Shining a candle in the darkness

Published 12:51 pm Wednesday, May 3, 2017

By JACK ALVEY | St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

After the second day of being in prison for Kairos Prison Ministry, a curious thought popped into my head. I said to myself, “I’m going to have to keep coming back to prison.” Now, what would make me say such a thing?

I didn’t particularly like being confined to a small area surrounded by barbed wire and electric fences for eight hours a day (without my cell phone!). I didn’t like having to spend three nights away from my family. And listening to these guys talk about their reality (physically and mentally) was super depressing.

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At some point during the weekend, I made the comment that prison is like hell on earth. As I made that comment, I was reminded of what we say in our statement of faith (Apostles’ Creed) – “[Jesus] descended into hell.” Our statement of faith reminded me that Jesus visits even those who the world has condemned to hell.

Even more, Jesus reminds us in Matthew 25 that when we visit the prisoner we visit Jesus himself. This truth was made abundantly clear to me during my three and a half day stay at Donaldson Correctional Facility in West Jefferson County. As Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances communicate, the risen Lord is most likely to show up where all hope is lost (weeping Mary, doubting Thomas, travelers to Emmaus, etc.).

Scripture and experience also tell me that the risen Lord is made known to us in the breaking of the bread.

The risen Lord — the manifestation of God’s transforming love — is made known when we share our lives with the other just as God in Christ shares his life with us. God’s transforming love of God in Christ isn’t fully realized through sermons or Bible studies. The transforming love of God in Christ is made known when love is made real — in the giving of ourselves — in the breaking of the bread.

For these 42 prisoners who attended Kairos, God’s love was made real through homemade cookies, home cooked meals, art from children, the presence of 40 men who gave up a weekend to spend it with them, and perhaps most profoundly through hand-written letters expressing God’s love for them.

One of the guys at my table, who has been in and out of prison for 20 years, said he received more letters at Kairos than he had his entire prison stay. He was moved to tears. Like those who witnessed the acts of the first apostles, I was filled with wonder and amazement.  Another inmate told me that he hadn’t had fried chicken in 11 years. Things we take for granted are considered miracles for these “men in white.”

Now, I am fully aware that these men are in prison for a reason. Prison is where most of these men need to be not only for society’s sake but for their own. But the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t reserved for those in the “free-world.” In fact, the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ was clearer to me in prison than in most places I’ve been.

A colleague of mine commented on this reflection saying, “The Church isn’t called to shine a candle in the light but to shine a candle in the darkness.” I suppose Jesus said something similar when the religious people admonished him for eating with “sinners.” Jesus replied, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

My hope and prayer for the church going forward is that we are admonished for the same reasons that Jesus was admonished. In particular, if we are admonished for spending too much time with sinners, for breaking cultural or religious norms because love compels us to, or for forgiving the sins of others, then we are likely doing the work that Jesus has given us to walk in. And Jesus promises that his way of Love is The Way, The Truth, The Life.

I went to Kairos because a friend and parishioner, your newspaper editor, Justin Averette asked me to go. I will go back to prison because I want to experience Jesus in that way again. I will go back because Jesus calls the Church to visit those in prison and now I know the virtue of this command. I will go back because I need to be reminded again and again that God’s love really does bring the dead to life.