I wrote this piece for a church newsletter some years back, following my first experience entering a prison to volunteer with a prison ministry group. At that time I was going in to worship with Level V prisoners, the most serious offenders in the prison. Today, I enjoy bible study and fellowship with Level I prisoners who are anticipating release soon, and a return to home and family.
“Why do you come here?” It was a prisoner asking the question, and it took me by surprise. I went home pondering it. Why indeed?
At first, it had been a quiet little tug at my sleeve. The parish was having a “ministry fair.” The object was to inform parishioners of existing ministries and to recruit members for them. As I wandered past Prison Ministry, I lingered a bit, remembering current literature about serial killers and movies like Silence of the Lambs. I moved on, but a few minutes later I was drawn back. I asked some (probably naïve) questions, then left. Several weeks later, when I couldn’t let go of the idea, I signed up as a volunteer.
Now, if you know you would be bothered by the sound of a gate clanging shut, or having to be escorted by guards through a series of locked doors, deeper and deeper into the prison; if the sight of barbed wire, or maybe even uniforms, or if the sound of jangling keys makes you nervous, then perhaps this isn’t for you. But if you are able to go beyond these things to actually become a prison volunteer, you will discover a world you didn’t know existed, a world about which people generally don’t want to know.
What is it like to stand next to a man who has committed murder? Well, it’s like standing next to any other man in prison attire. A volunteer does not know about the backgrounds of any of the men (or women). That occurs only when the prisoner shares that information. Most choose not to talk about the subject.
Rather than frightening monsters, I met human beings who had been forgotten by family and society. I met men who seemed appreciative of the volunteers. The simple act of shaking hands – that element of human touch – was extremely meaningful to them.
Every now and then it would happen that someone was clearly there only as an alternative to being in his cell, but for the most part, I believe the men came for worship, solace, guidance, or spiritual strength. They were always respectful and often expressed gratitude to the volunteers for coming. (Without sufficient volunteers, the prison will not allow services.) Often they simply longed to talk.
Unfortunately, the time preceding and following a service is minimal. There is little time for meaningful conversation. As time went on, faces became familiar, and I would be told anecdotes about mothers or sisters, aunts or uncles.
Family – whether they remain in touch or not – is extremely important to prisoners. Occasionally, a man will ask for prayer for a family member or for something troubling him. Every prisoner I saw responded positively when he was greeted and treated with dignity and respect.
One wonders how only one hour a week with very little time for conversation can make any kind of difference in the grand scheme of things? Yet, it does. The prisoners recognize it. They don’t understand why you come, but they appreciate the time you give them. For one hour they are no longer prisoners, but fellow Christians coming together for worship. They can put their past and present aside and be “real” people once again. They can hear words of guidance to get them through the week. Sometimes they ask questions. At times they just need someone to listen to what they need to say. Your presence gives them hope for forgiveness, and for a future. Being able to share a laugh with someone may be just the thing to help an inmate make it through one more day. Having lost their freedom and all of those things that you and I simply take for granted, has made them extremely appreciative of smaller things.
So…why did I go there? I could reach out to other human beings who might need a kind word, encouragement, or merely to be acknowledged. I had the privilege to worship with men who were my brothers. Today I don’t recall who asked me why I came to the prison, and I don’t remember how I answered him. My answer, however, should have been, clearly and simply: I come because you are worth it.
I challenge you to join your brothers – or sisters – in worship! I do have one word of caution: Should you choose to accept this mission, you may never be the same again.
“I was…in prison and you came to visit me.”
“…When did we visit you…in prison?”
The king will answer them: “I assure you, as often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me.”
Louise’s book is entitled The Prisoner’s Prayer Book.
To read more of Louise’s blogs, visit her website at: prisonersprayerbook.com,
or follow her on Facebook at : Prisoner’s Prayer Book.