By T.R. Robertson
Shortly after our arrival at the prison chapel, the two-way radios crackle with the announcement: “Release Christian Campus House to the chapel.”
Within minutes a few dozen offenders, as we’re told to call them, come walking across the central prison yard. We actually call them by their first names. We make a point to learn and remember their names, since no one else here offers them that courtesy.
The courts have mandated the prisoners’ freedom to practice their chosen religion. The weekly chapel schedule is filled with a wide variety of offerings in 10 different “fully accommodated” religions. Because this is one of the few areas of their incarcerated life in which they are allowed a choice, many avail themselves of that freedom.
And with that liberty comes a temptation, for some, to expect the chapel volunteers, and even their God, to fully accommodate their wishes and dreams.
First in the door tonight is Rita, a lifer who has been a faithful regular on Mondays for years. With her is Barb, the most recent in a long series of young women she has brought with her to the chapel over those years.
One of the first things a new volunteer learns is that these are not stereotypical movie versions of hardened cons. They’re real people. Rita looks and acts like the grandmas who sit together in the senior saints row at the church back home. Barb looks too young to be in prison, like she should be walking across campus on her way to a small group Bible study in the dorm.
Barb, Rita tells me, has a question, and Rita urges her young friend toward me.
“I’ve been praying for God to give me a better out-date,” she tells me, “I’ve been claiming it in his name every chance I get.”
This isn’t a surprise. Among new seekers in the prison, an early release is by far the number one item requested from the Lord. Unfortunately, it’s also the number one loss leader, as retail marketers would call it. Her choice of words tells me she’s been listening to someone else besides Rita back at the housing unit.
“Rita says I shouldn’t count on that happening. But God has forgiven me, right? And if my crimes are washed away, then why wouldn’t he give me a quick out-date?”
I explain to Barb that God has indeed forgiven her, but the state of Missouri may have other ideas on the matter. I tell her there are consequences in this life for our choices, and some of those don’t just disappear because of God’s forgiveness.
“God is someone real, who wants what’s best for you. He’s not a vending machine. You can’t just drop in the appropriate prayer and out drops what you want.
“One of the toughest things you’re going to have to work through in your young faith is deciding what you’re going to do if—or when—God doesn’t give you that early out-date. Some will turn their back on him and walk away. Others let the disappointment drive them deeper in their understanding of God’s heart.”
Rita leads Barb to a seat, and I know she’ll continue to counsel her young friend, following up on the things I’ve said. Rita’s been through this struggle herself, as have many others, whether in the prison or in the local church.
Next at the chapel door is Alice.
Alice immediately wants to know if Steve, another volunteer, has come with us tonight. She’s hoping so, because that would mean he’d be leading worship, and she would have a long time to sit and talk to me. She frowns when I tell her he’s not with us tonight.
Alice has been in and out of prison repeatedly. Every time she’s back on the street she latches onto yet another man who serves as a substitute father. Having heard her stories about the nightmare of growing up with her own father, I easily understand this compulsion. Man after man has taken advantage of her neediness and has led her down yet another broken road.
Alice would monopolize my attention every week if she had her way. Like her middle-class counterparts who are drawn to their local megachurch by the charismatic man up front, she comes week after week seeking my approval. I make sure to greet her by name with a smile, and listen to her, even if only for a moment. She needs to know someone cares.
She does not, however, need me to indulge her fixation. I’m careful to limit our one-on-one time, and constantly urge her to find approval in the Father’s love and grace.
Moving past her, I turn to greet Melanie, her bleached hair teased into extreme side-swept bangs. A moment later, at a discreet distance, her friend Kat follows her into the chapel and they settle into adjoining chairs on the back row.
These two always sit together when they come to the chapel. The former roommates have been split into different housing units, separate work crews, and disconnected mealtime schedules. Their relationship is against the rules of the institution, but the right to exercise their chosen religion trumps that rule.
The corrections officers at the desk outside the chapel door will have noted their arrival. They’ll keep a close eye on them and on any other couples that show up, watching for physical contact. Any violation of the no-touching rule will result in the violator being sent back to the housing unit immediately.
We appreciate the officers’ vigilance, because we share their disapproval of such behavior. On the other hand, we’re glad they’ve come, in spite of their self-serving motives. We welcome them like everyone else, on a casual, first-name basis.
As long as Mel and Kat follow the rules and aren’t a distraction to others in the chapel, we welcome them and do our best to include them in the group discussions, answering even their most challenging questions. We trust the Holy Spirit to make use of whatever portion of the chapel service they happen to absorb.
Just a few months back one young woman told us that our acceptance of her and of her friends as “just another sinner in need of grace” had completely broken her heart and turned her to seek Jesus.
Addicted to Religion
During the worship time, Mel and Kat tend to snicker and chuckle with each other at what they consider great entertainment: watching people like Marie, a highly emotional worshipper, who moves in elaborate physical gyrations as we sing the contemporary Christian songs.
Marie is one of many inmates who desperately try to replace the addictions that landed them in prison with an addiction to a “holy high.” We warn prisoners continually that an overreliance on that religious rush perpetuates the patterns of dependency in their lives. When they get back on the streets, their addictive personality will try to drag them back to the drugs or alcohol that fed their appetite before.
Still, we provide the upbeat, contemporary sort of worship that gets them excited and keeps them coming back for more, just as it does for countless seekers in churches all over America. But like the leaders in many of those congregations, we do our best to focus our teaching in a way that cuts sharply across that emotional high and challenges them to a radical change in their lives.
One of the last to arrive on this evening is Lois, who would actually live in the chapel if she were allowed. She sincerely and desperately wants to change her life, to be a different person from who she was. Toward that goal, she will attend any and all programs on the weekly chapel schedule, if she’s not required to be at her prison job or at some other scheduled activity. She’s like a suburban church shopper, but on a frenzied, 24-7 pace.
As a result, her understanding of God and of the Bible is a tossed salad of every flavor of faith offered in the smorgasbord of the chapel: a mix of Catholicism, Pentecostalism, prosperity gospel, fundamentalism, and a sprinkle of Native American rituals.
Several of the more experienced and levelheaded Christ followers among the chapel regulars have been patiently counseling her toward an approach of depth rather than breadth. The steady daily guidance she gets in their close-knit “cell group” will go farther than anything we can accomplish, until she gets past seeing us as just another side dish.
The prison population is filled with people who have followed the culture’s consumerist obsession to its logical destination, a pursuit that landed them on the wrong side of the law. Now, their lives broken and their hearts hungry, they’re turning toward God. The ingrained habits of a lifetime, though, keep threatening to drag them off course, back to their old ways.
Every Monday night is a tug-of-war. We want to pull them in, to keep them coming. That means a certain amount of “accommodating” their pursuit of happiness. But we can’t afford to settle for that.
Our call is to “proclaim release to the captives.” And so we pull back in the other direction, dragging them slowly away from their “felt needs” and into the true freedom of an abiding relationship with the God who is real.
T.R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.