making peace in prison {guest post by S}

This guest post is from an anonymous prison ministry volunteer and carries a trigger warning for sexual assault, rape, abuse, and violent crime.

A few months ago our neighborhood had a barbecue. A casual friend asked my wife where I was. She looked at him with exaggerated sadness. “Oh, he can’t be here. Didn’t you know? He’s in prison.”

As you can imagine, her response caused quite a stir. But it was true. It was Thursday night, and on Thursday night, I am in prison. I go there for a simple reason: it is where I find God.

Once a week a half dozen volunteers and I walk across the razor wire entombed point of transit. Hovering thirty feet above us is a steel grey guard tower. Having made this journey a hundred times I barely notice the day-glow orange sign warning: No Hostages Will Be Allowed To Leave These Premises! It is just one of many reminders that I am leaving the world known as Outside and entering the world of a Texas prison.

In a Texas prison, people come in two colors: white and grey. The white uniforms are those of the prisoners: misshapen, dingy, and torn. The grey uniforms are those of the officers: new, crisp, and fresh. We are the exception and can wear anything except white. We are told this is to help the officers pick us out in case of a “disturbance.”

Soon we are inside a large area that serves as a gym, chapel, workroom, and human sorting area. It is not air conditioned. It is noisy. It is the only area where we are allowed to freely mingle with the fifty or so prisoners in our program. We are allowed to talk together, to sit together, even to cry together. We are not allowed to hug each other. Before the evening is over, that will be the hardest of the prison rules to follow.

The program I volunteer for is Bridges to Life. It is a fourteen week faith-based program designed to bring peace to troubled souls. For most of these prisoners, the path to peace is not easy. It includes understanding the impact of one’s actions on others, accepting responsibility, asking forgiveness, and seeking reconciliation. 

And it includes believing the unbelievable: that God loves each and every one of us, completely and unconditionally. For most of the prisoners, this requires a leap of faith that is unimaginable to those of us from Outside.

A typical evening starts with a volunteer crime victim telling his or her story. Some are victims of rape. Some are victims of drunk drivers. Recently I listened to a mother tell how her seven year old daughter had been kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and brutally murdered. Fifty mean looking men, most heavily tattooed, sat in rapt attention as this frail woman tearfully told of the horrors that unfolded minute by minute on that day twenty years ago. Many were wiping away their own tears.

While every victim's story is different, two elements are consistent. The first is that the victims’ lives are never the same after the crime. The second is that they are telling their stories not out of anger but love. Their message is, “I want you to understand the impact of your crimes so that you won’t do them again. I want you to know that God loves you and is ready to forgive you. I want you to know that I love you.”

In the second part of the evening the men break into small groups and tell their own stories. These men whose daily survival depends on being macho and tough now bare their souls and share their deepest vulnerabilities. Some were sexually abused as young children. Some were beaten. Some were taught to hustle drugs by their parents. And some had no reason for going wrong. They just made terrible choices.

These are hard stories to tell and hard stories to hear. But the telling of these stories is an essential part of the path to peace. And as you watch these men reach out to support each other in love, there is no mistaking the presence of The Holy Spirit.

Not all of the men find peace in this program. But as you listen to their testimonials at graduation, it is clear that for many a transformation has occurred. It is at these moments that I understand Christ’s teaching that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed then you can move a mountain. The transformations we see in these men make moving a mountain seem trite in comparison.

At the end of the evening we retrace our steps back through the padlocked steel doors and the razor wire transition point. Once again, we are Outside. But it is an Outside that now feels surreal and colorless, as if I have left some part of myself behind.

Once I thought a Texas State Prison is the last place on earth I would ever want to be. But what I now find in prison, I couldn’t have imagined. I find God working miracles. And I am given the amazing opportunity to participate in these miracles. 

Not a bad way to spend a Thursday evening.

"S": I wish I could use my real name, but unfortunately the Texas prison system has strict rules about this. For safety reasons, volunteers may not publicly identify themselves and can be banned from the prison system for doing so. If you want to leave comments, I will respond by way of Suzannah, my gracious host.

(Some of you reading this may feel called to support this ministry. Please learn more at Bridges to Life.)

Thank you, S, for sharing words here and reminding us both of the power of stories and that we meet Christ among prisoners. Friends, if you have any questions or thoughts, do your thing:)

Photo: Billie Hara
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