On April 14, I went behind the razor wire at the Ohio Reformatory for Women to be the hands and feet of Christ…and to deliver 4,000 dozen cookies. It’s a big task but one that God makes possible twice a year in prisons across the country with faithful servants and outstanding community support. I’m sure the Kairos Prison ministry is one of many that bring Christ to the incarcerated, but since it’s my experience, I will share that.
Our team of 50 volunteers met for six weeks to prepare for the mission. We were formed for different roles and, like the body parts referenced in the New Testament, one was not more important than the other. When the 42 reformatory residents entered the chapel retreat center on Thursday evening, they heard applause when they were introduced by name, certainly for the first in a long time and maybe the first time ever.
Each “guest,” as we call them, has a volunteer assigned to welcome and sit with her that first evening and ease her into this transition to the larger group. The next morning when she returns from her cell to the center, she is introduced to her new table family where the real healing of the weekend begins. Let me share a few of the personal moments when I felt God’s glory break through.
Each service area team on the weekend includes “angels.” Residents who have already made their Kairos volunteer to come back and serve their sisters. It is a prayed for privilege since hundreds are eligible to apply and only 15 are chosen by the chaplain. Our Cookie Team had three angels ranging in age from 32 to 49. Each was as different from one another as the three team volunteers assigned this role, but each was coming to serve with her heart and soul. Over the next four days as we prepared beautiful cookie trays for the table families, counted cookies, prepped cookie bags to be taken back to their cells each night by the attendees and moved boxes for distribution to the general population, they opened their hearts and welcomed us into their lives and their stories. They all have stories…. WE all have stories. Sometimes as the stories unfolded, we realized how similar our stories were. “There but by the grace of God go I.”
Each day our cookie team had opportunity for prayer and sharing, the real gift of the weekend. The angels brought their daily devotionals to open each day and their praise music to keep our toes tapping. We prayed over the cookie trays each day before distribution. When I asked them to stop at the door so I could make the sign of the cross over the platters, they asked me about the “x prayer” – “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” I shared. We had great conversations about their questions regarding some Catholic traditions, and one shared from her Native American background. God was so very present in our laughter and our tears.
As a member of the Cookie Team I had two extraordinary opportunities. On Saturday Kairos distributes cookies to each of the nearly 2,800 incarcerated women individually, as well as every staff member and guard. The majority of them are called to the chapel by their dorm unit and enter a room divided alphabetically by last name. As they come forward to receive a dozen homemade chocolate chip cookies made by volunteers across Ohio, they show their prison ID. The ladies are only ever identified by their last name and serial number. To be able to hand them cookies with a sincere heart and say “God bless you” or “Jesus loves you” with their first name, ask about their day, or offer any other small kindness brought some to tears and smiles to all. They felt acknowledged and encouraged. They felt cared for. They felt human. They told us how much it means to know a Kairos weekend is coming up because, even if they aren’t chosen to participate, they know the cookies and the prayers are coming.
Following the general distribution, a corrections officer and our angels escorted us further into the center of the institution. Here I saw the barred doors and the waist high slots below a viewing window for sliding food though. I was warned not to bend down near the opening. We visited the infirmary, the psychiatric unit, the drug and alcohol treatment unit, the intake unit where women are arriving on a weekly basis from across the state. And we visited a woman currently on death row. Words really aren’t adequate for the sadness and desperation I saw in the eyes of some of the women I handed cookies to. Some were unable or unwilling to look us in the eyes, but I tried to engage them and show them respect. I was so grateful to bring the light of Christ into the darkness. I pray each person saw Him smile and bless them. Our angels truly felt like guardians watching over us. I had no fear walking though the compound because I knew by their words and their actions they had grown to love us and felt very protective for our well-being.
On the final evening of Kairos there is a forgiveness ceremony for team and residents alike. The 42 participating for the first time enter the chapel with the table “families” they have created over the retreat, and the rest of the team can organize whatever service they’d like. Our angels asked if our cookie team might hold our own. They planned it. There in a prison classroom, they each read a scripture or reflections about forgiveness, and we sang together. We wrote the names of those we needed to forgive on a piece of paper that dissolved in the living water we had blessed with our presence. The ladies shared that their own name was at the top of the list. Then we passed the peace of Jesus to one another with a hug. When my newest friend who had literally become my guardian angel hugged me, I caught my breath at her words. “Please remember me,” she whispered in my ear. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I thought of the crucifixion scene brought to life. Not because of her crime or my role, but because we all call out “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
I will not forget her. I cannot forget her. The Kairos regulations prevent me from writing or visiting her outside Kairos functions. But you can bet that the monthly reunions when we can visit will be a high priority on my calendar. And I teased her that she better be there because I know where she lives if I have to come looking for her.
Prison ministry is life giving. In this Year of Mercy it is essential. If anyone would like to know more about opportunities for Sisters and Associates, just let me know. Christ is counting on us, and we are saving lives – one cookie at a time.