The following is an introduction to Kairos Prison Ministry by The Rev. Canon William Barnwell. We will publish a series of interviews Barnwell conducted with prisoners about Kairos as part of our Christianity at Work project.
One out of every one hundred American adults is living in a prison—2.2 million altogether—the most per capita of any country in the world. The national average is 502 prisoners per 100,000 citizens.” Many of these men and women will spend much or all of their lives in prison. Stories abound—especially on television—of their violent lives inside as well as outside of prison.
The primary purpose of this series is to let some prisoners who are sentenced to be incarcerated for life tell their stories and, at the same time, let some of the determined volunteers who work with Kairos, an amazing national prison ministry, tell their stories. I begin with explaining something about Karios.
Founded thirty-five years ago, Kairos was designed to help inmates and volunteers come together—as the slogan goes— to “listen, listen, love, love.” Since 1976, 250,000 inmates in 412 prisons (in 32 states and 9 countries) have taken part in Kairos. Over 100,000 volunteers have participated in these efforts. Typically 30 to 40 free people meet with 30 to 40 inmates over three 12-hour days. Most of the work of Kairos takes place in medium and maximum-security prisons. Kairos, loosely translated from New Testament Greek as “God’s special time,” brings together people from all walks of life: the incarcerated and free, blacks and whites (in roughly equal numbers), the young and older, liberals and conservatives, and members of just about all churches and even other faiths. While this series focuses on Kairos at Angola Penitentiary, Kairos stories from around the country are remarkably similar, according to those who work in other states’ prisons.
In 1975, a lawyer named Tom Johnson attended a Cursillo, “a short course in Christianity,” developed by the Roman Catholic Church. It lasted three days and was led by lay persons. Imagining that such a course would work well in prisons, he organized the first Cursillo prison weekend at Union Correctional Institution at Raiford, Florida in the fall of 1976. The program worked so well that by 1978 six states were offering Cursillo in prisons. By 1979, the name for Cursillo in prison had been changed to Kairos. Adapted for prisons, Kairos is still remarkably close in design to Cursillo.
During a Kairos event, inmates and volunteers listen to various talks and take part in tried-and-true activities, and then they respond from personal experiences in “table family” groups. There are six inmates and three free people at each table in the highly structured program. Free people, as well as inmates, tell stories about terrible things they have done in the past and how God and fellow Christians are helping them pull through. “If inmates need to be forgiven,” a volunteer will say, “well, so do free people.” Participants sing, pray, laugh, cry, and celebrate what they are learning from each other. Over the three-day weekend, everyone eats fabulous home-cooked food prepared by outside volunteers, the best food the inmates will ever eat in prison.
When it begins its work in a new prison, Kairos tries to recruit the gang leaders, those who tend to be the most violent. The chaplain’s office always helps. If Kairos is going to make a long-term impact in the prisons it serves—the theory goes—the gang leaders and other so-called “bad guys” must be brought aboard first. Often their only incentive for being part of Kairos is the home-cooked food that is provided throughout the weekend.
Almost always, about 20 or so hours into the Kairos experience an amazing thing happens: Everyone at each table forgets who is free and who is imprisoned; who is black, who is white; who is young, who is older; who is Christian, who is not. Kairos makes real what we Episcopalians proclaim in our Baptism Covenant, when we say that we will “seek and serve Christ in all persons”—even those who may have done terrible things. Sister Helen Prejean reminds us that while Christ does, in some way, live in all persons, he is at times “well disguised.” I have attended several Kairos events over the last 20 years, the last being in November of 2011, the fifty-third Kairos at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. With its 5,000 plus inmates, Angola is the largest prison in the nation.
At each of the Kairos programs I have attended, the most moving time for me comes on Saturday afternoon when each of the inmates is given a bag of letters, fifty or more, written to them individually by various church people, including many children. The inmates read their letters privately while the rest of us sing soft, encouraging hymns and songs nearby. Not a sound comes from the inmates for a good hour while they read and re-read the letters, For many these are the first letters they have received in many years or maybe ever. Those who can’t read so well pretend to read, but even they feel the warmth expressed in the letters, especially from the children who draw pictures to go with the letters.
Later, on Saturday evening, during the session when any inmate can take the mike, many talk about how much the letters meant to them. One inmate at a Kairos event said with tears running down his cheek, “I truly thought I was dead. I have been here so long. I was sure that no one, no one in the outside world cared or even knew I existed. And then I read those beautiful letters and saw those pictures that those kids made just for me, and I realized that, hey, I’m not dead. I can find a life even in here. He then held up his favorite letter, and his tears suddenly changed to a big smile. A child had drawn a picture of him in a black and white striped uniform with a great big ball and chain attached to his leg. An angel was hovering over his head saying, “It’s okay. God loves you anyway.” “I’m going to keep that angel with me from now on,” he said.
When Jesus would tell one of his stories, a parable, from what we would call the secular world, he would often say, “And the Kingdom of God is like that.” “Yes,” I wanted to say when the inmate held up the picture with the angel hovering, “and the Kingdom of God is like that.”
At the Kairos #53 weekend, one of the inmates at the mike held up a picture of a big blue bird, obviously drawn by a child, with no words on it, no name. It brought tears to the man’s eyes as he spoke. “I loved all my letters,” he said, “but this was my favorite. I know just what this little girl or boy meant. Just as God watches over the birds of the air, God watches over me. Maybe the child couldn’t quote Jesus, but the child knows.” The inmate was referring to Matthew 6:26: “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns,” Jesus said, “and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” Another Kingdom of God moment, I thought. At still another Kairos, an inmate read this child’s letter to everyone: “When you get out, if you be good, I’ll lend you my mitt.”
When it came time to leave on Sunday evening from my last Kairos, there were many hugs and a river of tears, as there always are. Before we left, we all sang the Kairos hymn: “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place”—even that place, Angola, with its 5,000 inmates, most of whom will never see another place. Then the outside volunteers departed to reclaim our lives of freedom and the next day, sunshine.
While Kairos is specifically Christian, it focuses not on doctrine but on what we call “the love of Christ,” agape in the Greek New Testament—unconditional, no-strings attached love. Nick Sigur, one of the prisoners whose story I will provide as he tells it, says that if we, the outside Kairos volunteers, were alone on an island, we would probably never agree enough on theology to set up our own church. However, when we work together in prisons with people who will spend many years—maybe the rest of their lives—there, we realize that it is not about us, it is about them. Baptists, Pentecostals, and members of independent congregations, all of whom tend to take Scripture literally, pull together as one team with mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics, who tend to understand the Bible in different ways.
Cookies, as you will see, become important to the purpose of Kairos. Each team always brings in several thousand dozen (one team brought in 17,000 dozen) to give the inmates an unaccustomed treat but also to pass around throughout the prison, to Security personnel and inmates alike. As unlikely as it seems, the cookies become a kind of sacrament, a symbol of the love and caring of the hundreds of friends outside who bake them, as well as the Kairos team members who give them away.
As you will see from many of the stories, volunteers take “the church experience” of Kairos inside back to their own churches, where they talk about how it is never too late for any of us to receive God’s love, forgiveness, never too late for any of us to change. They talk about how service to others most in need brings healing to those who do the serving. Many returning Kairos volunteers help their churches reach out to victims of crime and their families, at least as important, of course, as ministry to the incarcerated.
Back home in their own churches, the volunteers also talk about how, if Kairos can build community among people so different in so many ways, shouldn’t the Christian church on the outside be able to do the same? “It’s all about ‘listen, listen, love, love’ on the inside,” one volunteer said. “It’s all about serving people different from you. Why can’t it be about that in our own churches? Why do we have to argue about everything all the time?” Checo Yancy, one of the volunteers who had previously served many years as an Angola inmate, says that his church—like Kairos—is “anointed to heal the brokenhearted,” those in prison and those outside.