Thursday, August 23, 2007
The Prison Bible Study
Friday nights, seven to eight. This is the end of the line before getting out for these guys. Very minimum security: many work regular jobs during the day, and get hauled back to spend the night.
Still, the guards treat it like it is prison. There is a kind of false toughness to their communications with the inmates: regularly reminding them who they are and where they came from. We still own you. And in all fairness, some of these guys come from some nasty crimes, and all of them have badly erred. Mostly, this isn't their first time around the block.
Friday nights we meet in one of the basement rooms, chat a bit about our week, and dig deeply into scripture. These are primarily African Americans, black guys. Sweet, sobered by the years behind bars and the apprehension of getting out, they have their own prison language that takes some getting used to. It isn't foul language; just specialized. I have to ask for translations often.
Our chats often have to do with former members of the Bible study who are out, and how they're doing. Too, too many times, it is about how they are back in again, and in a nastier climate than when they left. "He won't be coming back here again any time soon." Cocaine seems to be the common regret and challenge. Many of these guys come from strong church backgrounds but got into trouble with drugs. Many have families awaiting their release.
So it is the law which tends to hang on their consciences. And when confronted with God's Law, their instinct often is to try to fulfill it on their own. "If I just do this, and live this way, and don't screw up, maybe..." So we spend a lot of time and focus on just what primary purpose the Law has--how it kills any hope in ourselves we may have-- how we can't fulfill it. These guys understand total depravity, but some of them have failed a lot of times. When I get out, will I blow it again? I'm not getting any younger.
James and Alan--we call him Scaggs--were moved from Wisconsin's overcrowded prisons to Mississippi a few years ago, where they met. "We had us a reVIVal! We got saved in Mississippi!" cried James. Alan is a short, broad, intense man. Unredeemed and on the street, he'd scare me. Somewhere along the line he saw the movie JESUS OF NAZARETH; watched it forty times and memorized every line. He's referred to it a hundred times in the past year. Much of it is scripture, so it's good.
The challenge is for the pure gospel: that they hear it; receive it. Too often they mistake the law for the gospel. They aren't receiving the sacrament, which grieves me. And the chances when they get out of receiving it rightly aren't really very good. We talk about their getting out: finding a church and a group of friends who will support them in new ways; finding a Bible study to be in; staying in the Word. You can pray for these guys. Alan, James, Jeffrey, Julius, Mike.
There is a lot of turnover. I'll arrive and one of them will announce he's getting out Tuesday. Always Tuesdays. I ask him then about his situation: where he's going, if he's got a place to stay. A few times we've arranged for one or another to receive funds for food and clothing from Thrivent, the Lutheran insurer. I give them a business card and encourage them to call. This is not strictly kosher, but then what kind of friend have I been if I won't see them after they have left prison?
We end standing, hands clasped , in prayer. After the extemporaneous stuff, we recite together the Lord's Prayer. These guys get excited in prayer, with a lot of amens and thank you Lords. I've been trying to get them to slow down with the Lord's Prayer, to say and think of it meaningfully.
And so we meet weekly. Sometimes there is only one inmate that shows up. Often Alan will go off for five minutes, and return with two or three very sheepish inmates, Bibles in hand, clearly just off the basketball court or up from a nap. But their Bibles are always incredibly marked up, underlined, annotated.
Alan, the enforcer! From the picture above, I'll let you guess just which one he is!