KAIROS: In God's Time
KAIROS (In God’s Time)
For those not familiar with KAIROS, it is a prison ministry based in large part on Cursillo. I just completed my third KAIROS at Angola State Prison. It was the 61st KAIROS to be held at Angola. The first KAIROS was held at Angola in the early 1990’s. At the time Angola was known as one of the most violent prisons in America. Angola is now known to be one of the least maximum security prisons in the country. Many believe that KAIROS has played a significant part in the decrease of violence at Angola.
The mission statement of KAIROS is very simple – Listen Listen, Love Love. Our objective is to let the residents know that they are not forgotten. They are beloved children of God and there is no sin which cannot be forgiven. Over 3 days of talks and personal sharing we, as team members, try to embody this love and caring. Through the sharing of our own stories with the residents we want to demonstrate the power of God’s love and mercy in our own lives. The talks are given in such a way as to build one on another and exemplify the spiritual journey. They are as follows:
- We Are Not Alone
- Friendship With God
- We Are the Church
- Opening the Door
- Discovery Through Study
- Christian Action
- The Wall
- Obstacles to Accepting God’s Grace
- Walking in God’s Grace
After each talk the residents, who have been divided into small groups with three team members, are given the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings about the talk. Each small group is also asked to do a poster to illustrate their feelings about the talk. In addition to the talks, small group discussion and posters, a forgiveness ritual is performed on the last night of the weekend.
I say all of this to create a picture in your mind of what the weekend looks like. What I really want to express in this article is what KAIROS means to me. Leading up to the weekend the team goes through training held for five consecutive Saturdays prior to the retreat itself. This may sound like a huge commitment of time, but it is a great experience. Each team consists of approximately fifty individuals. It is a diverse group – men and women, young and old, affluent and blue collar workers, black, brown and white, representing many different religious denominations. It is during these five Saturdays that the team of individuals becomes a family. We are united not only by our desire to serve, but also by sharing our stories with one another. During our training sessions we are asked to embody humility, gratitude and vulnerability. We do this through the sharing of our individual spiritual journeys (both as a group and one on one), rituals (washing of one another’s feet, forgiveness, etc.), prayer and fellowship. In short, we try to live out what we will be asking the residents to do on the weekend and beyond. I am always amazed at the trust and bonds of friendship that are formed over these five days.
As wonderful an experience as the team formation is, it pales in comparison to the actual weekend. I am always amazed at the transformation that takes place over those 3 days – not only among the residents, but the team members as well. When asked at the beginning of the weekend why they came to KAIROS, many of the residents will honestly say they came for the cookies and the food. Like the team, the residents represent a diverse group of individuals. Over course of my three weekends we have had both Christians and Muslims, white, black and brown, residents who had been incarcerated for most of their adult lives and those who had been incarcerated for less than a year, college graduates and those who could not read or write. In the end what they have in common is a need to know that they still matter as human beings, to know that they have not been forgotten, to know that they are loved, to know that they have been forgiven, and to know that they have the capacity to forgive.
One of the things I love about prison ministry is the absence of much of the never-ending need to impress or attempts to be what you think the world wants you to be (the false-self). Yes in their everyday life the residents do feel the need to appear strong and self-sufficient. Prison is not a place where being weak and vulnerable is encouraged. KAIROS, however, provides the residents with a safe place to be themselves. These men from whom everything has been taken (their freedom, their possessions, their friends, their family) are given the freedom to be who they are and say what they feel without fear of being judged or attempts being made to “fix” them.
So, what are some of the things I have experienced by being blessed to be around men who are willing to be vulnerable enough to be their true selves with a complete stranger for three days:
A man shedding tears of joy and thanksgiving at being given a cup of ice cream for dessert. The real joy and thanksgiving coming from the fact that someone would choose to be present to him and care enough about him to share their time, their food and their love with him.
A man who grew up sleeping in one abandoned house after another with no running water and caring for his younger siblings while their mother sold her body to pay for the drugs she needed to feed her addiction. This same man, who after years of living with anger over the circumstances of his childhood, was finally able to forgive his mother, a woman who could never find it in her heart to take any responsibility for the affect her actions had on her children.
Listening to a man who had been incarcerated for 37 years give thanks to God for allowing him to reconnect with his daughter and granddaughter and dreaming of a day when he could be with them once again.
As special as all of these experiences are, the one that remains with me is from my first KAIROS weekend. I had stepped out of the community room and when I came back in the men were singing “I Saw the Light”. I was struck by the fact that there before me were 80 men – free and incarcerated, Christian and Muslim, black and white, rich and poor – singing and giving praise to God for his love and mercy. In that moment I was given the grace of experiencing the Kingdom of God in the here and now. In that moment I was allowed to see and touch the face of God; It is the memory of that moment that will keep me coming back to KAIROS for the rest of my life.