This is not your typical weekly email. It is a bit longer than normal, but it is an incredibly encouraging testimony from Don Martens and his weekend in Joliet. So I commend it to your reading. Enjoy! Be encouraged!
To My Brothers and Sisters,
Kairos #9 at Stateville Correctional Center, Joliet, Illinois April 22-25, 2010
Our team of 31 volunteers is a group of men gathered from as far west as the Freeport area to southwest to Peoria and throughout Northeast Illinois. We were a mix of Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and non-denominational. We have met six different Saturdays beginning back on February 13th to train for the Kairos event. Our meetings lasted from 9am to 2:30pm. On Thursday at noon we entered Stateville to begin the Kairos weekend for what we hoped would be 42 inmates. The way things worked out, we ended up having the 36 inmates spend the entire weekend in our “short course in Christianity”.
Thursday afternoon was pretty much an introductory day with some summary comments about what the inmates could expect and we did a time of self-introductions. This is always a very interesting time as I always like to watch body language and posturing of how a man introduces himself to the group. You have to remember that it is quite normal for those in prison to build “walls” around themselves in the nature of a façade to protect themselves and not convey a weakness…one all too quickly learns that prison is a rough place with fearful dynamics. Aside from introducing themselves, we also ask the men to say why they came asked to attend. Many are quite honest and indicate they heard about homemade cookies and wanted the time out of their cell. (You see at Stateville, the inmates are regularly locked up for 23 hours a day, seven days a week. Time out of the cell is ½ hour for lunch at 10am and ½ hour for dinner at 3:00pm. Breakfast is served in their cells at 3:30am. Because of the noise in the stacked cell gallery of 250 men, most don’t go to sleep till about midnight. There are two opportunities for showers in a week and two 1-1/2 hours of exercise yard time during the week. There are opportunities to attend a few classes and there are about 400 jobs available for a permanent population of approximately 1500 inmates. If not attending a class or at work, you are in your cell.) During introductions, you can tell that most of the inmates are experiencing apprehensions and anxieties about being there…not to mention we volunteers as well. We were with the men till 7pm at which time they were collected and returned to their cells. We would continue the program on Friday morning again at 8am. Our team of 31 stayed outside the prison at Grace United Methodist Church in Joliet. We slept on the floor and used blow-up mattresses that had been donated to Kairos by Aero-Bed in Woodstock, IL.
Friday morning is when we get the formal program going. The 36 inmates were divided into 7 different groups of 5 or 6 and joined with three volunteers from our team. This 8 or 9 man group would stay together as a unit throughout the course of the whole weekend. We give each group a name and condition them to identify themselves as the “Family of …’ The names we give for families are Paul, James, Peter, John, Mark, Luke, Matthew. I was part of the “Family of Paul”. We were 5 inmates and 3 team members. The inmates at my table, even though they have all been in Stateville for 10 to 26 years, did not know each other. Rick from Lord of Life was part of a different “Family” and I believe he had 6 inmates and 3 team.
The curriculum for the Kairos weekend is very intentional in it’s progression. At the same time that we are teaching, we are also addressing an inmate’s psyche and helping them to take down the walls that they have built around themselves for emotional and physical protection. The practice of our faith necessitates honesty and vulnerability in our relationships with one another. We need to help the inmates learn how to be a “family” and build a community of trust. We use Love to break down their walls…we practice agape love. This is where you my friends have helped tremendously…through your prayer, cookies, letters to inmates, posters, and cut-out hands. These instruments of God’s love are showered upon the inmates throughout the whole weekend. There are always full bowls of cookies at the table of each family as well as inmates are served their coffee at the table by our team members who are part of our “service group”. Things like this have never happened to these men while they have been incarcerated.
Interestingly on Friday afternoon, a man in my family (who entered prison at age 18, and has been in Stateville for 18 years) had already said this was the most amount of time he had spent out of his cell in 10 years.
A Kairos weekend is built around a series of talks that are prepared and presented by team members. After each talk, families are asked to discuss what was said in the talk. The team members in each family are present as facilitators. During Friday, we are to get the men to talk about what they “heard” in the talk. On Saturday, our emphasis changes and we guide the discussion into “How did what you heard make you feel?” Sunday is meant to be a day of witness and it is a day of hope. Throughout all the days we also take breaks to sing, fellowship, and eat cookies. There are also meditations given by our clergy team members. We eat our meals in the prison with the inmates, eating their regularly scheduled meals. The food really is the worst food I have been given to eat. A few meals were passable, some I only ate a portion, and with all, I got heartburn.
The talks in sequence of how they are given on Friday are titled, “Choices”, “You Are Not Alone”, “Friendship with God”, “The Church”, and “Opening the Door”. Friday is a day of “hearing” what is taught. Saturday’s talks are “Discovery”, “Action”, and “A Christian” (Rick from Lord of Life gave this talk and did an outstanding job!). The meditations given on Saturday also center upon forgiveness and confronting the “wall” of isolation each man has constructed to protect himself. Saturday is a day of “feeling” what is taught. Sunday’s talks are “Footprints in the Sand”, Tomorrow”, and “Lighting the Way” (this is the talk I presented).
On Friday and Saturday we are in the prison from 8am to 7pm. On Sunday we are there from 8am to 2:30pm. The days are long and emotionally draining. On Saturday afternoon at 2pm, the inmates were presented their bags of letters…many of you wrote letters…each man gets a bag with at least 30 letters…while the men are in their families given an opportunity to read through their mail, the team serenades them with our voices in song. It’s a pretty powerful time for many of these men…they never get mail from family or friends, let alone strangers who don’t even know them but in their letters are wishing them hope and urging them to surrender themselves to the love of Christ and claim him as Savior. A young brother at my table wanted me to tell you all…”tell them thank you for these letters, you don’t know how much these mean to me”. On some previous weekends I have seen other inmates melt into a mass of tears when they wanted to talk about how much the letters meant to them.
The curriculum we present in Kairos is really very remarkable at breaking the men down through love, opening them up, and planting the seeds of faith. Our goal is to plant Christian community and nurture it as it grows in the prison…knowing full well that it is the inmates who must do the nurturing and growing work themselves. We teach and train them to be in faith community.
On Sunday afternoon from 1pm to 2:30pm we have what we refer to as the “Closing”. This is when we ask each table family (inmates only…by this point, we are releasing them on their own as family) to discuss and answer three questions publicly to all assembled. (At this time, visitors from the outside are allowed to come in and be in attendance. If you would be interested in attending one of these in the future, please let me know…once again, the presence of Christians from the outside taking time to come and hear is a big affirmation of the men and the path they are embarking upon.) The questions are, “What did you come to Kairos expecting to learn?”, What did you find at Kairos?”, and “What do you intend on doing with what you found?”. After each “family” has given their response we have time for “open mic” and men can come up and share their personal witness. For me, this really is the point when I get satisfaction for all the effort. Just about every family said they intended to take what they had learned back to the cellhouse. Some said they felt life once again and could care about others…their fellow inmates. Thanks to God were prolific. The men who had “walls” around themselves on Thursday were now men with open arms hugging each other and us.
For the next six months, our team will return the first Saturday of every month and meet once again with this same group of men. We will train and nurture them in how to become smaller “sharing and prayer” accountability groups. This really is the core of what we do in Kairos! The weekend really is the point of getting the men ready to be in Christian community and creating the “want” to be in Christian community. The accountability groups are the “action” component to strengthening, growing, and transformational power of Christ’s presence in the prison.
I know this report has been somewhat long and maybe lacking some of the emotional thrust of some of the observations you have heard me make before. It was an exceptional weekend and once again I witnessed the living Christ quite obviously active. I have now done seven Kairos teams over the past few years. In some ways, I guess you can say I’ve matured…the mountain-tops are not as high as my first few times, but none the less just as powerful in a deep seated way. I do have an observation though that came to me about 4:30am this past Sunday morning prior to the talk I would give later that noon at the Kairos. I hope that it may give you a vision of why prison ministry is important.
As Jesus and the criminals hung upon the cross, the Jews made it necessary to remove them before the start of the Sabbath. Removal meant that they needed to be dead. The legs of the criminals were broken with a clubbing thus causing them to suffocate and die. When the Roman came to Jesus it appeared he was already dead so the Roman was instructed to pierce the side of Jesus with a spear. That hole in the side of Jesus became what the Romans thought was evidence of death…little did they realize, that the light of the resurrected Christ would defeat that death. So too, Thomas in his skepticism, was directed by Jesus to place his hand in the hole to verify that it was He, the Christ. Do you remember Thomas’s response to the challenge of the resurrected Jesus? “My Lord and My God!” …it wasn’t “oh my gosh, it’s really you Jesus”…it wasn’t just, “my Lord”…it was “My Lord and My God!”
Stateville Correctional Center is a “hole of death” in Northern Illinois. It represents a place of darkness and sin. Death is the penalty for the wages of sin. When the redeemed and transformed lives in Christ of inmates in Stateville cast their light beyond the walls of Stateville to the population beyond…just like the hole in the side of Christ that once confirmed death…now will become the confirmation of resurrection…so that a doubting world can only stand in awe of what happened in Stateville and say…”My Lord and My God!”.
Thank you to you all. Rick and I took you into the prison with us and your prayers easy carried us through a most remarkable weekend. May the Christ light continue to gain heat in His children in Stateville.
April 26, 2010