By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal
“I needed clothes and you clothed me,
I was sick and you looked after me,
I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
At the end of June, a small group of men and women will pack their bags to spend a weekend ministering not to the sick or the homeless, but to the inmates of Parchman Penitentiary.
Based out of Oxford, they are Unit 30 of the international prison ministry program Kairos. In the months leading up to their trip, the group will undergo six weekend training sessions preparing them to carry the light into the darkest of places.
The June expedition will be Kairos member Brian Simmons’ second. After his first experience last September, he said he couldn’t wait to go again.
“We have four to eight meetings before the trip where we put together the team, assign duties, talk about the dos and don’ts, and bond with one another,” he said. “By the time you actually go, you’re more excited than apprehensive, because you trust your friends.”
Simmons said the inmates sign up to attend the session, called a “walk,” usually on the basis they will get food from the outside world and a break from their chores.
At no point do prisoners or Kairos ministers discuss the reasons for their incarceration.
“We don’t even talk about Christ the first day,” Simmons said. “We split up and sit at tables with about six inmates and talk about life, about decision-making. You have to keep your mind open. You may have done some of the same things they have done, but because of circumstances or situation, they were caught and couldn’t get out of it.”
As the weekend go on, the “free worlders” gradually introduce Christ and the gospel. A small chapel is set up, and they sing praise songs, but the meat of the weekend consists of discussion and soul-searching.
Simmons said people from the outside world are asked to write letters to inmates, and on the last day of the walk, prisoners receive the letters.
“Anything through the mail is a big deal to them,” Simmons said. “So to receive a letter of encouragement from someone they don’t even know has a big impact. Tears are usually shed at that point.”
Making the change
Making a Christian from an incarcerated criminal is a tricky business. Simmons said the tough persona needed to survive in prison can conflict with the gentle nature of the Christian.
“As a United States Marine for 20 years, I can understand that. To accept Christ is to surrender, and that’s a word Marines don’t use. To them, as a prisoner, they don’t want to come off soft,” he said.
Simmons said prisoners were surprised how a Christian attitude could disarm a conflict between inmates.
“Even in prison, no one is going to beat up someone who says ‘look, I’m not going to fight you,’ he said. “The inmates who change and minister to other inmates, they are the real Kairos, the ones still inside.”
But the hardest part, Simmons said, is keeping the Christian life when faced with the freedom of being released.
“It can be hard when you’re back in the world making your own decisions, when you have whoever trying to get you to go back to the things you used to do,” he said. “But just like new Christians, old behaviors die, and if they stay focused on Christ, making a life in the decent world will be more possible.”
Simmons recalled one inmate who did not even speak until the third day, after inmates received their letters. To his surprise, the inmate wrote a letter back to Simmons, revealing his life and his issues.
“It was very overwhelming. I still have that letter, and hopefully we can both be better men,” he said.
LISTEN, LISTEN, LOVE, LOVE
Kairos member Kevin Howell will lead the June trip, but he sees the role as more of a shepherd.
“Each walk is headed by a different person. Kairos has a governing body for each facility has an advisory council, who chooses the person who will lead based on their fulfillment of other roles in previous walks,” he said.
Clergy are never asked to be leaders, to protect against inadvertently introducing a particular denomination.
Howell came to Kairos in 2012, and has hardly missed a trip since. He said the unit made three or four walks each year.
“Anyone can do this ministry, they just have to adopt a true servant’s heart. We’ve received the good news, and it calls us to share with others. We just sit down person to person and hope what we have to say falls on fruitful ground,” he said.
Simmons agreed, and said he had never seen a more eclectic gathering of people.
“It’s amazing to have doctors working right alongside ditch diggers,” he said. “You just have to love Jesus, and love your fellow man. You have to be willing to step outside your comfort zone, and see them as human beings who have been caught for their mistakes.”
Simmons said as the body of believers grows inside, the less hostility will reside in the prison system.
“Every now and then someone says ‘they did their crime, so they deserve their punishment. you don’t have any business making their life easier,’” he said. “But then I ask them, ‘do you want them getting out of prison with or without Christ?’”