The church I attend is extremely generous with its time, talent, and resources, but it wasn’t always this way. When my wife and I joined in 1990, many of the congregants were “intellectuals” from the university (myself included) who thought highly of the impoverished, but didn’t do much to help them physically. We threw money at them, mostly. Kept our distance.
After catching up on REM’s for a couple of years during blah blah blah sermons, I told my wife I was bored.
“Maybe if you got off your butt and DID something, things would get better,” she said.
Uh. This is why I love her. No one else stands up to me this way.
So I joined a group in our Pathfinders Sunday School class working the Appalachia Service Project, and that first year we repaired the Ferguson family home in Sneedville, Tennessee. Mom worked at Hardee’s, Dad fixed cars out of the garage next to the house, and two male children attended elementary school.
Hank and AJ.
Our crew — and others throughout the summer — upgraded their home, which was in sad shape. The Fergusons made just enough cash to put food on the table and clothes on the kids’ backs, but home repair fell outside the budget. Appalachia Service Project’s motto is warmer, safer, drier.
The first day I removed a ceiling tile and about two gallons of dead bugs poured out onto the white kitchen table cloth.
Fast forward thirty years.
My wife and I happened to be in Sneedville a few weeks ago, visiting relatives. We asked about the Fergusons.
“Both AJ and Hank work for Mahle in Morristown,” they said. “Making specialty parts for NASCAR racing.”
These types of jobs require engineering knowledge and pull in good money. AJ has already purchased a farm and home outside Sneedville. He’s married and has a son in high school.
A freshman standing 6’6″ weighing 240 pounds.
Our crew was just a tiny piece of that success, but it still brings tears to our eyes. That was the first of our fourteen ASP years, each with a story like the Fergusons. Since then I’ve been a part of local, national, and international service projects.
But it’s not about me. I’m just a tiny cog in the vast machinery of Christians working together, heads down, mouths shut, hearts open, wallets ready.
And one of the best local ministries now blessing my life is Kairos, an international prison ministry working in ten countries and thirty-six US states.
Texas welcomes Kairos into every one of its prisons because it drops the recidivism rate — those returning to prison after release — to 10% if the resident attends monthly Kairos sessions.
Three weeks ago I attended a Kairos One-Day Retreat with sixty-six residents of NECX, a maximum-security prison near Mountain City, Tennessee housing 1,800 inmates. I sat next to two gentlemen, Harold and Larry. Both had attended Kairos Weekends — similar to Emmaus Walks — earlier in their prison lives.
Harold’s old prison name was Thumper. Why? If anyone looked at him funny — or if he thought you looked funny at him — you got thumped. Inmates asked permission to cross the threshold of his jail cell. One fledgling guard actually quit his job after Thumper threatened to kill him and all of his family.
Incarcerated three times, Thumper’s last conviction was for homicide. After decades of trying everything that doesn’t work (drugs, alcohol, several world religions, violence, gang life) he eventually came to a Kairos Weekend, met Jesus, and felt he could not turn his back on Him any longer.
Reclaiming his given name, Harold cast Thumper into the dust bin of history. Then went to the phone and called the prison guard.
While telling me this story, Harold whistled and a young dewy-eyed officer came over.
“Yeah, I quit when Thumper said he would kill me,” he said. “But now I’m back at work feeding my family.”
“Because Thumper no longer exists. “
Larry is also a lifer — a euphemism for those serving a life sentence — and he told me he helped organize The Lifers’ Club.
Then he told me what they do: a) publish a monthly newsletter supporting each other and the community; b) build a positive reputation with the local and regional citizens by giving back through public and community service; c) strengthen public awareness about truth in sentencing, uniform sentencing, and appropriate parole guidelines. And the final plank?
Lifers pool their limited resources to help others.
They’ve purchased wheelchairs for handicapped kids. Clothed and fed the homeless. Purchased backpacks and sent money to impoverished kids trying to attend school. Larry rattled off all they’ve done the last six months, but I couldn’t write them down fast enough to enter them all here.
Furthermore, they’ve put together a correspondence course — outside of any help from the state — to help each other cope with life in prison.
I read through the course as two of my creative writing students contributed chapters, and it’s extremely well-written with excellent advice on how to improve yourself once you know you’re spending the rest of your life behind bars.
One of the amazing aspects of the Kairos Ministry is getting to know inmates and Lifers who are actually freer — we’re talking between the ears here — than half the folks you meet on the street who eternally lock themselves into personal self-constructed hells — anger, unforgiveness, bad finances, bad relationships, drugs, alcohol, dead-end careers, poor diet, no exercise, insufficient sleep, ad infinitum.
Since I’m at the prison a lot — two creative writing classes and four Kairos prayer-and-shares a month — I’m getting to know what kind of homes produce Lifers. And that’s ugly.
To my amazement, Lifers I’ve met remain positive, even hopeful. Here’s an example from one of my creative writing students who grew up in a home that most of us would not survive. Yet, through Christ, he has gained another view over twenty years of incarceration:
I don’t know about you, but when I read stuff like that, my own problems are diminished, and my faith is strengthened.
We may be free, but do we cherish it?
Do we free-world folks increase the value of our freedom by taking time to help others not-so-lucky? You don’t have to go into a prison to do that. There’s more than enough work to do, as folks in need appear almost everywhere we look — often on the same block where we live.
We are designed to think outside of ourselves, according to our Creator:
We all can lift ourselves. By simply lifting others.