About a month ago I received an email from one of the Pastors at my church* about a serve opportunity at Rayburn Correctional Center. I have never served at a jail or prison in the past, so this would be a completely new experience for me. The Pastor wrote the email in a tone that was more of “hey here are some dates see which one works for you”, rather than “hey this is coming up do you think you would want to do this?” Some of you may think this is kind of pushy, but if you knew my relationship with this pastor it’s not really at all. He is very good at hearing God and knowing when he needs to nudge someone in a particular direction. Because I trust the pastor I very quickly said “yes”.
The opportunity was to serve as a prayer minister at an upcoming Freedom Retreat at Rayburn. Freedom is a 12-week small group study followed up by a 2-day weekend retreat at our church. My wife and I completed the study and retreat some years back and it was life changing. We have led groups and served at every retreat since going through.
Our church worked to get the small group study in Rayburn for the inmates a few years ago and the retreat is held in the prison chapel. Volunteers from our church assist with facilitating the retreat.
The retreat was this weekend and I’m writing this post to share the impact it had not only on me but what God revealed to me the impact it is having on our community.
I took off on Friday as I do for every Freedom Retreat Weekend just to get my head clear, pray and prepare for the weekend. Not to mention that if I don’t take off something will inevitably come up at work that will keep me late and won’t have me in the proper state of mind going in. The enemy tends to work that way.
I headed up Friday after a nice breakfast with my wife. It’s a little bit of a ride so I had plenty of time to ponder what the retreat would be like. I knew what the retreat was like at church, but I had a feeling this would be completely different. I mean, the structure and content would be mostly the same, but what would the participants be like? How would I respond to them? After all these guys are criminals, some who committed some pretty heinous crimes. Would I be able to pray with a guy who was potentially a murderer? Sex offender? I know that sounds heavy but the thought crossed my mind. At some point on the ride I decided to stop thinking and worrying about what the retreat and participants would be like and decided that whatever it was, God would guide me through it. (First smart thing I’ve done in a long time)
Upon arriving, the first thing I noticed was the facility had a very military feel to it. I spent 20 years in the military and had been on many bases and it felt eerily similar. My truck was searched going through the gate and I was told to ensure my truck was locked up in the parking lot. I made several trips back to my truck when checking in because I couldn’t have my bag with my bible and notebook in it (bible was ok, but it was in a small arms bag and in hindsight a bad choice to walk into a prison with), couldn’t bring my cell phone in nor could I wear my Fit Bit (lost opportunity for steps…).
Now that I had myself cleansed of all potential contraband came the pat down and sign in process. In one barred gate, it shuts, another opens, walk through, it shuts, sign in, through a door and you’re in. Well, you’re in, but escorted everywhere you go.
It felt very constraining and limiting. As I was walking through the breezeway I noticed some guys working out under a patio area. I had this urge to go walk over and talk to them and ask about their routine. I figured it probably was not a good idea. The guard escorting us was quite a grumpy fellow and probably wouldn’t take to kindly to me navigating the breezeways to that area on my own. I figured rather than risk becoming a permanent resident I would just stay on my current course to the chapel.
We make it to the chapel. It was your basic government built chapel, nothing fancy though they did have some pretty cool audio-visual equipment. And by pretty cool I mean 2 projectors with pull down screens and one small flat screen TV. They did have a soundboard for the worship band too. It was a lot more than I expected. I got to talk a few minutes with the inmate who installed the equipment. He had a cool nickname he went by that was appropriate to his technical skills. I probably shouldn’t mention names in this post so I wont, but let’s just say that it is very similar to “Radar” from the TV show M*A*S*H. Same concept.
I then met some guys who were wearing nametags and there names were Pastor__________, Minister__________, Deacon__________. (Again leaving the names out) There were several guys like this. Interestingly enough, they were all inmates. I drew the conclusion that their mothers did not give them all the first names, “Pastor”, “Minister” and “Deacon” so figured that must be their actual titles. I was told going in that there were certain conversations that I could not have, but asking how they came to be in the ministry was not one of the things I was told to not talk about. Being the inquisitive person I am, I started asking questions. I was waiting for one of them to tell me that they were a pastor on the outside and ran into some trouble so became a pastor in prison, but that wasn’t the case. They all had found the Lord and become Pastors while in prison. Now some of you may have known how all of this works already, but I knew nothing of the prison system, how it works, how it’s run, etc. prior to this weekend. This was all new to me.
Friday afternoon the retreat begins. Without giving too much away of the content of the retreat, it consists of praise and worship, an opening each day, several sessions led by a pastor on specific topics, an opportunity for prayer with a prayer minister after each session, time for reflection before and after prayer, lots of food in between sessions, a closing and more food. The retreat wraps up on Saturday evening.
I immediately noticed several differences between the retreat at church and the retreat at Rayburn. First, the Rayburn pastors led many of the sessions. (The inmates) I just want to say that these guys are phenomenal preachers! I wouldn’t mind getting a video of their sermons. Second, it was very raw and stripped down compared to the church retreat. Third, while the session topics were the same, what was shared was completely different. I sort of expected this, but it was a bit eye opening. Not that everyone’s problems aren’t huge to them, but I’d say I had a pretty good life compared to what these guys shared.
So let’s get to the meat of it. Why am I sharing this? I just spent 3 pages outlining what amounts to a diary entry and you guys are probably like “Interesting weekend, but how does this apply to anything?”
Here’s the deal. This weekend was a major paradigm shift for me.
Question is… “How so?”
I’m going to be completely transparent and open up to share a viewpoint I had where you will either judge me or want to high five me and say that my view was 100% correct. I hope you do neither.
For years I thought that if you were a criminal, meaning you committed any crime that landed you prison, that prison should be the most despicable and horrible place you could ever imagine. I also believed that you should not be given any opportunity to rehabilitate because I believed you were likely not capable of being rehabilitated and any attempt was simply going to be in an effort to get out of jail quicker. You were 100% going to commit a crime again.
You want to hear the most shocking part of that thought process?
I’M A CHRISTIAN!
I will tell you that as I have matured in my Faith I have softened somewhat on that stance and it is not exactly the attitude I walked into Rayburn with. Which is probably why I didn’t rebuke the Pastor when he suggested I serve. That being said, it was in the back of my mind.
I will also tell you that I still do believe that if you commit a crime you very well should be punished appropriately. By no means am I saying that criminals should get off Scott free because we have tender hearts.
My viewpoint changed when I saw the hearts of these men. It was when I saw them as human beings and not the monsters that committed these terrible crimes that my spirit was stirred. I’m not talking about a man who broke down and is sorry because he got caught, I’m talking about a man that after finding Christ is now thankful that he got caught because he sees and understands now that God not only saved others from the evil things he was going to continue to do, but also saved him from his own self.
I’ll give you an example with little detail and no names to try and paint the picture for you. I should also mention that what you are about to read was shared without me asking any questions and not during any prayer time. This was an open conversation in front of several people over lunch. So I do not believe I am violating anyone’s confidence.
One man was convicted of multiple counts of armed robbery. He had no intent of ever harming anyone. His only intent was to get money that he felt he had no other way of acquiring. Completely wrong, but here is where I know he had no intent of hurting anyone and saw his heart. He was robbing people with what amounted to a fake gun. Not only didn’t he have the right tool, he didn’t want the right tool because he didn’t want to see anyone harmed. I had to catch myself to not laugh when he told me how he was robbing people. (I know that’s terrible) I asked him if he understood the danger that he was putting himself in. What I meant by that was if he had approached the wrong person he might not have the ability to share with me what he just did. His answer was “Not at the time”. But he realized now that God saved him by having him caught and put in prison.
Getting thrown in prison allowed God to work on this man. He was brought to his knees, pulled out of the environment that would keep him in a life of crime, quieted his soul, gave him the opportunity to meet Jesus and complete a small group and retreat like Freedom that completely changed his life.
Now I know what you are thinking. “What about the victims?” “You’re talking a lot about these guys and how their lives have been changed, but what about the path of destruction they have left behind them?”
My answer to that is “Jesus”. Christian and non-Christian alike may not like that answer, but He is the answer.
The people affected by the crimes of these men had their lives forever changed and that’s terrible. They didn’t ask to be robbed, beaten, molested, or murdered. They are the innocent victims. But the same God that can forgive these men of their horrible crimes is the same God that can heal the victims and their families. I’m not saying it is easy, but Jesus is the answer.
We must understand that there is evil in this world and Satan is real. He works everyday to steal, kill and destroy, but Jesus is there to love, heal and restore.
Here’s the bottom line. It’s this simple. If you share the viewpoint I once had, you’re wrong. I was wrong. The way to stop this crazy cycle of crime is not to have prisons that offer nothing but a rusty set of weights and a toilet. I by no means think prison should be a country club, but I do believe that if we don’t do something to change the men and women in prison we will continue to see high crime and murder rates, which leads to more victims.
Think of it this way in reference to what my church is doing with Freedom. Prisons are filled with inmates that have sentences from several years to life. Freedom (or other programs like Freedom) offers an opportunity for these guys to come to know Christ and forever change their lives. It allows them to not only receive forgiveness but also forgive those that they have held grudges against for years. It allows them to receive salvation from the acceptance of Jesus Christ as their Savior.
Here’s what that practically looks like. Let’s say that 3 of the inmates who went through Freedom this past weekend were 1) In for life, 2) Getting transferred to another prison in a month, 3) Getting out in 6 months.
Inmate 1 has the opportunity now to share his faith and the love, grace and forgiveness of Jesus Christ with every new inmate that enters the facility. He can minister to them, offer them the opportunity to attend church in prison and eventually go through Freedom. Most importantly, Inmate 1 is saved. Even though he’s a lifer and whether you believe it or like it, he’s going to Heaven.
Inmate 2 has the opportunity to do the same as Inmate 1 but in a new facility. Let’s assume the new facility he is being transferred to does not have the same programs as Rayburn. Let’s assume they don’t have a Freedom. Trust me when I tell you that God will use this inmate to at a minimum plant a seed at this new facility.
Inmate 3 will continue to grow in his faith for the 6 months he has left in prison. When he gets out, he will find a good church, surround himself with other Godly people and can have a positive affect on the community where he came from. God will use him to start changing the lives of young men and women in his neighborhood that are predispositioned for a life of crime because of their environment and circumstance. He can show them there is another way. This inmate is not only saving those who potentially will commit future crimes, he is saving their future victims!
Can you see the reaching affect that has? Powerful!
I mentioned in my post last week about having an eternal viewpoint. This viewpoint of prison is just that. It’s not in agreement with the world viewpoint but it certainly is with God’s.
How else are we going to stop this crazy cycle of crime in our communities? Doing nothing but throwing people in prison to rot until they die or until their sentence is up certainly hasn’t worked. The guys in for life will just be angry and offer nothing but negativity and hate. The guys who get out will just go back to a life of crime creating more destruction and victims.
If you are still struggling with this concept of forgiving and helping prisoners, let’s see what Jesus said. I haven’t had one scripture in this post yet, so that’s just what we need to help you out.
We all know that Jesus forgave sins, but certainly there are some sins that He doesn’t forgive. There must be some things that are far beyond His forgiveness and condemn you straight to hell.
Let’s look at John Chapter 8:
Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The Law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?” They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust. When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she said. And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”
Jesus forgave this woman whose crime in that time was severe enough to warrant a death sentence. He helped her. Through His act of love he rehabilitated her.
Let’s now look in Matthew Chapter 9 at another example:
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at his tax collector’s booth. “Follow me and be my disciple,” Jesus said to him. So Matthew got up and followed him. Later, Matthew invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with such scum? When Jesus heard this, he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do.” Then he added, “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.”
Remember back in the day when you and your friends would have a verbal joust and one friend ended by saying something leaving the other friend speechless? That’s what I imagine this was like. I could just hear all Jesus’ friends going like “OOOOOOOO!!! Whatcha gonna say to that?! Boom!” If Jesus had a mic He certainly would have dropped it.
In those times tax collectors were thieves. They took more money from the people than they should have and lined their own pockets. Jesus not only forgave Matthew He called him to be His disciple. I love that He explains why He hangs out with the less desirable people. Jesus came to heal the sick and save the lost. Aren’t we supposed to model our lives after Jesus?
One more in Luke Chapter 23:
But the other criminal protested, “Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” And Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
I’m not sure what this criminal’s crime was. But it didn’t matter. Jesus forgave him too – from the cross none-the-less.
One thing I failed to mention was that none of the men I encountered had the attitude that they were somehow wronged, set up or victims themselves. Every man I talked with owned what he did. They didn’t blame their upbringing, neighborhood or parents. They recognized those were contributing factors to what got them to where they are today, but by no stretch blamed anyone else. They simply wanted to be forgiven and the opportunity to change their life whether they would be in prison for the rest of their lives or not.
Jesus came down to forgive all of our sins – yours, mine, and the guys in prison. If Jesus forgave your sins who are you to not forgive another man his?
I leave you with this last thought. Hold on tight…
There were men in Rayburn I met that are freer than men walking the street.
Be Blessed My Friends!
* The reason I don’t mention the pastors name or the name of my church is not because I don’t want to give credit to either. I love my church and all my pastors. They are awesome! It’s simply because I don’t want my blog to appear that it is endorsed by my church or any of the pastors. If I say something dumb they don’t have to be weighed down by my dumbness.