NOTE: In an earlier post, Transforming Your Life With New Experiences, I wrote about a particular experience in prison ministry with the Timothy’s Gift program. This post is about a more recent visit, this time to Arkansas prisons. This is a Christian ministry and that is reflected in the post.
REFLECTIONS ON THE TIMOTHY’S GIFT HOLY WEEK TOUR, MARCH 2018
During Holy Week, 2018, Timothy’s Gift had its spring tour with the theme “You’ve Got a Friend.” We observed those days leading up to Easter not with traditional church services on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday or Holy Saturday. Rather, we had 8 services/programs in 6 Arkansas prisons.
Our extraordinary team of 17 including musicians, speakers and support folks brought a 4-fold message – You are Loved, You Have Great Worth, God is With You, and You Are Not Forgotten. We communicated those messages through music (secular and fun, spiritual, and Christian), spoken messages, and other exercises and experiences. By weaving together these elements, we provided multiple ways to touch those who come to the program.
We had a Maundy Thursday experience as part of each service. As Jesus shared the bread and wine with his disciples on that day, we share the bread and juice with the inmates – looking directly into their eyes and speaking the words of the love of God. All of the team members participated in the serving of the communion at least once so they had that experience, which is truly profound.
And we had Good Friday during each service as the message spoke to the crucifixion: God in Jesus experiencing the worst that human life provides and demonstrating that God has always been with us and will always be with us. We reminded them that one thief also crucified that day spoke “remember me” – and that they too are remembered.
The person-to-person interaction was especially precious as we greeted people with handshakes and hugs as they entered and left, had conversations which included their stories, heard requests to pray for individuals, and gave encouragement. Often there were tears.
One of the 8 services was in a women’s facility; and as always, the women were more emotional and participatory than the men. As they were moved out quickly to get back to their dorm for count, right after communion and before the final words could be said or last 2 songs sung, every woman was crying in response to what they had just experienced. Several were pregnant and seemed particularly moved.
Each location had its own uniqueness, due to the level of security, the type of units participating, the chaplain’s style and focus, and the warden’s overall leadership. Overall, the prison officers and chaplains were friendly and helpful – though a few started out differently. One officer who had not been fully informed about what would be required of him for us to do our two programs in two parts of the facility started out resentful. But by the end, he was complimentary and said “God bless you all” with a warm smile. We had many affirmative responses from other officers as well.
At one location where we had two separate services, the prison’s excellent praise choir and band performed as the inmates came in and left. Before the inmates began arriving, our instrumentalists and theirs played together and shared music. This added a whole new dimension to the gathering.
In our last prison, the location of the chapel required us to walk through a corridor lined with inmate barracks on either side. Getting glimpses of the rows and rows of cots, a couple of feet from each other, with men sitting and standing in those large rooms was sobering and sad. As we trouped through the corridor – 17 people with cases of sound equipment, instruments, music stands, communion supplies and more – many stared, some waved; more waved if we first waved. One can only imagine the range of thoughts and attitudes about our group as we entered. We had to walk back after set-up to get to the canteen area, and then back through to the chapel for the program. And then at the end, back to the entrance with all of our gear again. It was a strange experience each time, knowing there were diverse attitudes toward us and wanting to not seem either aloof, or afraid, or naively cheerful.
At the end of every service, each person who attended was given a survey to return and invited to write to us. After just a week after the first visits, dozens of letters have already arrived. We will be reading them and responding to as many as we can.
Each of the institutions wants a return visit from Timothy’s Gift. The inmates all seemed eager for us to come back. And every team member who went – 7 of them for the first time – seem eager to do it again. It is truly a transformative experience each time we are able to participate. It is a unique and powerful way to live out and share the love of God with others.
This is an example of an experience that transforms all involved. How can you have such experiences?
For more information on this ministry, go to www.timothysgift.com