People are funny. There are so many things they know nothing about, but it doesn’t stop them from making judgments or forming opinions about how things or people “must be”.
Prison is a good example. It’s not hard to imagine that prison is an awful experience. It goes against our most basic human desires and emotions. From the first time our parents tell us to stay home because of rain, our “anything-but-prison” fear is triggered. There may be some unfortunate souls who are content to be in prison. We occasionally hear of the guy who robs a gas station after making parole because he wants to go back in. But for the most part, I think we can agree that being imprisoned is not our first choice of life paths.
That doesn’t mean prisoners are all sad, despondent people. It doesn’t mean they are all poor, ignorant, or uneducated. It doesn’t mean prisoners are not kind, good-hearted, and Godly men and women. Guards are not all abusive, conniving wanna-be cops, either. But whether it is the influence of old movies, television, peers, or prejudices, these are the things I hear when I tell people I visit prisons to talk to prisoners.
Why would I not want to talk to prisoners? I will refrain from the “captive audience” jokes, but it is not far from the truth. Prisoners are arguably in a better place than most of us when it comes to faith. While others are fighting to fit in life’s distractions and pressures, prisoners maintain a controlled environment and schedule. My fellow parishioners often come into adult worship classes or Bible studies and it is obvious they found no time to preview any of the material. In my prison classes, I rarely find that to be the case.
Prisoners of faith tend to be strong followers and practitioners of the Lord’s Way. That is not a knock on others. It is just an effect of incarceration. Paul once called himself “a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” (Eph 3:1) I use that statement to encourage a response among the prison flock.
It is not just that I have a soft spot for those incarcerated. Jesus does, too. The New Testament is filled with stories and mentions of prison and prisoners. Throughout the Bible, prisoners are spoken about with great compassion and love.
Joseph, Daniel, Francis of Assisi are among those who communicated with God while in prison. So many Bible personalities were freed through prayer and miraculous interventions.
Almost all the apostles were imprisoned at one point or another. It is almost a badge of courage to be imprisoned for their beliefs. While imprisoned and tortured, the apostles and other saints continued to preach the Word and pray to the Lord with fervor.
In my daily life, there are times when the feelings and experiences prisoners share with me seem to parallel my own. When my mother died, life stood still for several days. All of a sudden, my job, friends, life… no one needed me. I was alone among them, in the sadness of the moment. A prisoner in New Jersey used those same words to describe his incarceration. “Life goes on without me. I am alone among the masses in my sadness.”
It is a low moment. It is the type of moment when Jesus is easier to notice and to hear. Maybe that is why prisons continue to produce Christian leaders. Men and women are constantly called to ministry during their times of incarceration. Prison time often helps them grow their faith by allowing time for Bible studies and even seminary studies like those provided by International Christian College and Seminary (ICCS).
The church I attend is pastored by a former prisoner. He led a prison ministry for many years and upon his release planted several churches in the USA and Central America. He is not unlike many prisoners across the country… if we can just get past our prejudices.