Thursday, July 22, 2010


Dateline: Saturday, July 10, 2010


Today, I made it to the “Kairos Reunion” program at the prison chapel.

The monthly follow-ups to the Kairos prison weekends were called “Ultreyas” for many years, and that’s what we old-timers still call them, but like everything else, it seems, new times redescribe and reinvent old events.

A dozen or so Christian volunteers from communities surrounding Daytona Beach and Tomoka C.I. come in once a month to participate in a two-hour program of testimony, prayers, songs, and discussions with forty or fifty prisoners who have attended the Kairos Weekend at various prisons throughout the state. This follow-up program gives the prisoners a chance to reinforce the faith and spiritual lessons they experienced during the three-day Kairos Weekend, sometimes called a “short course in Christianity.”

I attended Kairos #9 at Union C.I., Raiford, in May, 1982, and have volunteered in many programs during the intervening years. I also need that reinforcement and fellowship that such gatherings offer to the men. In the midst of such worldly evil and degeneracy that dominates prison life, to maintain one’s hope, faith and belief in a Supreme Being that will deliver us from all this is crucial to one’s survival, physically and spiritually.

Several prisoners with guitars and other musical instruments led an introductory hymn, “Victory In Jesus.” As I sang along with the group, rattling the rafters, eyes closed, I could imagine that I was a child in Redwater Baptist Church in East Texas in the 1950’s in the comforting midst and security of family, hearing those same words for the first time.

“I heard an old, old story, how a Savior came from glory,
How He gave His life on Calvary, to save a wretch like me.
I heard about His groaning, of His precious blood’s atoning,
Then I repented of my sins and won the victory…”

I opened my eyes and saw that I wasn’t a child in Texas, surrounded by Memaw and Bebaw, Cherry, my mother, Alice and Patsy, but instead it was 2010, I was in a prison chapel filled with convicted murderers, rapists, child molesters, burglars, robbers, thieves, drug addicts and drug peddlers, drunks and fools, as well as a handful of well-meaning citizens who see beyond these sins and exercise their faith by coming through the razor wire and prison gates to share their faith and encourage men who society has written off and cast aside.

I’d been at Raiford two years before I was finally pestered enough by my friends that I reluctantly signed up to attend the Kairos Weekend. Over and over again, I heard men tell me, “Charlie, you’re a good guy, but you need to go to Kairos.” They were right.

I had arguments against it, though.

“I don’t want to go down to that chapel with all the child molesters, phonies, and hypocrites,” I said.

Jack Murphy told me, “Are you going to let some child molesters stand between you and God?”

Joe Miller gave me a different insight, that the church was more a hospital for hypocrites than a showcase for saints. I finally realized that I needed to get past my own shortcomings, that it would be better if those I considered despicable people were to go to church and have a chance to change their lives, become better men, to give up their evil ways, than to stay the way they were, obsessed, and return to society only to victimize more innocent people. In the process I became a better man, and did my best to keep my judgmental nature in check.

I’d seen all those volunteers coming in at Raiford, and had issues with how happy and friendly they were. More objections.

“Man, I’m not going up there and have all those men hugging me, calling me brother, acting like a bunch of sissies,” I complained.

I got past that, too, when I discovered that those men were actually glad to meet me, considered me a brother, and were only sharing the joy they felt when they hugged me and told me Jesus loved me. It might have sounded hokey, but they were for real. The feelings were contagious.

Twenty-eight years later, there I was, walking into another prison chapel, hugging grown men, Larry Harrington, Hank Pankey, Henry Arnold, Manny Bolanos, and others I’d met at the Kairos here, and wondered where all the other old friends were, realizing that many had died and passed on to their just rewards. I met new friends, and shared my faith, comparing the prison chapel to going down to a river on Saturday morning.

Something was happening down by the river. People came from all over to see. Some stayed on the bank and watched those who waded out into the water. The observers had a choice, to stay dry and uninvolved, or to get out there and get wet. John the Baptist was there, and a man named Jesus. People crowded around, wondering what it was all about. I’d stood on the sidelines too long, parched and dry, so now it was time to plunge into the cool water, find out what it was all about.

A prison chapel is not like any church you went to “on the street,” in free society. There’s a noticeable absence of women. They don’t pass the offering plates. There are other differences, too. At the end we don’t get in our cars and drive home, but the guards line us up on the sidewalk and march us to our cells. Then they count us all, to make sure no one sneaked out.

Before that happened, though, we had a couple of hours when we couldn’t see the fences, the guard towers, and the gun trucks cruising around, but instead could see the best in our fellow man, as we continued to sing:

“O Victory in Jesus, my Savior forever,
He sought me and bought me, with His redeeming blood.
He loved me ere I knew Him, and all my love is due Him.
He plunged me to victory, beneath the cleansing flood.”

After that, I walked out of the chapel with my friend and fellow prisoner, Karl Stephens, one of the finest men I know, in prison or out, wondering when we’d each return home.

Thank God Christ is alive and well in prison.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

wow this guy stephens got life for robbery?