Worship with the Homies

When the COVID lockdown began 18 months ago, a group of guys in one of the units of the jail decided to hold their own Bible Study and worship service. Every person in the unit is a former gang member — but from a number of different gangs — even rivals. So there is hispanic, black, white, and asian — all gathered together for worship. I recently joined them for one of their Friday night services.

In some ways it is like attending church in a developing nation. The service starts when everyone is ready and it lasts until everyone is done. There are multiple sermons, songs, and testimonies. It is raw and real.

Much of the music was written by the guys. The musical instruments consisted of the security grate on an air vent and a plastic chair – both used for percussion.

Some of the guys have extraordinary voices. There were solos as well as songs where the entire group to joined in singing. Rap is their favorite style so there were several rap performances as well. Some have been setting the Psalms to rap.

The first sermon was given by “D” who talked about the gang live versus the Christian life. I’ll share some of the highlights:

  • Becoming a gang member starts with getting jumped-in. This consists of a series of beatings over a set period of time by a certain number of members to see if the initiates are tough enough to join the gang.
  • Becoming a Christian starts with getting saved. Getting saved is a free gift, from God to us, that includes forgiveness of our sins, eternal life, and entrance into heaven through Jesus Christ.
  • Gang members have juntas – hanging out together
  • Christians have fellowship
  • Being in a gang means being driven by hate and fear
  • Being a Christian means being driven by love and forgiveness
  • Gang members are associated with gang signs, tattoos, guns, and fights
  • Christians are associated with praise, prayer, and the laying on of hands (but in a good way)
  • The gang demands a member give up their life for the gang
  • In Christianity Jesus gave up His life for us
  • Following the gang ultimately leads to death
  • Following Jesus leads to eternal life

He explained that when Christians look at the gang life it seems like something scary. But for the gang member looking at the Christian life it also looks very scary. Gang members are told to avoid church because it is poison.

In gang life if someone hurts you, your gang, or your family you are supposed to respond with retaliation, revenge, and retribution. But Christians are to respond with love and forgiveness. Gang members have a hard time understanding how much courage is needed to respond with forgiveness. It takes far more courage to love and forgive than it does to hate and retaliate.

Next another man shared. He’s had a long history of anger and violence, but he is changing through the grace of God. Recently he’d received word that his little brother had been shot. In his past he would have immediately sought to find and punish those responsible or their family. Now he was instead being called on to forgive.  Many men gathered around him, prayed for him, and encouraged him.

We finished the night with more sermons, worship, and prayer.

But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” John 4:23-24

Gratitude

“Gratitude to God is to accept everything, even my problems, with joy.”
Mother Teresa

I learned more about gratitude today. I met with R again this afternoon. This is a man who has spent years dealing with mental illness and incarceration, yet he has a spirit of gratitude. He is grateful for the support systems that are there for him. I asked about times of discouragement, and he explained it this way:

Gratitude is our profession — our permanent job. We may go through times of discouragement, but those are like a summer job — here for a bit and then done. We are at peace when we return home and again work at our permanent job of gratitude.

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.
Colossians 3:16

Jail Ministry During a Pandemic

In early 2020 all visits to the jail were suspended due to the Corona virus. For a time the staff chaplains were only allowed to do crisis visits.

I began writing letters to the guys I knew who were in jail or prison. I also sent post cards from various places around the world. A colorful postcard can lighten up an otherwise dreary cell.

After 5 months the staff chaplains were able to do a few one-on-one visits “through the glass”. It is much like what you may have seen on television or in the movies. The two people each sit on opposite sides of the glass and use a telephone to talk to each other.

Bexar County jail moving to video visitation - ExpressNews.com

Through correspondence and the recent chaplain visits we’ve learned that God is still moving even during extended lockdowns.

Shortly before the lock-down began the main jail chaplain had been meeting with a guy who was high up in gang leadership. He told the chaplain he felt like God was telling him to leave the gang, but he wasn’t sure. (I’ve seen this happen at least four times in the past few years.) the chaplain encouraged him to pray about it for clarity.

After the lockdown began the guy sent the chaplain a note saying he’d left the gang. He asked the chaplain to send him Bible study materials. The chaplain has been sending him new studies each week.

The man was transferred to maximum security. He found a few others in max who wanted to do a Bible study together. Obviously, due to corona virus protocols they can’t all sit around a table together. It means each man talking through the slot in the door and listening carefully for the others. For a long time one of the other guys in the max unit was pretty hostile towards the guys doing the Bible study. But eventually that same guy finally asked, “what is it that you guys have that gives you so much peace?” The guy, who had been so hostile, was now ready for a change.

After some time the main jail chaplain was able to meet with one of the guys from the unit where I had been helping with Bible Study before the corona lockdown. As you may recall, we would usually have 9 to 15 guys for Bible Study. Here is what God has been doing in that unit since March.

The Bible study has grown sometimes up to 20 guys and they meet together twice a week. Nine guys were baptized! He said the guys who were baptized went through a study on what it means to be a Christian and what baptism means. Then they filled a small tub with water and dunked their heads! He also said the believers have pooled their commissary items to give to those in need.

The administration began looking at allowing a limited number of volunteers to do one-on-one visits through the glass as well. I did that for quite a few years when I was volunteering at a state prison. Men in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) or administrative segregation could only have through the glass visits.

I was able to visit the jail last Wednesday when the skies of the Bay Area were a Mars-like red due to the wildfires.

I asked for a visit with JS who is in the high-max unit that has the majority of mentally ill inmates. The staff let me know that he was too unstable for a visit. I understand what this means. When we were able to do cell-to-cell visits at times he would be lucid and a delight to talk to. At other times he was completely detached from reality and was extremely unpredictable in his behavior. It would be unwise for them to attempt to move him during one of these episodes.

I was able to meet with A who was dealing with some depression. He finds a great deal of encouragement from the Henri Nouwen quotes that I send him in letters. For example, “Christ invites us to remain in touch with the many sufferings of every day and to taste the beginning of hope and new life right there, where we live amid our hurts and pains and brokenness.”

― Henri J.M. Nouwen, Turn My Mourning into Dancing: Finding Hope in Hard Times

At the end of the visit we prayed for each other.

Next I met with D. We met when I was facilitating the Bible Study in the 5B unit. Shortly after things were shut down due the pandemic he slipped and broke his leg in several places. When his time in the medical unit was complete he was transferred to a different unit in the jail. After our visit last he went back to his cell and prayed that he might be transferred back to the protective custody unit. Three hours later the guard told him to pack his stuff because he was being moved to 5B.

Again, we prayed for each other at the end of the visit. Father Greg Boyle uses the term “mutuality.” He says, “You’re not going out to the margins to reach people; you’re going out to the margins to be reached. Then, just that stance alone allows for exquisite mutuality.”

In a letter I received from R recently he wrote:

”It feels as if my life has been a constant series of painful events. I know now that it is all working for my good, but sometimes I wish my life were easy. I am constantly growing in character such as patience, endurance, love, and acceptance. And I know this has made me into a strong man who is resilient, and not easily discouraged – but I want a life without so many obstacles. I am constantly facing a new mountain that the majority of the time halts my forward progress, but never defeats me. I am fortunate that all these struggles have reinforced my optimism and hope. My brother reminds me that this is not the entire book of my life, but merely a chapter.”

These seem like sound words for all of us as we walk through 2020.

Feces Covered Walls

5-ugly-truths-about-stimulant-psychosisWe visited the high-max unit this afternoon where many of the inmates struggle with mental illness – most commonly psychotic disorders such schizophrenia.

The National Institute of Health describes Psychosis as follows:

What is Psychosis?

The word psychosis is used to describe conditions that affect the mind, where there has been some loss of contact with reality. When someone becomes ill in this way it is called a psychotic episode. During a period of psychosis, a person’s thoughts and perceptions are disturbed and the individual may have difficulty understanding what is real and what is not.  Symptoms of psychosis include delusions (false beliefs) and hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that others do not see or hear). Other symptoms include incoherent or nonsense speech, and behavior that is inappropriate for the situation. A person in a psychotic episode may also experience depression, anxiety, sleep problems, social withdrawal, lack of motivation, and difficulty functioning overall.

Sometimes the men are so lost in their alternate realities they don’t even recognize when we’ve come – instead staring blankly into the distance. A few will engage briefly in conversation but then continue their profanity-laden monologues of paranoia and conspiracies. Sometimes a man will smear feces all over the walls of his cell. The stench can be overpowering.

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I met with one man today who currently believed himself to be Jesus Christ. I’ve met him other times when he is lucid. During those lucid times I’ve found him to be pleasant and intelligent.

This is a challenging unit for the correctional officers (COs) because they are never sure what they are going to encounter. Just because a man was calm and compliant the last time he was moved or checked on doesn’t mean he will be calm or in his right mind the next time. This population has a history of violence towards others and towards themselves.

Because of those risks it took ten years of negotiations with the jail administration to finally get permission to visit this unit every other week. Some might wonder why we bother. There are even days when I wonder.

The philosophy of the worlds says to invest our resources where we see a return on our investment. If we aren’t seeing the return then it is time to move on and invest our resources elsewhere.

The economy of God’s kingdom is different.

Luke 6:32-36 (NIV)

32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

As I visit these men I need to acknowledge them as created in the image of God. I need to see them with the eyes of love and compassion as Christ sees them.

Romans 5:6,8 (NIV)

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly….  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

When we were mentally ill and living in a jail cell with feces-covered walls, Christ died for us.

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Confessions and Healing

For the past six months I’ve been meeting with the guys in one of the cell blocks. Many of the guys are gang dropouts, meaning that they had been active gang members but now no longer wish to be involved with their former gangs. Quite a few have already spent time in prison and have seen that continued involvement in the gangs ultimately leads to incarceration or death.

gangtattoo

There tends to be lower turnover in this unit. Most of the guys currently here were also in this unit six months ago. Because of this stability the men coming to Bible Study have been learning how to become the Church for each other.

Some time back “J” was talking about how God transformed his life. He was convicted a few years ago and is currently serving a prison sentence of 25-50 years. He was back in the jail while portions of his case were on appeal and being reviewed. He went to prison as a hard-core gang member.  But while he was in prison he had a cell-mate (aka as cellie) who had become a Christian while he was in prison. “J” was impressed by how peaceful his cellie was. The man patiently explained how God had transformed his life, and that God could do the same for “J”. He began attending church at the prison. The men in the church were very open and honest about their backgrounds, about how God had helped them, and about the areas where they still struggled. For about half a year “J” just sat in the background as he watched and listened. One day during church one of them men said to “J”, “you’ve heard our stories – now let’s hear about you.” As “J” began to tell his story it brought him tears and healing. He had never before had an experience like that.

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At the jail “J” and some of the other men in the Bible Study shared areas where they still struggled. They shared stories of trauma that still haunted them, and they asked for healing.

You need to understand how much risk these men were taking by sharing these stories. Behind the walls information about others can be used as a tool to control someone, or to exact revenge.

IknowWhatYouDid

By sharing with the group, they were allowing themselves to be vulnerable. They were also trusting everyone else in the group to hold on to this confidential information, and to not share it, or use it as a weapon against those who had laid bare their souls. In the weeks to come the others in the group learned that this was a place of trust and safety. They too began to share their stories, and received healing and grace. They are becoming the Church.

James 5:13-16 (NIV)

13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

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Here is Love

I’ve been able to bring a guitar and have the guys sing a few songs for the Tuesday night Bible Study. There is something special about the singing of the incarcerated. Songs behind the walls take on a powerful character as they become the cry of the human soul.

Holiness, holiness is what I long for
Holiness is what I need
Holiness, holiness is what You want from me

So, take my heart and form it
Take my mind and transform it
Take my will and conform it
To Yours, to Yours, oh, Lord

sanquentin_singing

Occasionally I describe the background of the song. I recently introduced a song that appeared 115 years ago and written in another language, with the opening line:

Dyma Gariad fel y Moroedd

That song was accompanied by a move of God in what is now known as the Welsh Revival.

There were 14 of us gathered as we began to read through the English translation of the words:

Here is love vast as the ocean, Loving-kindness as the flood,
When the Prince of Life, our ransom, Shed for us His precious blood.
Who His love will not remember? Who can cease to sing His praise?
He can never be forgotten  Throughout heav’n’s eternal days.

Deep blue ocean with beautiful sky.

Before we sang the song each man first read a different verse in order to absorb the meaning of the lyrics. Men behind bars and facing the legal consequences of their crimes heard the words:

On the Mount of Crucifixion, Fountains opened deep and wide;
Through the flood-gates of God’s mercy Flowed a vast and gracious tide.
Grace and love like mighty rivers Poured incessant from above;
Heaven’s peace and perfect justice Kissed a guilty world in love.

Men who endured unimaginable suffering and were without hope now heard the words:

Here is love that conquered evil: Christ, the firstborn from the grave;
Death has failed to be found equal To the life of Him Who saves.
In the valley of our darkness Dawned His everlasting light;
Perfect love in glorious radiance Has repelled death’s hellish night.

JailDepression

The music of a song adds a dimension to its power and meaning. Likewise, singing as a group adds a deeper connection. Men with a shared experience of addiction, crime, abuse, and rejection were singing together. This group of Hispanic, Asian, Black, and White sang the cry of triumph:

That same love beyond all measure, Mocked and slain by hateful men,
Lives and reigns in resurrection And can never die again.
Here is love for all the ages, Radiant Sun of Heav’n He stands,
Calling home His Father’s children, Holding forth His wounded hands.

Many of the men were raised in the foster care system and were bounced from place to place – never belonging to a family or having a place to call home. Now they are encouraged as they sing, “Here is love for all the ages… Calling home His Father’s children.” There is a family, and a home for these men.

The songs knit together with our scripture study:

1 Peter 5:6-11  (NIV)

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.

10 And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. 11 To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.

Consider those words from the perspective of someone who is incarcerated:

…because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings….

They are not alone. They are not forgotten.

Together they sing this promise:

Here is love, vast as the heavens; Countless as the stars above
Are the souls that He has ransomed, Precious daughters, treasured sons.
We are called to feast forever on a love beyond our time;
Glorious Father, Son, and Spirit Now with us are intertwined.

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God Was Not in the Courtroom

Courtroom
One of the men had his trial this week. Since coming to jail he has worked hard on overcoming his addiction and growing his faith.

He is facing serious charges.

As he was sitting in court the prosecution was pursuing all charges against him.

He was becoming anxious and was praying, “God, they are really coming down hard on me. Where are you in the courtroom?”

A still, small voice responded, “I’m not in the courtroom.”

He prayed again, “But God, they are barbequing me. Why aren’t you in the courtroom?”

“Because,” the still, small voice replied, “I am in you.”

At that moment he was filled with peace.

…because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”  So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”
Hebrews 13:5b-6