"The Other Side of the Fence"- Kairos Prison Ministry

“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.

prison

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.)

*pseudonym

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12 thoughts on “"The Other Side of the Fence"- Kairos Prison Ministry

  1. David ~ God has gifted you with His insight into the hearts and souls of His people.
    Jesus said – Love as I love – (“SEE” as I see.) And you do that – and write it out as a gift to the rest of us. Truly the Power Tool of Kairos is Love – the greatest power on earth. Your words teach us – remind us –
    reflect to us – that Life-giving Power.
    Thank you for sharing. And you are so right, The Kairos experience changes all of us – heals us – and makes us better.
    B.B. Stumbaugh

  2. Thanks David,
    It is always a joy to hear about what you see and feel. The prison experience is hard to explain. Although I believe that some of the comments from the inmates about their weekend comes close.
    One said; “I now see colors that I didn’t notice before.”
    Another: “I no longer feel unworthy and can recapture my identity. We really are worth saving.”

  3. My heart breaks when I hear of how the lack of love in a person’s life causes them to make choices that are about themselves and not others. I am constantly amazed at how just a little love shown by the presence of Christ’s family of Volunteers in Kairos creates a new reality for so many lost lives in prison. The Holy Spirit works miracles out of just the smallest show of love that is based on the grace of God through Christ.

  4. David,

    When I was given my job assignment as a
    runner/driver for this past Kairos weekend, I admit that I was disappointed because I would be in and out of the prison all day and would probably miss alot of the days activities. Little did I know that God had placed me exactly where I needed to be. I was able to minister and observe in a way I had not been able to do before. I observed the pain that you were in for 4 days with your back and that God gave you the strength to love, listen and minister. So once again I have learned to let Him take the lead! This was my experience on “The Other Side of that Fence” and like Mike it was my pleasure to have joined you there.

    Dennis

  5. Pastor David,

    Thank you so much for your posting and insight. This weekend was a first for me. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life – really. But, was it worth it? YES!

    Truly one of the most touching moments for me was the men singing “Surely the Presence” at the end yesterday. The look on the faces of the men who had just experienced the weekend and the stewards who had been through it before, was probably the purest worship I’ve ever witnessed in my life. Praise God for the mighty work He accomplished this weekend!

    Debbie

  6. Praise be to God for His love for His creatures. What always gets me are the stewards. Seeing these men serve others because they are called to do it, because they love the men on the walk, because they know where their salvation lies, because they love Christ. Praise be to God for letting us be a part of His great and perfect plan. Praise be to God to those brothers we had to leave in that dark place. Let the light of Christ shine through them so that others may see that salvation can only come through Christ.

  7. Thanks, David, for writing what I am feeling but haven’t been able to adequately express. It is truly amazing what the Holy Spirit is doing through the Kairos ministry. It was indeed pure joy to serve on the Allred #15 team and see God in action on both sides of The Fence!

  8. Thank you, David, for documenting these things which we experienced last weekend. It was an awesome blessing to see the love of Jesus move across the conference room and transform men from observers to worshipers. The 3-gym was hot and my eyes were sweating much of the time. Praise be to God for you, the entire free-world team, the stewards, the guards, the chaplin and especially the participants for showing Christ to me in new and wonderful ways.

  9. Here’s the prayer I say every Saturday night before the final day:
    Gracious God, help us to be still and know that you are God even in the midst of this busy schedule. Help us to step back and let you precede our agenda and goals. Remind us that your Holy Spirit will meet each brother at his point of need, not necessarily at our point of desired outcome. Help us to heed the counsel of Peter and James to humble ourselves before you and allow you to lift us up as you see fit, whether we are to merely plant seeds as Paul or water the sprouts and shrubs as Apollos or simply leave here trusting that you will give the growth through the ministry of the Allred Kairos community. Remind us again that your special Kairos time may be different from our 3 day Kairos schedule for many of these brothers. Remind us over and over, especially on the eve of the last day that these men are not evangelism projects of ours but precious children of yours whom you love more than we ever will or can, whom you will beckon your way not only through us but through persons and means we know nothing about. So on this last night, help us to be still in our Kairos busyness and know that you are God, the main actor, the prime mover in all of this. You alone are God and this is your time, not ours. Cover the brothers in white and this team in the amazing grace you give us through Jesus. Amen.

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