The Time I Went to Church in Prison
God is literally everywhere. I sit and reflect on one of the most spectacular experiences of my life. I sat in a prison’s chapel, filled with hundreds of men dressed in white jumpsuits, and gave praises to Jesus Christ for four hours. Here are some of the takeaways.
There is a malicious spirit in law enforcement. From the prisoners to the jailers, perception of life for them has been darkened because of this profession. Criminals and cops deal with each other every day, and no one is happy about it. Though prison is supposed to be about rehabilitation and justice, I couldn’t help but find myself asking, “How many of these prisoners are truly innocent, and how many of these officers are truly evil?”
As someone fresh into this industry, I picked up on how much life these careers suck out of you. On one end, bad decisions resulted in imprisonment from months to decades to the rest of their lives. On the other end, good people find themselves only seeing the worst of society day in and day out. It is hard to be of good cheer in places like these, but nothing is impossible.
I saw this firsthand as we were escorted into the chapel of the prison. What I expected were defeated men and agitated officers. I expected them all to be disinterested in our little church group coming to sing a few songs, preach a sermon, and do charity work, but God opened the jail cell and opened my eyes to the men, the people, the individuals, and brothers of His kingdom.
When I entered the chapel, I first noticed the inmates designated to operate the event. These were some of the kindest men. They understood our potential fears of them and made sure to present themselves kind and willing to serve. They shook our hands, directed us to our seat, and served us water. They weren’t overbearing. They were welcoming and excited about our visit.
There were murals painted all over the chapel. There were images of Jesus, baptism, acts and wonders, the cross, and many worshipping the Lord. The second I sat in my chair, I no longer felt like I was in a prison, but I was in a church. We were here to worship the Lord in unison. We weren’t there so that they could spend extra time away from a cell.
The service started, and wouldn’t you know it, they had their own choir and band. They weren’t the most talented. That was obvious. However, they were truly intentional. They felt the love of God in the depths of their hearts, and their passion bested many of the praise teams I’ve seen in my life. This wasn’t about performance. There was a choir director and they were very much on cue with their music, but that wasn’t their top concern. They weren’t doing the routine Sunday service, they were enjoying their time praising the Lord with their guests.
Their passion gave room for the Holy Spirit to enter. I found myself overwhelmed. The Church really isn’t a building, but a people, and these people were truly brothers, not criminals, not prisoners, nor bad people. They were brothers. For the next three hours, I treated them that way. Not looking down on them, but appreciating them, wanting the best for them, and praying for them.
One of the more recent challenges from God to me dealt with this. I work in an industry where people commit some of the strangest and most disgusting crimes you could ever read about. It is very easy to look down your nose at them because you haven’t done the things they’ve done, or been incarcerated. However, God asked me, “How about you stop looking at what to judge as bad, evil, or despicable, and you stay in your lane and pray for these people?”
I couldn’t argue with God over this. They were people, and I only know a name, an age, and an offense against the law. I don’t know their background, their upbringing, their circumstances, nor even if they are guilty of what they have been charged with. So who was I to say this or that person was evil? The most challenging were the ones that dealt with crimes against children. Some of those people could’ve been in that chapel, giving praise to the Lord.
The service wasn’t about anything our church could do for them. It was about giving God a space to do His work. It was about placing a seed that He could water, tend to, and grow. It also wasn’t about the church planting a seed. It was about the church and the prison exchanging seeds. We got to see their humanity, humility, passion, gratitude, and their love. They got to see our willingness, servitude, and our love. Love, as defined by God, was exchanged between us.
When the service ended, we gave out soap, juice, cookies, and pamphlets with scriptures inside. I stood there as brothers in white helped served brothers in white. It reminded me of a very delightful scene I read in Revelation 7:9-17:
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!” Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, “they are before the throne of God and serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence. ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them,’ nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘He will lead them to springs of living water.’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’
These men, these humans, these children of God. They too will inherit the kingdom of God. It will not be unfair. It will be just, for God will have forgiven them by the blood of Christ, as He has forgiven all of us.
I felt every ounce of that forgiveness in the many ‘God bless you’s I received. Some cried, some gave their life to Christ, and some were relieved. Nothing is perfect. Everyone wasn’t passionate, or thankful, or welcoming. For some, it simply was a time away from prison, but that doesn’t negate the seed planted in them nor the seed planted in me.
dI look forward to that day where former prisoners, former officers, and former church volunteers will all gather together free from all this pain, suffering, and evil. We’ll gather to a place where we won’t harm one another anymore, but we’ll celebrate the God who forgave us. Our guilt will no longer hang over our heads. There won’t be chains of incarceration, judgment, sin, guilt, shame, piety, fear, or anything alike these things. It will be peace amongst all men and women, and peace between us and God.