Twas the Night Before Christmas, and all through the Big House… earsplitting sirens blared, the clank of great steel doors slamming shut assailed us from every direction, and a stentorian voice bellowed down every corridor, “Everyone stand still, stop where you are, and wait. This facility is now under Lockdown.”
For 70 or so good-hearted church volunteers, carolers, and choristers, there crept the growing realization that they were now, however briefly, actually incarcerated in a State Penitentiary. Corrections Officers on high alert, conducted civilians from our several buildings and ushered all into the Cafeteria where I (as the only Staff Chaplain in the Facility that night) was asked to help all remain calm and host our visitors, explaining what was going on.
Simply put, there had been an escape(!), we were now in Lockdown, and these wonderful church folk who had intended nothing more complicated at 10 p.m. than bringing comfort, Chapel services and worship, and music to cheer inmates in the late hours of Christmas Eve, were now the unexpected guests of the State, unauthorized and physically unable to exit the facility or get to their cars.
Why am I telling this story? Because that night utterly changed the ministries of some of those people.
An Inmate had escaped and was thought to be somewhere on the grounds. He had access to the Parking Lot, and could now be secreted in any of the MANY cars and vans crowding the asphalt on this busy night.
In order to leave, one carload at a time had to be escorted out of the Cafeteria, through a number of Control Points with an armed team, be escorted to their vehicle, wait while the vehicle was carefully searched, and follow a Prison Vehicle out the drive and off the property. Only thus, were we assured that they were not accosted by the escapee, possibly forced to give transportation away from the Prison.
- This was a bit frightening
- This was NOT what they’d signed on for
- This was tedious and frustrating, with all the stop and go
- One vehicle at a time, this was going to take a LONG TIME.
And so it did. It took hours, and I was the last to leave. But in those hours two amazing things happened.
First, there were longer conversations and interactions between these visitors and Prison personnel, and even the Inmates (who had been assigned to the Cafeteria for the evening), than these loving Church members had ever had before, or expected to have. Many had the chance to actually make FRIENDS with these “Prison People”.
Second, for perhaps the very first time in their lives, they were truly INCARCERATED. Granted, they’d done nothing wrong, but they COULD NOT LEAVE. It was no longer their choice, not in their control. There are few such feelings short of aircraft travel, for we who live lawful lifestyles. Of course, the few hours of inconvenience do not compare to years of imprisonment, but for many, the experience of hearing those doors slam, seeing (now) armed officers preventing them from leaving or getting to their cars, did a work in their hearts.
After such a traumatic adventure, frankly, I never expected any of them to return, but in that I was quite wrong. For many, the experience had the exact opposite effect. They’d found themselves, for the first time, imagining what it would be like for this to be an “every single day” state.
Some of these visitors became our most faithful chaplaincy volunteers, as the social isolation of incarceration had become concrete and real to them. They teamed up in projects of Prison Ministry, and came to conduct Bible Studies, Tutoring, Literacy or other classes, and provide worship and music.
The Church (Body and Bride of Christ), and YOUR Church (no matter where or how big), can make a difference in the lives of incarcerated people, in the lives of former inmates returning to re-enter the community, and/or in the lives of families (and children) of those in jail or prison.
Over time, I hope to document different ways any Body of Christ can lift Him up in the community, and share grace, love, light all around them. It’s amazing how many creative ways Jesus has found to touch others through churches of any size and composition.
What have you seen, experienced, or heard about folks doing through their church that have touched lives in an unexpected way?
32 All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; 33 and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36 naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38 And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39 When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’
41 “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; 43 I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ 44 Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ 45 Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ 46 These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” [Matthew 25]