In less than 2 weeks I will be standing in front of some 300 men with no extra agenda on our end except to entertain them with some of the best singers and players around, to lift their spirits, and to remind them of their worth as a child of God.
It had been a while since I had experienced a thin place, a moment where heaven and earth seemed connected and there was no doubt but to believe.
I was asked last summer to get involved with the ministry of Timothy’s Gift (www.timothysgift.com). TG is a ministry to inmates offering relief, hope and redemption through friendship, entertainment, and seminars. I was originally asked to help put together a “U.S.O. style” Christmas program -for a 12 day tour. T.G. wanted to take talented artists in to lift the spirits of the prisons during the most depressing time of the year for inmates, Christmas. The task seemed difficult. You could not sing anything too nostalgic, nothing that reminded them too specifically of going home or loved ones, it needed to bring laughter and funny songs, songs that they would be familiar with and then also remind them or tell them the story of Jesus, the story of LOVE. After recruiting the talent from GracePointe Church (which is FULL of talent I might add) I began the specifics of the program. By the Fall, I had resigned myself to the fact that I needed to go on this tour as well. We turned in our information to Ron Miller (founder and organizer of TG), which then of course had to be background checked and screened. Finally we were all approved and set to leave. 12 days, 19 prisons, 9 people (3 of us rotating in and out).
The day before we left Haven was diagnosed with the flu. She was horribly sick and I fought myself all day about leaving her for 5 days while I went on my part of the tour. After many conversations with Ben, my mom and Ron, I decided I needed to go. We left the next day. During the 7 hour drive to FL, I second guessed myself for most of the trip. Should I have left my family??? After frequent calls to Ben and my mom, Haven seemed to be recovering slowly but doing well. Finally on WED morning we went to the first prison.
I will give you the average scenario of the prison. We pull up to chain link fences and gates with 3 rows of barbed wire lined top and bottom. To say these were highly secure prisons, is an understatement. We would punch in our codes and scan our fingers and then wait for the guards approval to enter which could take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. We’d enter after they had thoroughly checked each one of us individually and all of our equipment. We were given body alarms to attach to our belts, just in case of emergencies. Once inside, we’d head straight to the chapel and were usually greeted and offered help by a select few of approved inmates. We’d set up in about 30 minutes. Finally the 150 or so inmates would enter. Some of them were rugged looking, some weary, some young, some old with need of canes, some clean cut, some laughing… but all dressed in blue.
We would begin with a welcome and a familiar song. Most of them, because they had volunteered to be there, were enthusiastic to sing along, to clap, to laugh. Others had to be won over but it seemed after 30 minutes or so,every time, it worked. The first half of the set was light, playful and even funny. The laughter that filled the room was infectious and healing. They seemed to know that we were there for THEM. There was an attitude of level ground instead of the usual looking down on to them that they are so often used to. Then we introduced our resident Artist, who shared her story of doubt and questioning God and finally the reassurance she found that God will cover her – all of her, including her questions, anger, and doubt. She told them that she would paint an angel that God had placed in her heart and that she would leave the painting with them to remind them that they too are covered. We then moved into sacred Christmas songs.
Finally, I sang the song “love me” (by JJ Heller) over them and it was in this moment that I knew I had made the right decision in coming on the tour. If you don’t know the song, you can listen to it fully here http://youtu.be/PgGUKWiw7Wk. The lyrics describe a young boy alone and also a woman who’s husband has left her, both desperately searching for someone to love them for them…
I tried my hardest to find each and every one of their eyes as I sang the last verse…
He’s waiting to die as he sits all alone. He’s a man in a cell, who regrets what he’s done.
He utters a cry from the depth of his soul, “Oh Lord, Forgive me. I want to go home.”
Then he heard a voice, somewhere deep inside and it said, ” I know you’ve murdered and I know you’ve lied.
I have watched you suffer for all of your life. Now that you’ll listen, I’ll tell you that I
Oh I love you for you. Not for what you have done or what you will become. Oh I love you for you. I will show you the love, the love that you never knew.”
I quickly tried to tell them that this is exactly why we’ve come but I was cut off completely by a standing ovation of applause accompanied with weighted tears. They probably had not heard these words since their mistake or if they had, from very few. But this is why we came. We came to tell them and remind them that they are loved. I told them of the idea of the Kingdom of God being like a table and that they are still welcome and have a place waiting at that table. That they are not their mistake and that they have a future they can step into. A better future. We had prepared 2 stations to administer communion. I would invite them to come, because Jesus invited them to come. I asked (as I have learned from my friend, Ian Cron) them to hold out their cupped hands in order to receive the bread we will break. I wanted them to receive instead of take and to be reminded that life, all of life and their life is a gift. Then they would dip that bread into the wine.
They started to come quickly, needy for love, for a gift, some more broken than others, but every last one of them comes on their own and receives. It’s the first time, maybe in all of ministry, that I recognize the truly sacred gift it is to share the good news that YOU ARE LOVED to someone who so desperately needs it. It was holy moments, with tears shed, wine spilling, bread broken, life shared.
I remember one man specifically. He was very tall and muscular and reminded me of Michael Clarke Duncan’s character in the movie The Green Mile. This man walked into the chapel looking very hard and intimidating. Eventually he cracked a smile and I knew we had him captive when he threw his head back in laughter at one of the songs and then proceeded to clap along. He came to my line of communion. He towered over me and cupped his very large, strong hands… hands that may have raped, or murdered, or stolen… he looked into my eyes as I looked up into his tear stained face, “His body broken for you” I said. I used one hand to place the piece of bread into his hands and cupped the underneath of his hands with my other. As I looked into his eyes I BEHELD innocence trapped deep inside. It was in that moment that I looked and beheld not a 40 year old criminal, but a child. I feel I saw a glimpse of how God sees us, beautiful and broken but with the hope and promise of redemption through LOVE. I will never be the same and I hope I can say the same for that man.
So, now I believe more than ever before. I believe that we are all made in the image of God. That we are all the beloved. That we are all broken to varying degrees. I believe that we all have hope. I believe that the CREATOR is LOVE and that LOVE will never fail. I believe that I am to tell all with my life, my work and my words that poignant truth. You are loved. You are of great worth. You have a place at the table.
My life is changed. My ministry renewed. My focus is steadfast. I believe again.
Here’s to an impactful 2013… peace to you, Melissa