A Calling

Volunteer prison ministries brave Brushy

In the expansive concrete yard that surrounds the main complex, a cluster of guards munching cookies nod at the large herd of Kairos volunteers as they march dutifully through the grounds. Prisoners slouched against the metal fence have bags of cookies crammed in every pocket of their prison-issue garb—dark jeans and light blue v-necks. Cookies are everywhere, and there are many more boxes of these homemade treats leftover in the basement of

Union

Baptist

Church

down the road, where the Kairos team set up "camp" for the weekend.

Ministering to the un-saved has always been a priority among the world's religions, but such efforts are often eschewed by those it seeks to save. Many people toss religious pamphlets in the nearest trashcan when someone hands them one on the street. At its core, the practice of ministering could be viewed as either a pushy effort to assimilate others or a selfless endeavor to aid others.

More than anything, the inmates who participate in these programs are set apart from others in the prison yard by their restored sense of pride. DeElizer Sharp, an eight-year inmate with an incandescent smile, talks about how Kairos has changed the way other prisoners perceive him. "They will look at us and say, 'Why are they smiling? They're locked up.' They're paying attention to our actions. I have a bunch of them that look up to me and ask questions. They'll say, 'How can I get that joy?' It's easy, you just gotta surrender."

The highway from Knoxville to Morgan County, 62 West, is dotted with small towns and small-town churches. As the road winds and narrows, church billboards get more homemade-looking, the messages more prophetic. One advises, "Prepare to meet thy God." Another, "No matter what you have done, come to the One," builds on a tenet that is nearly universal among the world's religions; forgiveness. It also foreshadows the mindset within the chapel at Brushy Mountain Prison.

Nestled in a picturesque East Tennessee valley, Brushy's Morgan site is no more daunting than a large elementary school. Except for the profuse spirals of glimmering barbed wire and gun-toting guards manning the observation tower, the main complex is relatively unthreatening, just a low brick building surrounded by a dozen or so bunkhouses reminiscent of Cool Hand Luke .

In the expansive concrete yard that surrounds the main complex, a cluster of guards munching cookies nod at the large herd of Kairos volunteers as they march dutifully through the grounds. Prisoners slouched against the metal fence have bags of cookies crammed in every pocket of their prison-issue garb—dark jeans and light blue v-necks. Cookies are everywhere, and there are many more boxes of these homemade treats leftover in the basement of Union Baptist Church down the road, where the Kairos team set up "camp" for the weekend.

Kairos, a volunteer prison ministry organization that spans the country and even has branches overseas, assumes a pervasive presence at Brushy Mountain Prison. Everyone in the prison knows who they are; its participants, as well as guards and non-Christian inmates, receive a little Kairos goodwill in the form of cookies—they brought 2,000 dozen for their last session.

Over the years, the Kairos organization has grown to include different branches for wives and loved ones of inmates as well as at-risk kids. And there are other volunteer ministry programs that visit Brushy, such as Focus Ministry and the Christian Motorcyclist Association.

Though this overwhelming enthusiasm for ministering to prisoners may surprise some, the ubiquitous nature of religion in general is nothing new. It's innately tied to humanity, but when it comes to integrating religion into politics and public facilities, things can get sticky.

Now as much as ever, religion is at the forefront of domestic politics, with both sides debating whether the Ten Commandments should be posted in public, arguing over school prayer, and rehashing the evolution-versus-creationism debate. Some see Christianity as a societal cure-all, but others question whether religion should infiltrate government-run facilities, much less be government-funded, as are Bush's faith-based initiatives.

Ministering to the un-saved has always been a priority among the world's religions, but such efforts are often eschewed by those it seeks to save. Many people toss religious pamphlets in the nearest trashcan when someone hands them one on the street. At its core, the practice of ministering could be viewed as either a pushy effort to assimilate others or a selfless endeavor to aid others.

But most of the ministers at Brushy Mountain aren't peddling religion by force. All of the cheerful Kairos volunteers are unpaid, and they receive no government money, nor do they go door-to-door asking for support. Team members cough up $75 each to fund the weekend in which they feed and minister to the 25 inmates who sign up for the program. Though most team members hail from a church with a particular denomination, they don't attempt to push those designations on their "guests." They seem more interested in showing their compassion for the inmates as people, closely following the Kairos motto, "Listen listen, love love."

On the other hand, most prison ministries certainly utilize incentives, by way of food and diversion from prison life, to get their message across. And there's a sense that, by choosing to minister to society's most "helpless" people, they are building their empire by preying on the weak.

But Kairos members would combat that accusation by paralleling their mission with the actions of Jesus himself. One of their favorite Bible quotes to recite is Matthew 26, "I was in prison and you visited me." At the first training session of this year's Kairos team, director Harry Meyer explained their purpose, "The Lord needed a messenger."

Back inside the chapel at Brushy Mountain, any feeling of being in a prison dissipates. The grinning, laughing and hugging inmates are a far cry from the dour faces peering out from behind the kitchen's dish room out in the yard a few moments earlier.

A recent Sunday in April marked a "graduation" from the Kairos weekend—the only part of the program that visitors are allowed to attend. Still, none of the family members of the inmates were present. Andrea Lambert, a member of the cooking team for her husband Bob's Kairos team, explains that family members don't come because it would be unfair to allow Kairos' participants more visits than other inmates. "It would let them see their loved ones one more time,"

The program begins with a few spirited songs with titles like "Falling in Love with Jesus," accompanied by three rather talented inmates on drums, keyboard and electric guitar. During the singing, one elderly inmate raises his arms in the air and sways his head to the music, revival-style. A younger man wipes tears from his cheeks and the inmate next to him grasps onto his shoulder tightly.

Afterward, each prisoner stands before the microphone and tells of his experiences over the weekend. Some nervously crinkle scraps of paper with notes they've jotted down, others are unable to hold back spurts of sobbing as they stumble through the words. Many refer to the cookies and food when they talk about what they've gained here. "I really came to eat, people told me the food was good," says a man called Ignatius. "But I learned that as long as I've got King Jesus on my side, I don't need nothing else."

Many inmates do come for the food, Tennessee Kairos Chairman Boyd Atkins admits, but he says, "Every time Jesus had a crowd of people around him, he fed them. If they come for the food, that's OK. If you plant that one seed, something will come of it."

Aside from the food, many prisoners cherish Kairos' emphasis on brotherly love and acceptance—in prison, touch is rare and usually unwelcome. "When I came up here, I was scared," says a wild-eyed inmate named Henry. "I was one of them, you know, loner people. I've never done so much huggin' in my life." Another inmate nicknamed Easy, sums it up, "What did I find here? I found love and a bunch of cookies."

Some don't come for the cookies, though. Terry Turpin, an inmate wearing an Aggies cap and fervent stare, sits in the Chaplain's office and tells his story earnestly. "I rededicated my life in '97. I'd been through a lot—I'd lost my wife due to a pregnancy death, my music career was flopping, and then I got arrested," he says, "I was at the lowest point in my life." Once in prison, a cellmate suggested Turpin attend Kairos, coaxing, "If you love God, you really need to do this."

Since beginning Kairos, Turpin says he's found a "purpose-driven life course." He has high hopes for the future and plans on going back to music one day. "When prisoners get out of prison, people like to think we go back to our old ways," he says. "But a small percentage of us do want to follow Christ. I don't even want to go back to country music. I just want to do gospel."

One regret that still weighs heavily on Turpin is losing his family. "Some of us aren't lucky enough to have people to come visit us," he says. "I haven't seen my kids in years but this (Kairos) is like a family."

In a sense, the whole prison is like a family; they work together, eat together, share living quarters, and form social bonds. Unfortunately, prison hostility can break up that family and leave prisoners feeling alone. With Kairos, there is a definite bond between those involved, giving them a dose of support and love. At the graduation ceremony, a shy inmate named Tim says, "I didn't know I was loved before this; I had a wall built."

Chris Smith, a boyish 38-year-old inmate with gentle blue eyes, looks as if he hasn't aged a bit since he came to Brushy in '86. Like Turpin, he came to Kairos at a friend's suggestion. "I had just come into the faith, and he told me it would give me a foundation," he says. Most inmates who come to Kairos have already been saved, but Brushy's Chaplain, Dean Yancy says a fair amount of inmates actually become Christians while in prison. Some of them are seeking forgiveness. "I took a man's life, and I don't know if there's a part of you that can completely forgive yourself. I don't feel like there's any justification for it," says Smith. "But I do feel like the Lord has forgiven me."

Along with many Kairos members, Chaplain Yancy believes that the reasons that the inmates attend Kairos and his daily chapel services aren't important; it's enough that they're there, "in the presence of God's love."

"You have some that come because they really want to worship. Some come because there's nothing better to do. Some come to look at women [a few ministries have female volunteers] and others come to meet their boyfriends," says Yancy. "But who knows, that might get them in the door, and then they find something else."

Lots of inmates express the feeling of being let down and kicked around while out in the real world, perhaps accounting for the commonness of recidivism. So they are naturally drawn to Kairos' and Jesus' message of acceptance and dependability. Turpin recalls the moment he was re-born, saying, "I picked up the Bible again

Having something to depend on is one thing, but using religion as a crutch is another. In some ways, being overzealous religiously or being "high on the Lord" seems like just another addiction. What if He does forsake them, and they fall on hard times? Will their conviction be strong enough to prevent them from falling back into the same old traps? Yancy says there is a good chance of this happening if the inmates don't have a support system when they get out.

While Kairos deals mostly with prisoners while they are incarcerated, the Focus Ministry, headed by Steve Humphreys at the two Brushy sites, splits its time between being in the prison and helping prisoners once they get out. Focus volunteers visit five county jails in East Tennessee on a regular basis, holding one-on-one counseling, Bible studies, life-skills classes, anger-management classes, and one popular Christian-based support group called "Experiencing God." In addition, Focus follows up with prisoners and guides them while integrating back into society.

"The guys that enter our program when they get out of prison sign a contract saying we'll help them with certain things if they stay on the right track," says Humphreys. "Guys in our program have a recidivism rate of about 14 percent, compared to the normal 75 percent in Tennessee."

Michael Grant, a Focus participant who was released from prison this March, calls his first few weeks out "surrealistic, it's like being in the twilight zone." Grant calls himself "an AIDS survivor" and credits his faith in God with reverting his disease from full blown AIDS to his current status as HIV-positive. Throughout his ordeal, he says he depended on God "wholly and completely. At first, I did not have any faith that I could live. When I prayed, I was just begging for a year or two. But God often exceeds our expectations, and in my case, he certainly did." He's had steady health since his recovery in 1998.

Grant is still involved with Focus as both a participant and a lay minister, visiting sick inmates and counseling them. Many of them have little faith and feel that their lives are worthless. "[God] doesn't fix things overnight," says Grant. "He begins with the baser emotions like anger. It's a long walk, and it has its up and downs."

Lonnie Gregg, a jolly, white-whiskered Focus volunteer, has been told his "walk" would end three times over the past decade by doctors giving him a year to live. He sees himself as living proof of God's miracles, saying resolutely, "I believe God has a purpose for me." In addition to Focus, Gregg is involved with the Christian Motorcyclists Association, which works with a program started by former football great Bill Glass called Champions for Life. The program travels across the country, bringing variety shows complete with a brigade of bikes, elephants, racecars and sports heroes like Roger Staubach and Tom Landry into prisons.

"Lots of prisoners don't come up here to the chapel because they think it's full of hypocrites or people trying to hide behind a sex crime," explains Gregg. "So we bring this out in the yard where they're more comfortable. They will come to see the bikes, and then we have a window to talk to them." Gregg says that Champions saved 60,000 inmates last year alone.

The prison system doesn't only affect inmates; it leaves many husbands, wives, parents and kids of inmates feeling alone in their struggle. At a recent weekend put on by Kairos Outside, a ministry for women with loved ones on the inside, one tearful woman [Kairos leaders asked that personalities be kept anonymous] said, "Sometimes I feel I'm the only one with problems, but I found this weekend that we all have our burdens to bear, and I'm not alone."

Like Kairos Inside, Kairos Outside prioritizes non-judgment. "The world has its rejection and criticism," says one woman who looks like a well-to-do suburban mom. "Having a son that has his problems, I always hear, 'It's how he was brought up.' But here, there was no criticism. It was all love."

Kids are the focus of Kairos Torch and its subgroup, Lockdown on the Outside. Torch is similar to Kairos Inside and Outside, embarking upon weekend retreats inside facilities for youthful offenders. While ministering through Torch, Thurman Kinnebrew came up with the idea for Lockdown on the Outside, which is a sort of boot camp that exposes at-risk kids in the community to the harsh realities of prison. While at a Torch weekend, Kinnebrew says, "The spirit spoke to me and it said, 'If you do this on the outside, you won't have to do it on the inside.'"

Torch recruits kids through pamphlets posted at local YMCA's, Boys and Girls Clubs and Rec Centers. Though the program is directed toward "at-risk" kids, Kinnebrew points out, "Every young person out there is at risk. That's a misconception that only a certain population is at-risk."

While none of the programs at Brushy Mountain receive federal or state funds yet, more and more faith-based grants are becoming available. InnerChange, a state-funded program that began in Texas, controls entire wings of various prisons in four different states. With the success of InnerChange and growing leniency toward separation of church and state with regard to funding, many volunteer organizations are looking into acquiring federal grants. Jim Muir, who volunteers for both Focus and Kairos, says, "All the money comes from the church. We have tried to avoid government funding. But lately we have looked at applying for the government's faith-based grants. For example, we eventually want to set up a faith-based halfway house."

Unlike the state-paid chaplains at Tennessee prisons, who are required to cater to all religions, InnerChange is strictly Christian. As of now, Tennessee's chaplains, like Yancy, must be prepared to deal with Native American religions, Muslims, Wiccans, Hindus, etc. Even Focus and Kairos, though primarily staffed by Christians, call themselves "ecumenical," meaning they are welcoming and tolerant of all denominations as well as members of other faiths. "I try not to carry a particular denomination," says Muir. "I just say, 'let's talk, let's listen to you.' They're attracted to this because many of them have never been taken seriously before."

One-way programs like InnerChange justify getting government funding is by claiming to reduce recidivism rates, thus providing a service to society. Likewise, Humphreys says that Focus inmates who stick with the follow-up plan have a recidivism rate of 14 percent, versus the 75 percent statewide. But recidivism rates are tough to calculate, as the "revolving door" phenomenon of inmates going in and out of prison changes constantly. There is no way to know whether the particular inmates involved in these programs, unless they keep in contact by their own will, have fallen back into the same old routine or have resisted it.

Because of the idea that involvement in religious programs reduces the likelihood of recidivism, religious affiliation would seem to help inmates when they go before the parole board. Jack Elder of the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole in Nashville says that many programs, including but not limited to religious ones, can appeal to parole boards. "Any evidence that an inmate can show that they've improved themselves in any way can help them," he says.

Many are more insistent upon religious programs' effect on parole boards, crediting God with providing miracles. "I believe that God will open the door," says Turpin on the question of whether he'll make parole. "The legal system can say what it wants, but I've seen people who've walked out of here with life sentences and they loved God."

Prisoners come to religious programs for various reasons, but nearly all of the volunteer ministers expressed the same reason for devoting so much time to these programs—a calling. "We were all called here," says Meyer. "Nobody's here by chance. Whether by a small voice in your head or the loud voice of a friend, we were all called here."

But what, exactly, does the calling ask them to do? Judith Anna, a retired clergy member of the Methodist faith and Kairos Outside volunteer, says, "In a sense, we need God to have a skin on—to come in the form of a person. Sometimes we get the privilege of being that skin."

There's also a desire among lay ministers to practice what they preach and become "active servants of the Lord," Gregg says. "Churches are full of people sitting in pews and not knowing how to share their faith."

Some would argue, like the "no atheists in a foxhole" logic, that prisoners are turning to God as a last resort, a way to fill up idle time, or even as a get-out-of-jail-free card at the parole board. And that's certainly a possibility, given the monotonous, depressing nature of prison life.

Upon seeing the elation on the faces of prisoners after the Kairos weekend during which they were immersed with other people in a safe, non-judgmental environment, one can't help but question the ideology behind the prison system. If "corrections" facilities are really supposed to prepare inmates to re-embark into society, why does it focus so heavily on isolation?

It's not necessarily the religious aspects of these programs that the inmates are so starved for. Sure, love, acceptance and forgiveness are part of many different religious faiths, but they are also simple humanitarian gestures.

More than anything, the inmates who participate in these programs are set apart from others in the prison yard by their restored sense of pride. DeElizer Sharp, an eight-year inmate with an incandescent smile, talks about how Kairos has changed the way other prisoners perceive him. "They will look at us and say, 'Why are they smiling? They're locked up.' They're paying attention to our actions. I have a bunch of them that look up to me and ask questions. They'll say, 'How can I get that joy?' It's easy, you just gotta surrender."

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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