“This takes me to the other side of the fence..”
That was Cameron’s* reaction to eating BBQ sliced beef and red beans for the first time in seven years. Cameron is 60, and a long-time inmate of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Five days ago, I didn’t know him at all. Today, I can’t get him out of my mind.
The Fence is four foot coils of razor wire, attached to the top and the bottom of two parallel sets of 16 foot chain link barriers, in between which there is a 10 foot wide dog track. To even get to The Fence from where we were eating BBQ , involves a hundred yard walk through a no-man’s land overseen by guards in towers with rifles, the entrance and exit of two locked sally ports, and another long walk over caged and gated sidewalks and past numerous prison officers, with radios and handcuffs hanging from their belts and immediate access to in-prison, highly-trained SWAT teams, with weapons. At each of the sally ports, visitors must note the posted signs: “ No Hostages Beyond This Point!” That means that those rifles will be aimed, if necessary, should the occasion ever arise, through hostages.
In other words, getting to the other side of The Fence is pretty much an impossible thing to do if one is a maximum security inmate of the TDCJ.
Unless he is eating BBQ and red beans.
Kairos Prison Ministry is a four day event in which approximately 40 men from the “free world” spend 10-12 hours per day with 42 men who are incarcerated. It is a Christian ministry, and is supported by 30 (or so) women and men outside the prison in a central location who are preparing two hot meals to be brought in each of those days to the 82 men inside. All of that food is the kind of food- fresh, tasty, and unlimited- that the inmates will never otherwise enjoy while they are incarcerated. It is eaten in utter and profound silence, not by rule, but in awe. It is prepared with love, and eaten piled high with the condiments of memories- “other side of The Fence” memories.
The food is but one aspect of our (the various volunteers) attempt to demonstrate to these imprisoned men the reality of Jesus-love. Live music, active ears, open hearts, and whatever semblances of freedom that we can give the men within the confines of a prison gym setting, are our other offerings. But the food (supplemented between meals by several thousand dozen homemade cookies), is the primary gate to everything else. You’ve heard me say before that the most important part of the gospel for many people is a hamburger. Participation in the Kairos Ministry over the past 14 years is where I formed that foundational Truth of my own ministry. I see it confirmed all the time.
Jesus said, when he stood up for the first time in his hometown of Nazareth to announce the new turn his life had taken, that he had come to “proclaim liberty to the captives, to set prisoners free.” He was reading from the Isaiah scroll which described “The Day of the Lord,” and he said that day had come. That day is both present now, and always coming; that’s what motivates those of us involved in this ministry. We don’t go inside with master keys or literal escape plans. We go inside to demonstrate that prisons can come in all shapes and forms, that captivity is an epidemic human affliction, and that the commonalities which bind us as humans are far more important than the superficialities that we allow to separate us.
Cameron was four years old when his father died. His mother, a drunk, put Cameron and his sister in a series of Texas orphanages, during those times when she didn’t have a boyfriend to semi-support the family. Cameron and his sister hustled rent and food money during those times, beginning when Cameron was 4 and his sister was 6, by picking up bottles on the streets for the 2 cent deposits, by repackaging yesterday’s donuts found in dumpsters and selling them on the street, and by picking up dropped bananas from unloading banana boats and selling them for 3 cents each to those who didn’t want a stale donut!
No mother, no dad, no home. His first time in jail was soon after he joined the Army, and drugs and drinking greased the path for a number of subsequent prison terms. He makes no excuses for his life, though. He regrets his choices, but didn’t even have the ability for much of his life to know that other choices could be made! Hustling at 4 years old for rent and beer money for mom caused a prison to be built for Cameron long before the one he now resides within.
Cameron’s was one of 42 such stories which had the opportunity to be told this weekend, often for the first time. Those stories were not listened to in judgment, nor in some kind of tsk-tsking false sympathy. They were simply listened to and accepted. In return, though, the storytellers were able to see, hear, and feel a response most of them had never before experienced: “I love you, anyway.”
Those words don’t have to be spoken, though sometimes they are. They can be written, perhaps in one of many letters the inmates are given by team volunteers and others during the weekend. Those words can be heard in the lines of a song or the sounds of a blues harp or guitar. They can be felt in the sincerely welcoming, looking-at-you-in-the-eye embrace of a guy who could be out on a boat this weekend but instead has chosen to sit beside you in a prison gym. Those words- “I love you, anyway”- can be seen in the tears which inevitably and often gather in the corners of the eyes of those who are listening.
And they can be tasted in BBQ and red beans. They can enable someone who will never again be able to literally be there, to be on the other side of The Fence, forever.
The most important part of a Kairos weekend is that the volunteers go home. They leave. Many will be back for periodic visits, but the inmates are now able to live within a community of other inmates who have shared their four day experience. Racial divisions, age, faith, gang, and experiential separations, have begun to fade in the Light of human commonality. They have shared laughter, tears, food, time, respect, song, prayer, and natural human empathy in ways that are potentially life-changing.
As those things are for the volunteers who have gone home now, too. This is not a one-way ministry! Our hearts have been broken, too, and are re-forming this day in new and better ways. Part of us lives on the “other side” of that Fence, too, even as we continue to go about our lives in our so-called free world. That’s the Affliction of being Jesus followers. But that is also the flat-out, never-ending, wouldn’t-trade-it-for-anything Joy.
(Some of you who read The First Morning know that it was during a Kairos weekend in 1994 that I decided to become a preacher. I saw Jesus- alive- that weekend in the simple acts of one of the prisoner-helpers in a way that I had never before witnessed, in a church or anywhere else . I figured then that I might be able to tell about Jesus in that way to other people, too, and for 13 years now, that has remained as my main goal.
I’ll write that story again here soon. For you, but mainly for me. It was green beans that put me on the other side of that Fence, and I need periodically to remind myself of that fact.)