Breaking Prison Chains
I hugged a murderer the other day. This was a first. He wasn’t the last murderer I would hug that day either. I always wake up early, but this particular morning something stirred me to awaken in the quiet dark hours when most of the world is still asleep. I was going to prison today… not jail, not a detention center, but RJ Donovan maximum-security prison near the American/Mexican border in San Diego, California.
A great friend of mine from work invited me to the closing ceremony of a prison ministry called Kairos. He’d tried to get me to come for years. I finally laid down my cowardliness and excuses. I decided to go but realized I was unprepared. In the darkness of a hotel room at 4am I opened my laptop. I didn’t know what to say, what to do, how to act or react to prisoners. I Googled how Christians should talk to prisoners. I found a great website with many resources. I thought it would be a quick read, a simple refresher on a few scriptures to share with these men if given the opportunity. I soon found myself reading verse after verse from the Old and New Testament about God’s feelings regarding prisoners.
Little did I know that for the better part of the next 45 minutes I would weep. I am not a crier; things do not stir my emotions very often, however, every verse pierced my soul as the words sank deep into my hardened heart. I was reminded of how the Bible tells us the word of God seeps down into the very marrow of our bones. I haven’t sobbed uncontrollably like that in years. I asked God to take the weeping from me. He said no. What was I doing? I don’t even know these people; they deserve to be here for what they’ve done; they had a trial. Why am I weeping? As I prayed, God impressed upon me to just let it happen. He would explain later, so I obeyed. I wasn’t just weeping over the prisoners, but also over the enemy that I know is alive and well in that wretched place they call prison.
Later that morning I arrived at the prison in all its isolation and bareness situated in the middle of a desert. I stood in line outside with dozens of other volunteers as they methodically processed us into the prison as “guests”. As we were processed in, things got real. I had nothing in my pockets and now relied on the prison guards to keep me safe. We were outside and through many heavy metal doors we went, each one buzzing and only allowing a few people through at a time. With each step, I noticed more and more concrete, concertina wire, guns, high walls, and steel. I soon realized I had voluntarily put myself into an inescapable cage where you can feel the world and your privileges shrinking around you. Passing through a gate, one of the volunteers jokingly said to the guard, “That’s a lot of keys on your belt”, to which he replied stone cold, “These are the keys to Hell”… That’s when I began to notice there wasn’t much of a difference between the guards that enforced order and the prisoners. They were both dead inside without a care for humanity.
We were not fully inside the prison walls but standing in a massive open “yard” where prisoners can walk and see sunlight a few hours a day. As we stood in “Yard A” waiting to go into the chapel, prisoners all over stopped to stare, mock, and laugh at us. I’m sure they could see the fear. To make matters worse, there were only three guards outside and they were nowhere near us. The other fifty or so prisoners were closer to us than any refuge or safety. If something were to happen we were on our own. We were in the heart of darkness, but I knew we were covered in prayer.
The prisoners in the Kairos program had already gone through four days of intense unconditional love from strangers, from courageous Christian men. It’s like a retreat for prisoners who want to know more about Christianity or are just curious. They get the Gospel preached to them, have intense small-group Bible studies, and get to hear the testimonies of other prisoners who have found faith in Christ. We were there to support them at their graduation, Kairos Class 127. They were at lunch and had no idea that when they returned there would be a group of 30 people from the outside to support and encourage them. This may seem insignificant, but most of these men only get one or two visitors a year, usually from their lawyers.
Preceding their graduation, they received drawings and bags full of letters from children all over the world giving them encouragement, prayer, and letting them know how much God loves them. One of the facilitators opened up the ceremony and shared the theme for the weekend. It came from John 11:35, “Jesus Wept”. I almost fell out of my chair when he said this. All made sense as to why I had wept so bitterly that morning. In this passage, Jesus wept at the sight of his friend Lazarus lying dead. He felt the deep sadness of his friends, of a lost brother. He wept because Lazarus had succumbed to the darkness, defeated by the enemy. By the power of God Jesus raised his brother Lazarus from the dead that day. I had wept for these men because of their bondage, hopelessness, and the destruction they left outside the prison walls. I knew God could raise them from the dead as he did Lazarus, but would he? I soon had my answer.
As the ceremony began, the prisoners were able to stand and give their testimonies. With tattoos on their faces and hate permanently inked on their bodies these grown men, most fatherless, gang members who hated people of other colors began to cry as they tried to choke out coherent words. These were not superficial tears. They were tears of immense guilt and tears of joy as they began to proclaim what God had done for them over these last four days. God had given them salvation, forgiveness, and brothers in Christ that weekend, brothers from all different people groups.
Some of them were in their early 20’s, some wheelchair bound, some old, and one shaking when he walked from multiple-sclerosis. They had never been able to forgive themselves for what they had done. If they couldn’t forgive themselves, how could God forgive them? They had no hope. These men were here for murder. Most were fatherless, lost, in gangs, abused, hated, told they were worthless, and believed in hating other people groups. The majority had committed crimes in their teenage years. One of them had been in prison for 39 years.
Another stood, a man with demonic tattoos all over his freshly shaven scalp. He said he didn’t know what the Christian angle was. What did they want from me? What’s the catch? He didn’t understand why someone would offer him… a murderer… unconditional love and forgiveness. It changed him. It changed all of them. It changed me. They had never known what it meant for someone to love them, let alone love them and want nothing in return. Not only were they remorseful for what they had done, they began to forgive the people in their lives who had wounded them so deeply as children. They struggled to forgive themselves. None of them thought they were worthy of forgiveness. What I’ve done can’t be forgiven. They thought of themselves as irredeemable.
I’m pretty keen on when people are full of it but there was nothing fake about this. These black, white, and Hispanic men could face ridicule or be killed for showing emotion or saying they loved someone of another race, but that’s exactly what they did. In that small chapel I saw the Spirit of God at work and it’s something I will never forget. Instead of seeing hardened murderous gang members, I began to see the lost little boys that once were come out as they described how the love of Jesus had changed their lives. They made a commitment in front of a multitude of witnesses to bring what they had learned back into the prison. They wanted to show unconditional love to all people groups, just as it had been shown to them. They even prayed for the very correctional officers who controlled their lives.
Later in the ceremony, we had the blessing of worshiping together. I cannot describe what it’s like to hear a room full of prisoners stand and sing with their hands raised to God, shouting like a choir, his praises through worship music. As they sang, I closed my eyes for a moment and just listened to them. How powerful. I can’t describe what it’s like to hear a man who knows he is never getting out of prison stand and proclaim that he is free. That he has no more chains on his mind and that Christ has set him free. Most of these men knew something of God or religion prior to this weekend but their testimonies, written on old napkins and scraps of paper, revealed they had disqualified themselves from the love of God. God could never love them. God could never forgive them.
Psalm 107 speaks of how God “shatters the doors of bronze and cuts in two the bars of iron”. I truly believe I witnessed this. To know that you will never physically be free, that someone else controls every minute of your day, and to proclaim that you are free is something I wish for all of us to know. After the ceremony, we had a chance to talk with them. I had the privilege of praying over some of them. I tried to pray for another prisoner and he said, “No, I’m going to pray for you”. Oh how humbling it was to place my hands into the solid grip of a man set free in his mind and soul and have him pray for my family. We weren’t supposed to, but I hugged as many of them as I could with the biggest bear hug I could muster. Touch is an incredibly powerful thing. These men probably don’t receive much good touch. In the last fleeting moments of the ceremony, before their lives became hell again, we prayed, we hugged, and we cried.
As Easter approaches, I want us to think deeper about what Christ has done for us. It’s not just pretty colors and Easter eggs. Sometimes our Christian Holidays become mundane, even routine. Yes, we know the story, but what does it mean to us personally? How many times have you murdered a brother or sister in your heart? Jesus says it is the same thing as actual murder in God’s eyes. How many people in your life do you need to forgive? Who abused you, didn’t love you, lied to you, and told you that your life was worthless? Are you just pretending like everything is ok? Do you believe that because it happened so long ago it doesn’t matter? What walls have you built to keep everyone out? Do you live in a prison that you’ve created?
Just like the prisoners who wrote down the people they needed to forgive and ask forgiveness from, I encourage you to do the same. Be sure to write your name at the top of that list. There is no amount of darkness, anxiety, depression, or lies… absolutely no place where God will not meet you and save you. Your titles in life mean nothing. No person or institution can ever give you a name that is greater than what God calls you. You are called Beloved, Child of God, Forgiven, Redeemed, Blessed, Cherished, Known, made in his image, and are his everlasting inheritance. All you need to do is cry out to him for his
grace and mercy. Ask for forgiveness and he will freely give it. Ask the Holy Spirit to fill your life. Ask him to change you and be Lord over your life. He will free you from the prison of lies, addiction, loss, and hate. He will make your sorrows turn to gladness and in the end will wipe away every tear. You will be truly free.
I implore you to be bold and invite everyone you can to church to celebrate Easter this year. Invite the worst people you know. Invite those who you think have no hope. Invite those who you think do have hope. In God’s eyes all have hope. God made all people in his image and likeness. We have all have sinned. Invite the lost and wretched. Let them witness the hands and feet of a people who practice what they believe and are willing to reach out and show God’s unconditional love.
We believe that God resurrected Jesus from the dead in a real and literal way. If he can raise the worst criminals from the dead, he can also raise you from the dead. This is the power of the cross. This is why we celebrate Easter. We may think we would not have, but every one of us would have swung that hammer as hard as we could at the nails which pierced Jesus’s precious body. The amazing thing is, he would do it again 100 billion times to save you, but he doesn’t have to. He paid the price once and for all. He loves you more than you can ever know.
He did it because his love has no measurable height, length, or depth. His love for you is unimaginable and inconceivable. He calls out to dry bones and the spiritually dead. He loved you before you were conceived, before the foundation of the world. He is the chain breaker. He will always love you. Christ calls you so listen to the whispers of his voice. As Christians often say, God does not call the qualified, he qualifies the called. If God can reach down into the darkest prisons, through the strongest walls, into the hardest of darkened hearts and save someone, you better believe he can save you or anyone you love. The gates of Hell will not prevail against his Church. We are the Church.
Please… go and celebrate the greatest story ever. Easter is His-Story. Come and be forgiven, be changed forever, and welcomed into the family of God. Cling to the precious hope of the cross.
Your redeemed brother in Christ,