Doing Time

Since November of last year, I’ve been spending every Friday morning at the county jail.  Voluntarily.  When I began, the jail chaplain indicated that sometimes he brought donuts as an incentive to get the guys interested in coming to something he offers.  So I told him I’d take care of bringing the donuts.  I proceeded (and continue) to bring them every week.  Once every couple of months I bring extra for the guards as a thank you for their help in announcing the class each week and doing the necessary paperwork and double-checks to get the guys to the classroom and back.   

I was told that the guys who are in there for substance abuse issues – which many of them are – typically are developmentally delayed.  In other words, whenever they started using & abusing their substance(s) of choice, that’s when their intellectual, emotional, and psychological development stopped.  I was encouraged to bring videos and other materials that would help keep their interest.
I have a hard time popping in a video and kicking back.  And it would have required me finding videos that I surmised would be appropriate and interesting.  
Being lazy, I didn’t do that.  I just talk.  And listen.  And talk some more.  Not exactly a stretch for a pastor, to be true.  It started with eight or nine men and has grown to 18.  I developed a 7-week curriculum that just loops over and over again.  There are a mix of guys each week, so that some are familiar while others are first time attendees.  Some of the guys I see pretty regularly during their stay at the jail.  Others appear and disappear quickly, sort of like the donuts.  My goal in starting this was to build relationships.  To spend enough time with whatever guys were willing to share their time with me, so that there might be a relationship of trust developed whereby they might clearly hear the Gospel.  
A few months into it, the chaplain chuckled that I was still at it.  I discovered that donuts in the jail are rather an anomaly.  I never intended to set a precedent, I just was trying to take his advice!  I also found out that there weren’t any other chaplains doing this sort of thing.  The jail website indicates that they work with 60-some chaplains from the area providing a host of services to the inmates.  But I was the first (and only one) to begin teaching a class like this. 
Sometimes it pays to be ignorant.  
And since I count ignorance as one of my spiritual gifts, I suggested to the jail chaplain recently that I’d like to bring in copies of Luther’s Small Catechism to give to some of the guys looking for more focused Christian teaching.  And because the Holy Spirit was working strong through my ignorance, I also suggested offering a second class at the jail emphasizing Christian practice and basic theology, utilizing Luther’s Catechism as the text.  
I assumed it wouldn’t fly.  I was suggesting to offer an even more academic course than the one I was already teaching.  I assumed they would balk at the use of a resource so closely associated with a specific denomination.  I expected to be told that my idea really wouldn’t work and that they couldn’t support it even if it might.
Instead, on Friday I met with the jail chaplain and the person responsible for all of the inmate programming (coursework, classes, presentations, etc.).  Instead of shooting down my idea as implausible, they want to move ahead with it.  Instead of telling me I couldn’t use the Catechism, they’re happy to have me use it.  While I had hinted at my hope that the men who opted to take this coursework would do reading, writing, and memorization between class meetings, the chaplain and the programming director encouraged me to push the men to do so, to set the bar high.   They mused about how they might coordinate getting men from different parts of the facility into an appropriate venue for the class, rather than limiting the offering to just the men considered lower-risk.  
Over the next few weeks & months I’ll be developing the curriculum – first in broad brushstrokes and then in more detail.  Hopefully I’ll be able to begin in the fall.  It’s going to be work, but it’s exciting to have the opportunity.
California law is resulting in state prison inmates being pushed back to local city and county jails to relieve overcrowding issues.  Of course, this results in overcrowding at the local level.  And it results in more guys in tighter quarters, creating a quandry for prison officials as to how to keep them calm and occupied.  It creates the perfect opportunity for congregations interested in establishing jail ministries.  Of course, a great deal depends on the officials in charge of the jails.  I try not to make any assumptions about how long I’ll be allowed to do this sort of thing.  Nor do I try to maintain any illusions that I’m owed this opportunity.  
I’m just glad that I have the chance to put something together that shares the gospel of Jesus Christ with men who need to hear it, and are willing and able to hear it perhaps for the first time.   I’m glad that I get to share the good news with them that the love of Jesus isn’t dependent on them kicking their addictions or shaping their lives up or making amends or doing any number of other highly desirable and good things.  He died for them right where they sit.  
I’m grateful for a parishioner who’s passion for jail ministry and connections with the jail chaplain enabled me to get started.  I’m grateful to the seminary program that placed me in prison ministry for a semester back in St. Louis and opened me up to that type of ministry.  I’m grateful to experiences earlier in life organizing Christian retreats for youth in the juvenile detention center back in Phoenix.  I’m grateful that the Holy Spirit pushes me (and you) into places where we aren’t comfortable and are certain there’s nothing we could possibly contribute or gain, and that oftentimes we’re proved wrong on both counts.  
As stated earlier, I do this to share the Gospel.  Period.  I told my congregational leadership when I began this that this was my goal.  I don’t expect that our congregation will grow through this ministry.  There is no greater purpose than sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with some guys who are aware that they need some Good News.  But I want them to know that I will welcome them gladly if they don’t have another faith community to return to.   In seven months of doing this, I’ve handed out a lot of my business cards to guys, inviting them to look me up when they get out.  I’ve had a lot of guys say they would.  But I’ve never seen one.
Until this past Sunday.   This past Sunday I had the opportunity to shake hands with a guy who was wearing civilian clothes instead of the prison-issue jumpsuit that I had seen him in for several months.  The irony is that the past few weeks the readings have really highlighted the importance of inclusiveness, of recognizing that there is nobody that the body of Christ has the right to reject or ignore.  His presence on Sunday was like a giant exclamation point on months worth of teaching and preaching in a musty prison classroom, as well as recent efforts on several sermons.  Like an undeserved donut, an extra dollop of grace and joy.  
Another reminder of how much I love what I do, and who I do it with and for.  

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