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ to touch the hearts and lives of incarcerated men, women, and youth, as well as their families, to become loving and productive citizens of their communities”.
The Kairos organization is an international, ecumenical, Christian organization, serving those affected by incarceration in the US and nine countries outside of the US.
The Kairos Inside Program is not a freelance operation. It is a very detailed and organized process, from the Thursday afternoon introduction to the end of the Sunday afternoon closing ceremony. It has evolved over many years of experience and tweaking. The staff are asked to stay. “within the banks of the river” (program guidelines) to preserve the integrity of the program, prevent egos from asserting themselves, and comply with the requirements of the institution. Our motto is “listen, listen, love, love”. All this assures the optimal delivery of the program to inspire the participants to seek the freedom and love of Jesus Christ.
The program begins with a welcome and warm up for the participants, while continually modeling the agape love of Jesus. This is done through example by the loving, respectful relationships among the team members and our treatment of the men. Additionally, the participants are surrounded by “agape”. Agape are countless posters and strips personally written, drawn and painted by people outside of the prison, who are praying for these inmates. The strips (which numbered over 2,500) are stapled into colorful chains that cover the walls of the community room where the program is held. The personal efforts of so many people created a vibrant, loving environment that helped to open the hearts of these men with warmth and prayer.
We began by forming “families” of six participants (inmates) and three staff at each table. The families remained together throughout the weekend. Time is split between the community room where a series of talks are given then discussed among the families, and the chapel where meditations, songs and prayer are shared.
Some of the men were kind of rough looking, including a couple who were tattooed across their entire bodies. As I got to know more about them, I judged that many were what Jesus referred to as “the least of these”. There were men with emotional problems, addictions, educational deficiencies, who lacked the preparation and self- esteem to function productively in society. When I shared my own history of abuse and neglect in an alcoholic home during my talk on life choices, they could relate.
Many of us who faced deprivation, and other forms of neglect and abuse in childhood, came to believe that we were defective, unworthy, or unlovable. These beliefs often become self fulfilling prophecies, resulting in isolation with social and academic failure. These painful experiences often lead to addictions and other anti-social acting out. When one is suffering from low self-esteem, and psychic pain, the lure of drugs to anesthetize the pain is great. I went on to suffer failures and multiple marriages with my own addictions. Certainly, I could relate to these men, and how their lives went off course. There, but for the grace of God, go I.
When people on the outside talk about convicts, you might hear things like: “they ought to throw away the key”, “Scum, they deserve it”, or similar. But no matter what crime they committed, they are men, created in the image of God and eligible for His forgiveness. When I got to know these men, I saw their humanity, their human frailties and shortcomings. They were a mirror for me. When I look honestly at my own life, I admit my own failures and sinfulness. This prepared me to obey the command of Jesus to love and forgive others, as I have been forgiven.
I am thankful to have had this rich experience of loving and encouraging these men. By seeing myself in them, I felt the oneness of humanity, as never before. I became aware of unique gifts, that I have been blessed with, including discernment, encouragement and teaching. I feel motivated and optimistic about putting these gifts to work in spreading God’s love.
My initial experience of Christianity had been a mostly intellectual one. This Kairos weekend resulted in a movement from my head, down to my heart. I received great reward from this investment of myself. The joy of the Lord‘s love, which had been elusive to me, appears in my heart when I serve others.
“…..I was in prison and you came to visit me”. Matthew 25:36.
To men of NE Florida who may be called to this ministry, I encourage you to take a risk and give the precious gift of love to those less fortunate. The gift you give may be eclipsed by the one you receive.
More information about the Kairos Ministry is available online at: www.mykairos.com. You may contact the author to get connected with this Northeast Florida team.
Michael Miller, A Co-Founder of Citizens Journal Florida is a fierce defender of Liberty. The retired Fire Lieutenant/EMT from NY has been in FB for 8 years. He is a local sailing captain and instructor, and active in Christian ministries. He dabbles in theatre, photography, geopolitics, markets and writing. Look for his writing here and at: https://firesail.substack.com/
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the official position of Citizens Journal Florida.