“Kairos ministry seeks the lost at Lieber prison"
Jennifer Berry Hawes
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Jennifer Berry Hawes is a feature writer at The Post and Courier, the daily newspaper in Charleston, SC, where she covers faith and values in a town nicknamed the Holy City. She has won numerous state and national awards for her writing including the national Cornell Reporter of the Year for religion coverage and the South Carolina Journalist of the Year. A graduate of Roosevelt University in Chicago, she has worked as a daily newspaper writer for more than 20 years.
When the men arrive, darkness cloaks the parking lot at Lieber Correctional Institution, home to hundreds of inmates condemned to death or life behind the razor wire for the horrible crimes they committed.
The 65 volunteers line up single file beneath the silvery glow of a full moon awaiting their turns to be scrutinized by the Ridgeville prison’s security guards. Some quietly sip coffee. Others greet old buddies. A few pray.
Two of them used to worship together at a Summerville church until theological disputes split the congregation. They greet each other warmly, differences aside, united this predawn hour to spread Jesus’ core teaching of forgiveness.
They, like their Christian brethren, believe that Jesus was killed as a sacrifice that opened the doors of salvation to all, even the most heinous of sinners. Even murderers and child molesters and rapists — if they truly repent. If they believe in him.
These volunteers comprise the 50th Kairos Prison Ministry International group to enter Lieber’s towering gates to serve what Jesus called “the least among us.” An ecumenical lot, some have volunteered with Kairos for all the 25 years it has been allowed inside the prison.
“We are fishers of men,” says volunteer Billy Gaines, a past state Kairos chairman and member of John Wesley United Methodist in West Ashley.
They are about to fish from 42 inmates taking part in this Kairos weekend.
A few will taste freedom again. Some are model prisoners; others are gang leaders.
Sugar and song
At 7 a.m. sharp, the Rev. James Cuttino steps from the prison’s chapel, a simple vinyl-sided building built by volunteers, to count the inmates he chose to take part in this three-day Kairos weekend.
A tall man with a commanding voice, Senior Chaplain Cuttino coordinates the prison’s diverse religious offerings and its roughly 200 volunteers. He shows the inmates where to stand.
In identical tan jumpsuits with SCDC emblazoned across their backs, the inmates converge on a patch of grass as the sun rises.
Most are young or middle-age with shaved heads or buzz cuts. Two look withered with age. One wears a bright pink jumpsuit, public notice that he committed a sexual offense while here.
About 1,450 inmates are housed at Lieber. They have become numbers, lost and largely forgotten except by those whose lives they left in ruins.
When the count ends, they file into the white chapel toward the sanctuary doors.
The Kairos men are lined up inside to greet them. They begin to sing and clap in time, their deep voices filling the room with a burst of joy that at first seems completely out of place.
This is the day. This is the day that Lord has made!
The volunteers, clergy and laity of all stripes, smile and greet the inmates with song and handshakes. Several reach out to hug the man in pink. Because here, for now, for this one weekend, these inmates are not society’s scourge.
They are not forgotten.
They may even be forgiven.
At first, the inmates look wary as they enter the row of singing men. But then some smile. A few grin wide and sing along. They accept the offered hugs.
This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!
It’s a strange moment, one of contrasts, in this realm of rules and locks and steel. Most of the inmates have not been embraced, not in a gracious and gentle manner, in a very, very long time.
Inside the chapel, beneath florescent lights, the volunteers and inmates all head for round tables laden with sugary drinks and homemade cookies.
Sure, the Kairos men wish these inmates came solely to receive their message of salvation. But in reality, many come just for the 7,000 dozen homemade cookies Kairos always brings.
Then again, if fishing for these souls requires the bait of sugar and flour, so be it.
No one refused
Up front, a large wood cross and a picture with the word FORGIVEN greet the inmates.
Frank Sanders, an Anglican priest with thick grey hair and a shirt that matches the prison jumpsuits, offers a sermon to start things off.
Most of the inmates listen respectfully. A few yawn. Several ask for more drinks or cookies. Two inmates snicker together.
No one hushes them.
Like Jesus, “We’ve been betrayed,” Sanders says. He describes building tall, thick walls to protect ourselves.
“But it’s lonely in there,” he adds. “We would like someone to love us just as us.”
Sanders tells the story of Peter, a disciple who disowned Jesus but repented and was forgiven.
“No one has ever requested mercy and forgiveness from God and been refused,” Sanders says.
“Jesus is reaching out to you in this Kairos.”
He pauses and glances up.
“Are you tired of just serving (time) with that ache in your gut?” he asks.
When he leads the group in a closing prayer, only a few inmates bow their heads.
But when he steps down, the room sits in attentive silence.
Life at Lieber
Inside Lieber’s circular barbed wire stretches a complex of austere brick buildings surrounding a courtyard. A web of sidewalks connects them all.
One building houses a library and a law library. The chaplain hopes to add a faith-based library next. Another houses a woodworking shop where select inmates learn skills and build quality furniture.
But most of the brick buildings are “dorms,” a euphemism for a cluster of concrete cells with thick metal doors.
The dorms are wide, open rooms with two floors of cells lining walls that surround a central gathering spot.
Inside the Character Dorm, concrete columns bear the words Responsibility and Trustworthiness. Here, men who have proven themselves enjoy some freedoms. Their cell doors aren’t always locked. They can take classes.
Mostly middle-age and older, these men sit quietly on benches in the central gathering area. An elderly man sits in a wheelchair, a reminder of what life in prison without parole means.
If only all the dorms could operate this way.
But they cannot. Because not all inmates behave this way.
Down a few buildings sits the Ashley Dorm, home to the most dangerous inmates outside of Death Row. The two floors of steel doors sit closed and locked, their respective inmates inside.
Most of the men who live in Ashley are younger than 30.
Eyes glare out of the narrow windows in each door. Men pound on them, scream obscenities and other notions that careen off the concrete block walls. The central gathering area sits vacant.
“This is a population that is lost,” Cuttino says.
Damon Dash was nearly lost, too. The former inmate, now a Kairos volunteer, steps onto the chapel’s stage.
“I made a choice many years ago not to get a job and to become what you’d call a stick-up man,” Dash admits. “But I learned from my choice.”
In prison, lots of choices are made for these men: when and what to eat, when to go outside, when to wake.
But much hangs on even a few choices.
“Whatever choice you make — good or bad — it’s going to affect your life. Most of us are witness to that today,” Dash says in a tough street cadence that reminds some inmates of the families they rarely, if ever, see.
Choices affect everyone.
“You suffer, and they suffer. You understand that?” he asks pointedly.
Murmurs of yes abound.
“Today is a new day!” Dash says. “And you made the right choice by coming here.”
“Amen!” someone hollers as he leaves the stage.
The inmates and volunteers at each table convene to discuss choices that brought them to this moment. Each table is called a “family” and given names like St. Paul and St. John. The inmates are grouped by their cell units with hopes they will take intentions to serve Christ back with them.
Dash heads to a quieter area where three people begin to pray over him. Because Damon Dash, former inmate, made a decision today, too. He came to help these men.
The weekend is filled with opportunities for volunteers to pray for the inmates. They talk with them about their past and their future. They talk about how to seek forgiveness.
On Saturday, the inmates open cards made by local children.
Bittersweet tears of thankfulness and anger flow — for the inmates’ own childhoods lost to drugs and violence and for their children, now growing up without them.
Some cry for sheer thankfulness that a child bothered to acknowledge them at all.
With Saturday evening comes the traditional Burning of Memories ceremony. Inmates jot down the worst of their sins on paper and ask for forgiveness.
In past years, the group burned the paper.
Now, they write on dissolving paper for safety reasons.
One man stands before his fellow inmates and tells how by killing another man, he wrecked the lives of the man’s four children. He wrecked his own life. And he wrecked the lives of his own children.
Stories of awful mistakes, loss and regret stack up, merging into their common shared story.
“Some of these guys have done some heinous stuff,” Cuttino says. “That’s where the grace of God comes in.”
Such is prison life
On Sunday, volunteer Mark Thomas arrives.
He must be early. The inmates from his “family” aren’t there yet. He mingles. He keeps an eye out.
They never come.
Finally, he learns their dorm is on lockdown after a fight. Even the men who wanted to complete Kairos today aren’t allowed out.
Thomas shakes his head in disappointment. “They’re such a great bunch of spiritual guys.”
Receiving the cross
Colorful lanyards with small wooden crosses hang from the wooden arms of a giant cross up front.
Bill Riggs, the leader of this Kairos weekend, steps up and summons attention. Each inmate, he explains, will be invited to step up for a blessing and to receive a cross. If he wants it.
“You will be examples for your fellow Kairos members and examples on the yard. People will be curious,” Riggs cautions. Because being a positive example on the yard isn’t easy.
“If you choose to wear this cross, many people will be asking you questions,” Riggs says. “Be thinking about the answers.”
The gentle strumming of an acoustic guitar fills the room. The somber voices of 100 men fill the sanctuary with an unearthliness as the inmates rise to file forward and stand before the chaplain.
He loops a lanyard with a cross around each man’s neck.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
When they step down with their crosses, many head over to embrace the volunteer men they have bonded with.
One inmate walks to the Rev. Rick Luoni, rector of St. George’s in Summerville, and embraces the priest.
“You’re a blessing. I’m really gonna miss you,” the inmate says, his voice quivering.
Behind him, an older inmate tightly embraces the priest next for several long and tearful seconds.
The inmate heads back to his seat, wiping his eyes.
Luoni steps the other way to face a wall, head down, composing himself.
A few inmates don’t speak or acknowledge anyone.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
But none declines a cross.
The next life
Few things drive home the inmates’ need for hope in the afterlife like the death of William Mickey Perryclear.
Sanders, deacon at The Church of the Holy Cross on Sullivan’s Island, asks inmates to stand if Mickey touched their lives.
A good 75 percent rise.
Mickey was convicted of murdering his wife and became an inmate. He also had been a chaplain’s assistant.
He died in August after being denied parole. He had served 22 years in prison.
“They didn’t know Mickey, the new creation,” says Sanders, who supported Mickey at the parole hearing.
“He became the light in one of the darkest of places, Lieber prison,” he says.
Sanders administered Mickey’s last rites when the inmate lay handcuffed to a hospital bed.
Got my back?
Each “family” of inmates is invited up to share a bit about their spiritual conditions. Even those long hardened to prison life look nervous, sheepish even as they approach the microphone.
An inmate named Kevin, an imposing and weathered middle-age man, steps forward.
As a boy, he says he was kidnapped by a man who made him do terrible things and held him hostage for a long time.
“That man was Satan,” Kevin says.
“Now, some of you guys came here looking for cookies.” The inmates chuckle, and a few raise their hands in guilt.
“But I came here looking for more than cookies. I came here looking for answers,” Kevin says.
The laughter hushes.
“I’m gonna need everyone in here when we get out onto that yard,” he says, choking up.
The inmates from his “family” stand nearby and bow their heads. They, too, know that back in the general population the words “Christian” and “salvation” don’t win a man hugs and handshakes.
Kevin fights back tears.
“One of the hardest things to do is to cry in front of another man. But one of the hardest things also is to hold back a tear from the heart,” he says, quickly stepping down. When he reaches his chair again, men around him pat him on the back.
But will they defend him in the yard?
Down the toilet
Tommy has been on the yard for 11 years. He’s here for murder, serving life without parole. He attended Kairos years ago.
He imitates those who came for “ooooo them cookies!”
“But by Wednesday, them cookies all gonna be flushed down the toilet,” he says. “Y’all been to the mountaintop this weekend! But this is real serious. It’s your life.”
He knows that saying the right words in chapel is a whole lot easier than out in the general population. It’s why he turns to God every day.
“It gets rough around here. These guys, they done gave you cookies and sung you songs right up to the front line of a battle! Now you got to endure hardness like a good soldier.”
As Tommy steps down, the inmates rise in a somber standing ovation.
One after another, inmates sound the same appeal. One man was stabbed in his first six months on the yard.
“You guys know how tough it is in here. Keep this with you. Don’t leave it at the door,” he begs.
Another has been here 27 years. He barely looks 40.
“This is our family here,” he appeals. “We’re going to have to support each other. Not just today but every day.”
Up steps an inmate named Greg. He was one snickering and talking on the first day. With a winsome baby smile, Greg barely looks like an adult.
“We all go through pain and emotional rollercoasters,” he says. “But God allowed me to come here.”
He only came to Kairos because of Rico, a hearing-impaired inmate he’s been signing for. Greg tries to thank his friend verbally but chokes up.
Rico hurries forward.
They embrace for a long time, their fellow inmates watching, a dense silence enveloping this very personal moment.
“Thank you,” Greg finally signs to his friend.
Few of these men will know freedom again. But if a man’s soul lives forever, their freedom may yet come.
The Kairos team will return every Thursday to reinforce what happened this weekend. It is called The Journey because everyone knows rage and loneliness will tempt these men to stray no matter how committed they feel now. No other prison offers this continuing support.
Lieber doesn’t track Kairos attendees to see if it reduces discipline problems, although the chaplain estimates 70 to 80 percent of those who complete Kairos attend chapel after it’s over.
But before these men return to their dorms and the yard and all that is daily life in maximum-security prison, they amass in a thick and winding chain of humanity, arms around one another.
With all heads bowed, Riggs prays.
“When they stumble, pick them up,” he says. “Let them know your presence is always there, that there is only one thing that endures.”
A guitar strums and voices again fill the chapel with the sounds of humanity that, despite what these men have done, no matter how long they remain locked up, they still can claim.
I have decided to follow Jesus;
No turning back, no turning back.
Published in The Post and Courier, October 6, 2013 (Charleston, SC)
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