Kairos Prison Ministry: An Inmate's Perspective
By Father Mike Kerin, Glenmary Pastor
Holy Spirit Mission, Windsor (Bertie County), N.C.
The incarcerated person in the following story is a composite and not a specific individual. I would not presume to know everything that goes on in other persons’ lives and minds. But the experiences, thoughts and perspectives of this composite individual are some common ones I’ve encountered when talking with inmates at nearby Bertie Correctional Institution.
This young man was born in a poor, troubled part of the inner city. He could not remember his father, since he left shortly after the young man was born. His mother, a drug addict, was rarely at home. He spent much of his time on the streets.
He found that a gang could be the “home” he never had—with support, friendship and protection. The gang slowly corrupted his perspective and got him involved in illegal activities. Things escalated until he was arrested, and he is now in this maximum-security state prison.
He hears about a prison ministry weekend (Thursday through Sunday) called “Kairos.” He doesn’t know much about it, except that they have terrific food. For reasons he still doesn’t understand, he signs up. Now he’s in the prison gym. Some visitors walk in—a mixed group of young and old from several cultural backgrounds. He has not had a visitor in 20 years. The young man’s thoughts continue:
They have us sitting around tables—six inmates and three outsiders at each one. The outsiders seem really comfortable here, and they seem to really enjoy each other. I wonder what church they came from.
All I want is a break from the monotony and boredom. I came for food and not this talk about Jesus. The presentations and our table conversations are about how God loves and forgives us. I’m not buying that. There really is no God. I’ve lived for 39 years and have never experienced this unconditional love that they keep talking about. I’ve never even opened a Bible. As for church, I walked into one or two churches in my life but was not impressed.
At first I don’t think these men are for real. But by Friday, the second day, I’m feeling comfortable around them. They seem to really care about me. I’ve never felt that before. What surprises me is that they come from different churches. There’s even a Catholic priest at my table. I’ve never met a priest before, but he seems to be okay.
We have small chapel services and I open up for the first time, asking God for help. I’m not sure what I’m saying. They’ve told us there are over a half-dozen clergy in the room and if any of us need to talk, they’re here for us. Something inside makes me want to speak to one of them.
I decide to give the priest a try. He really listens and helps me see my life in a new way. A Glenmary brother is in the gym, too. He’s working with inmates to serve us home-cooked food. It’s hard to believe so many Christians from so many different churches are working together, serving us food and their message of hope and change.
By Saturday, these Christians have become our brothers. They keep telling us “we are the Church.” They keep talking about forgiveness. That scares me to death. I feel tremendous rage toward my parents. I hate the way the prosecutor and judge treated me. Well, maybe I deserved it. Someday I’d like to ask for forgiveness from people I’ve hurt, but I can’t forgive myself. Yet these former strangers ask me to have the courage to ask God for forgiveness. Well, I might be more open to believing in God, but not a God who loves me. All day I wrestle with struggles inside me. I also see it in the faces of other inmates in the gym.
By Saturday afternoon, I’m willing to take the risk. I come forward and ask God to forgive me. And then I feel this tremendous burden lift. I feel like a new person. I’m amazed that God could forgive me, but he does. Now I’ll have to work on asking others to forgive me and trying to forgive myself.
By Sunday, I feel like I’ve grown into the person I should have been. I’m acting differently. These men from Kairos are coming back each week to walk with us in our journeys. I guess they really do love us. I find myself looking forward to seeing that Catholic priest again.
Father William Howard Bishop, Glenmary’s founder, had great concern for the neglected. From the beginning of the Windsor, N.C., mission in 2004, Glenmary priests and brothers, coworkers and a student have been involved in outreach at the local state prison. They have found this prison to be a mission land within a mission land.
It’s not necessary to go off to a foreign land to proclaim the Good News of Jesus to people. Many in our own land are still hungering for God, for Church, for meaning and purpose in life.
Glenmary serves in many ministries in areas where there is still tremendous mission need. Jesus said: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…” (Mt 28:19) He would include our own nation.
This article first appeared in the July 2015 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.