On Christmas Eve, an inmate with a shaved head and a white jumpsuit walked up to me carrying a clipboard.
“Um sorry, I just need you to initial this,” he said. “It tells the State of Texas you’re aware that, if there’s a riot and you get taken hostage, they won’t negotiate for your release.”
“Oh, ok,” I said. Scribble, scribble.
Walking through gate after locked gate topped with loops of razor wire, a guard named Rose told us attendance would be high for our Christmas Eve service because “there were females” – a skeezy bit of information I could have done without. But Rose, I suspect, doesn’t suffer Christian naiveté well and didn’t want a bunch of happy, clappy dopes milling around the yard hugging inmates for Jesus.
“Ladies, these are murderers, rapists and drug addicts and some of them haven’t seen a woman in years,” she said.
What am I doing here? is a fine question to ask when entering a medium security prison full of maximum security offenders, but I’ve found, if I’m really following Jesus closely, I’m bound to wind up in prison or under a bridge in Long Beach, or on Skid Row in LA or in the Zambian bush.
My friend Beth is an author and despite being single, childless and never incarcerated, she co-wrote a book for men in prison, teaching them how and why to pray for their children. She goes to prisons to give her book away, but this unit is a little different, a little scarier, so she asked Sam and me to come too.
“They don’t deserve it,” Sam hollered as I was talking him into it. “Those people have killed people, they are in prison for a reason.”
Of course he’s right and so is Rose. They don’t deserve visitors on Christmas Eve. They don’t deserve mercy. They don’t deserve grace.
And neither do I.
But I got it anyway, and isn’t that the good news of Christmas?
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” says the Apostle Paul. “Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins.” Romans 3:24
Inside the gym, two guards sit above the crowd in something like lifeguard stands. In the corners are cages with doors that open only to the outside. Guards hunch in them with tear gas canisters and rubber bullets in their guns, while a few other guards mill around the room. Should these ten or so people lose control of the nearly 500 inmates, their only choice is to slam the doors and lock the building down with everybody, including us, inside.
That idea was intolerable to Sam.
“Listen,” he said to Beth and me as we sat quietly in the speaker chairs up front. “Nothing’s going to happen, but if it does, I want you to run into the corner by the guard cage. There’s not much I can do but get my ass kicked while taking a few of them out.”
Then he trotted to the back door, where he, Steve and Jeff shook hands with every inmate as they filed in – an experience Sam later described like a dream sequence for all the things he could see in their faces. Their gratitude shocked him though. “Oh my God,” he said. “You can’t imagine how happy they are we’re here.”
Lots of churches, either by omission or design, teach that following Jesus is a long exercise in securing personal blessing – more safety, more comfort, more happiness – but that isn’t really what the gospel says.
Jesus said, six times, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me.” He also said, “I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.“
Beth is small and soft-spoken but the Holy Spirit swirls around her like mist, and when she took the stage, the room went dead silent. I mean you’ve never heard such silence. She talked so plainly about prayer and the love of God, that when she finished, the men leaped to their feet and roared for her. Many of them sat right down and began reading her book.
Then Steve got up and asked an inmate in the first row his name.
Steve read John 3:16 like this:
“For God so loved Cory, that He gave His only begotten Son, that if Cory believes in Him, Cory shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge Cory, but that Cory might be saved through Him.…”
Cory has already been judged and is living the brunt of that verdict, but as the prison worship band played, I watched Cory close his eyes and sing about Jesus, holding his hands over his heart as through it might break. The band got louder and the voices grew stronger until the singing of 485 men got so loud, I couldn’t hear my own voice.
I need you Jesus to come to my rescue, where else can I go? There’s no other name by which I am saved. Oh capture me with grace, I will follow you. – New Song
Can you imagine this? Hundreds of men, the worst of the worst, locked up in one of the unholiest, meanest places in the State of Texas, worshiping Jesus with their hands in the air, creating such a joyful noise that the room was nearly vibrating. I have no doubt we captured ground in that dark place.
I prayed for those men and the countless people they’ve hurt. Then I prayed for the people who hurt them first, setting them up for this heinous cycle of death and destruction – the very cycle Jesus interrupted.
He crushed it people. Redemption is here. It’s our choice to live like we believe it.