NOTE: In two earlier posts, Transforming Your Life With New Experiences and Transforming Your Life With New Experiences, Part 2, I wrote about experiences in prison ministry with the Timothy’s Gift program. This post is about a more recent visit, this time to Florida prisons. The earliest post reflected a week-long tour to prisons in Ohio, the second to Arkansas. I am part of the support team. This is a Christian ministry and that is reflected in the post.
In the days following a week-long Timothy’s Gift tour including 12 programs at nine different correctional institutions, I am generally fatigued. But my eyes are especially tired, feeling dry and hard to keep open. It is a physical reality, and there is also another level.
My eyes have seen, taken in, processed, remembered so much in the seven days. So much razor wire – layers of it enclosing each institution. So much blue – the color of the inmate clothing in Florida. So many varieties of men who are incarcerated – many nationalities and origins, ages from the twenties to the eighties, including the very old and infirm in wheelchairs. In one location, men who introduced themselves during the program included people from Mexico, Puerto Rico and multiple states far from Florida. There were some people who barely spoke English; I can’t imagine being unable to understand and communicate in that setting.
As we stood near the doors and greeted inmates as they came, I saw the range of excitement and openness to skepticism. Most had some kind of eye contact (or eye to face contact) as they shook our hands. Some certainly were there because it was an opportunity to do something different than the routine – anything would do.
My eyes saw and remember the variety of responses during the programs – a wide range from bubbling over with enthusiasm from the very beginning to stoic and staring, and everything in between. I saw how certain songs in the program elicited responses – laughter, smiles, sadness, tears – often subtle, sometimes not. One man sat motionless through much of the program, staring ahead to the side of the stage. At a couple of points, his eyes shifted to the person talking, but still no expression. There were a couple of tiny nods but little change in facial expression; no clapping or standing. But those nods indicated that some message was touching him. Will he be one of those who writes to us?
Seeing the lines of men in blue lining up for and receiving communion – hunks of bread broken of and placed in their outstretched hands with words of encouragement and blessing which they dipped into grape juice – was moving each time. Here was when most tears flowed. Quiet prevailed during this time as people pondered and prayed.
At the end of communion, an a cappella version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” washed over them, followed by “The Prayer.” There is no way to describe the feelings that welled up throughout the room, particularly with the crescendo of emotion at the line, “we are all God’s Children.” It seemed like an invisible power brought people to their feet at the end. What a high point!
As we again shook hands and blessed them as they left, lots of gratitude was expressed along with blessings and wishes for a “Merry Christmas.” The messages of You are Loved, You Have Great Worth, God is With You, and You are Not Forgotten seem to have touched them. This has been verified powerfully in the letters received since we returned home. I am amazed at the impact they describe that lasts beyond the time we were together. The protective barriers which are a necessity in that environment truly have been breached and love and care reached them.
We also interact with a variety of staff members including the officers who direct the inmates into the room and into rows and take us through the security checks and locked compartments to our destination in the chapel. They stand alert on the sides and at the back of the room, often expressionless. There are also supervisors – sergeants, lieutenants, majors – the assistant wardens and wardens, and chaplains. Often it’s hard to assess what they are thinking or feeling. But as we are courteous, grateful and take time to talk with them, they warm up and open up. Everyone I talked to said they really enjoyed the program.
My heart also “saw”/recognized things, particularly this: a team of people whose hearts were open and who became instruments of love and acceptance. Perhaps one of the miracles of the week is this: the simple messages of You are Loved, You Have Great Worth, God is With You, and You are Not Forgotten transform those coming with the messages so that we embody them in ways that can’t be fully explained except to say “God With Us.”
For more information on this ministry, go to http://www.timothysgift.com