Uncaged Spirit


Uncaged Spirit

I didn’t choose to be involved in jail ministry; well not really.  I was kind of abandoned on the jailhouse steps by a friend of mine.  It was early in my discernment of the diaconate, that an already-ordained deacon friend of mine shared that if I wanted to see what being a deacon was all about that I should look into jail ministry.  He knew of a new group that was just starting up a monthly ministry at the Brown County Jail and he invited me to their “organizational” meeting.

At the meeting I met Ed, who attended the Moravian Church, and Bob, who was Lutheran, and Ken, who attended a Pentecostal church.  They all had long histories of prison ministry, while I had never even been inside one.  Ed then shared that this was a weekly Bible-Study ministry, not monthly.  While that was sinking in, Ed stood up and suddenly announced, “Well let’s get started.”  The organizational meeting turned into my first experience face-to-face with jail inmates.  Afterwards, my “friend” explained that the next week he was starting a six-week discussion series at his parish, so he wouldn’t be able to join until after that.  I didn’t have an excuse, so I said that I would be back next week.  My deacon friend conveniently forgot about joining us later on.  By then though, I was hooked, and I continued coming weekly for the next 13 years.  There were hundreds of memorable encounters, but here’s three that stand out.        

Hector was in the first discussion group I led.  Hector was a prophet in the true sense of the vocation.  A prophet’s main responsibility is to encourage people to return to God.  Hector worked hard to get people to commit to come to our Bible Studies.  And if they didn’t show up he went out and found them and brought them back.  He was a natural leader who the men obviously respected. 

Hector was the son of a preacher, so he knew a lot of scripture by heart.  What’s more is he understood it, and he was very good at explaining it to others.  Hector’s legal case was especially complicated and it took 13 months to sort through it all.  It’s very unusual to have a steady participant in a county jail environment, because the jail population is so transitory.  Men are constantly being released, or shifted from jail to prison.  When Hector was finally sentenced to prison and told us that he was getting shipped out, I was very concerned about what would happen without his leadership in that pod.  To my amazement, when we returned for our next meeting Jim, someone who had been a very quiet and unassuming participant for about 4 months, was busy rousting people out of their bunks or away from the tv.  Jim became very outspoken in the small group discussions, and he had some great insights into understanding scripture and applying it to the life of a convict that the other men appreciated and responded to.  Just like Elisha for Elijah, God raised up a new prophet.  And while it’s not always the case, I have been amazed at how many prophets I have seen God raise up over the years.  He does not leave his children orphaned.

Tim was a totally different story.  When he started coming to our sessions he had long hair that he combed over most of his face, and he either sat quietly and either not participating or he argued.  He was a professed atheist who scoffed at any discussion about forgiveness and redemption.  Tim was very anti-Catholic.  He claimed that Catholics aren’t even Christian.  We told him that as long as he was respectful that he was welcome to keep coming.  When we split up into smaller groups Tim always – always asked to be in my group.  Over the months Tim’s challenges became questions that it was obvious he really wanted answers to.  About halfway through Tim’s time with us he got his hair cut so that we could see his face and look into his eyes.  A month later he came with his own Bible.  A month later that Bible was dog-eared from use.  A month later he professed to the group that he now considered himself a Christian.  The next week we found that Tim had been sentenced and moved out to prison, so I never got to talk with him again, but I am confident that he went to prison much more prepared to make a real change in his life and much more convinced that he was lovable and that Jesus was at his side.  Jesus seeks out the lost sheep.

Steve was tough guy.  He was a gang member covered with tattoos of skulls and knives dripping blood.  I admit that he intimidated me, although I did my best not to let him know that.  Steve ambushed me one evening.  He had been quiet but listening.  Finally, he looked at me with piercing eyes and said, “What do you know about it?”  “About what” I asked?  “Have you ever been in prison?”  “No”.  “Ever even been arrested?”  “No”.  “You’ve had it so easy, what do you know about what our world is like?   I can’t relate to you at all.”  I looked at him for a second, and then I told him some stories about one of my sons and his struggles with addictions and his times in jails and prison.  “Maybe I haven’t been there physically”, I told him, “But my heart has been there.”  Steve didn’t answer, but he did kind of nod his head just a bit.  A couple months later Steve was in my group again.  He was not quiet; he was actively engaged in the discussion.  At the end, before we closed with prayer I always asked if anyone has any special intentions.  Steve looked at me with caring eyes and asked, “How’s your son doing?  I want you to know that I’m praying for him.”  With all of his own needs and tough challenges Steve found the compassion to pray for my son, a stranger who he never met.  Just when you think that you’re doing the serving, Jesus shows up and washes your feet, and brings you to deeper conversion. 

His Peace <><

Deacon Dan

Photo by John McMahon on Unsplash