Thursday night I joined a couple guys from CrossWalk on their weekly visit to Wrightsville prison where they teach classes in the prison’s Pathway to Freedom program. I wasn’t terribly nervous and I didn’t see anything alarming. The inmates were very friendly, outgoing, shared a lot about their lives and the struggles they face, and, more than anything else, were surprisingly grateful. I met guys with regular names like Darnell and Gregg and James and Calvin. No Mad Dog’s or Spike’s or Killer’s. No fights. No riots. No drug deals.
I know – boring, right?
Actually it was anything but.
When we walked in I was a little unsettled at the sight of the first inmate wearing all white. Something about that uniform – the anonymity, the conformity, the loss of self – made me pause. But after meeting the first few guys, that quickly evaporated. As the men filed in the room, Euel Dove, one of our CW shepherds, began introducing me to the men. One by one I shook their hands and gave some of them hugs. Each one smiled and shook my hand firmly. Some said they had been anxious to meet me (apparently Euel was quite generous in describing his new teaching minister).
Euel and I left the room and walked down the hall to the barracks – a larger room filled with bunk beds, showers, toilets, and sinks. No walls. No barriers. No stalls for the showers or toilets. One big room.
About 30 inmates sat in chairs circled near the front of the room and Euel went around the circle shaking hands and calling each of them by name. He asked some about their upcoming parole hearings, some about their families, some about past disciplinary action. If you live in Little Rock and want to see a man doing what he was made to do, go watch Euel with the inmates at Wrightsville.
We began with the serenity prayer and one man offered a story of how that prayer helped him last week. We talked briefly about the importance of changing ourselves before we worry about others. Then we moved into the night’s lesson on hope. Each man had a book with about a page and a half of information followed by six reflective questions. They are to come to class each week ready to discuss the questions.
After some pretty lengthy discussion – probably an hour or so – Euel asked the men to tell me why they value volunteers coming out to Wrightsville. A couple guys said that the volunteers – Euel, Curtis, and others from CW – have impacted their lives more than any guard or therapist or attorney ever has. One young man – probably in his early 20’s – who had been pretty quiet – raised his hand. He said before coming to prison he hated everybody. He believed everybody was selfish and inherently bad. But since coming to Wrightsville he’s learned there are good people in the world, people he can trust, people who will really look out for his interests. And he learned that from the volunteers.
We stood, joined hands, and recited the Lord’s Prayer. Then I got to chat with a few guys who asked me to pray for them. For me, that was the climax – men asking me to pray for reconciliation with their kids, for upcoming parole hearings, for their families. Each one had tears welling up as they exposed their innermost worries and fears.
We found the rest of our group and a guard escorted us through a series of doors and gates. We got in the car and drove home.
I’m still processing everything I experienced that night. And I cannot wait to go again. One of the thoughts I keep returning to is that Jesus said one reason he came was to set the prisoner free. I always thought it was a little strange because a prisoner broke the law, so they’re serving their punishment for wrongdoing. Why would Jesus come to throw open the bars and yell, “Everybody run!” But the “prison” those guys are in – the one that holds them hostage – has no walls and no bars. The prison they’re in has no guards or parole boards or work time or good behavior. The prison they’re in is inside. The prison they’re in is in their minds and their hearts. It’s a prison that tells them there is no other way. It’s a prison that tells them they are evil. It’s a prison that tells them nobody cares. It’s a prison that tells them they’ll never be better. It’s a prison they can leave as soon as they realize that they are holding the key.
This is the prison Jesus came to blow open.
At the end of October CW is leading the Wednesday night worship time at Wrightsville and I get to share a word with the inmates. I’m a little nervous about it – okay, I’m kinda freaking out. I haven’t nailed down what my message will be that night, but I know it must be full of love. It must be full of hope. And it must be full of Jesus.
What else do we need?