This blog is mainly devoted to theology, but today I would like to turn from theory to practice. After all, the end goal of growing in knowledge is to grow in love. Paul wrote that “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2).
This year I have had the opportunity to become involved with Kairos Prison Ministry here in South Africa. This is an international, interdenominational ministry whose mission is to bring Christ’s love and forgiveness to the incarcerated. The programme I participated in was called “Kairos Inside” which is a long weekend spent inside the institution introducing Christianity to the prisoners (who are called ‘residents’ in the programme). One of the coolest features of Kairos is the cookies. Kairos uses home-baked cookies as a tangible expression of God’s unconditional love, and each Kairos weekend requires 1200 dozen cookies (14,400)!
Kairos is a Greek word for time. Unlike kronos (the more general word for time), kairos refers to an appointed or opportune time. For example, 1 Peter 5:6: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time (kairos) he may exalt you.”
God had laid the idea of prison ministry on my heart for some time. From passages like Psalm 102:20 (“to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die”), Psalm 146:7 (“The LORD sets the prisoners free”), Matthew 25:36 (“I was in prison and you came to me”) and Luke 4:18 (“He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives”) it is pretty clear that the idea of ministering to prisoners is very close to the heart of God. So when I heard about Kairos I jumped at the chance to get involved.
In April I participated in a “Kairos Inside” programme at Pietermaritzburg New Prison, D Block (maximum security), which ministered to 42 residents. We had an Inside Team of about 25 Christian men who went into the prison, as well as a Support Team (mainly women) who prepared the food for the weekend and lifted the weekend up in prayer to God, as well as of course the many people who baked cookies.
The programme takes place in a common area of the prison such as a mess hall. We all sit at round tables – each table has six residents and three Kairos volunteers. We listen to Bible talks given by Kairos volunteers and then each table has a discussion. The residents then work together to draw a poster which expresses the message they took from the talk. There is also praise and worship time, fellowship around meals, and many other spiritual growth activities.
The most moving part of the weekend was the last day when residents had a chance to give testimonials on what the weekend meant to them. A common sentiment was that they were overwhelmed that complete strangers would care enough about them to come and spend time with them when even their own families had written them off. One man said that for the first time he was looking forward to getting out of prison so he could show people how he had changed. Another said that prior to the weekend he had been plotting to kill the prosecutor and judge who put him in prison when he got out, but now he had learned that he must forgive others if he wants God to forgive him. Still another man thanked God for putting him in prison, as otherwise he would never have come to know the love of God!
It is always thrilling and rewarding to be involved in the work of God. But being involved in Kairos has also profoundly affected my outlook toward prisoners. Having rubbed elbows and munched cookies with murderers, rapists and armed robbers, I came away with the realization that they are not monsters. They are human beings. To be sure, they have done terrible things and many of them have a lot of darkness and hatred in their hearts. But they are sinners in need of God’s free gift of salvation, just like the rest of us.
There is even a sense in which inmates in a maximum security prison are luckier than the rest of us. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22), but many of us do not realize it. In fact we are all prisoners to sin, and destined for the punishment of death. However, many of us fail to see the walls of this prison around us, and we pretend that we are free. For those physically in prison, the guilt and punishment of sin are painfully obvious, which makes it easier for them to humble themselves and heed Christ’s call to know the truth and be set free (John 8:32). They only need someone to bring Christ to them. “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14)