1 Corinthians 11:23-26
23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
As I’ve mentioned before, I volunteer to do weekly Bible studies in the maximum security unit of a county jail.
Actually, I only do a Bible study in one of three units in the maximum security section. The unit where I serve has limited access to programming such as Bible studies, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, etc. Even for those events only a portion of the population may participate at any point in time. They are separated by gang affiliation such that members of rival gangs are not allowed out at the same time.
In maximum security the inmates are on lockdown for 23 hours a day. A man is let out of his cells an hour a day for shower and exercise, or for programs in one of the units. Most of the guys in max are active gang members with a history of violence.
In the other two units no programs are not allowed. There are no church services or Bible studies. With this group of men there is just too much risk of violence. In these units only one man is allowed out at any given time.
Twice a year, around Christmas and Easter, communion is offered to the men in all three of the maximum security units. For two of those units this is the only religious programming they will have all year.
There are two or three of us on a team that serves communion. When we arrive at a unit the correctional officer (CO) announces that anyone who wishes to receive communion should turn on their light. The CO will unlock a door of a single cell via remote control. The inmate will then walk from his cell to the door of the unit. The steel door is 2 inches thick with a small opening that is 3” by 3”. There is just barely enough room to pass a communion wafer to the man. After he receives communion he returns to his cell, the door is locked via remote control, and the next man is released. At no time is there ever more than one person out of his cell.
Only about 25%-30% of the men participate. Some of the guys come just to be out of their cell for a minute, but many come profoundly seeking communion – with another human being, and with God.
When the man arrives at the door we ask him if he speaks Spanish or English. In the designated language we ask his name. This is one of the few times where he will ever be referred to by his first name while he is in jail. We use his first name when serving him communion. Hearing his name spoken is incredibly powerful. It means that God knows his name. He matters to God. Friends and family may have severed all contact with him. He is isolated from all other people. But God knows his name, and the people serving communion know his name. For that brief moment there is assurance that he is not forgotten, he is not alone.
We dip the wafer in a cup of grape juice and hand it through the slot to the man, saying his name and “the body of Christ broken for you, the blood of Christ shed for you.”
As we hand him the juice-dipped wafer through the slot our fingers may touch. This may be the only human touch he will experience for weeks.
We will then pray for the man by name. It is not uncommon to see one of these men shed a tear as we pray for them. A man whose life has been filled with unspeakable pain and whose has committed acts of extreme violence is brought to tears through communion.
There is power in communion.
You matter to God. There is grace. Change is possible. There is hope.
Communion brings hope to a place where there is palpable despair.
A lay person, who had never visited a jail or prison before, was struck by the emotional and spiritual darkness of the place. This was such a contrast to all the Christmas activity that was happening on the outside. After we were done he had an overwhelming desire to just go home and hug his family.
A pastor who participated wrote the following:
I was invited to serve communion to inmates on Christmas Eve morning. The inmates I served were in the maximum security unit.
I wasn’t expecting it, but it turned out to be a very sacred moment for me. The meaningfulness of communion really hit me.
I think it is because for the most part these men live isolated lives.
- They’re separated from their families by walls
- They’re separated from each other by cells
- They’re separated from the correctional officers by bars
And when I was there to serve communion they were separated from me by a door with a tiny square slot. But through that slot they were able to receive God’s grace and the invitation to belong in God’s family. The interaction was short. I asked each man his name, served him the elements, and said a short prayer.
A few of the inmates saw communion as an opportunity to simply come out of their cell and to showboat as they walked to the door. One person even tried to pass me a note; thankfully I had been briefed beforehand and knew not to take anything.
But overall, the vast majority of the men were humble and respectful. They recognized the depth of the moment. It was as much a sacred moment for them as it was for me.
Another volunteer who had worked in law enforcement for a number of years wrote the following:
I was struck by how few men actually left their cells and walked the 50 feet to the door to be prayed for and receive communion. Having freely walked into Max that Saturday morning and knowing that I would be able to walk out, I thought that everyone in the place would jump at the chance to have communion, even if to just get free of their cells for 5 minutes. I thought we would have 50% of the men coming out of their cells for the blessing to commune in some small way with the living God and be prayed for by Christians. So I was surprised when only a few men actually came for Communion.
- Maybe it was because we don’t wear the white collar
- Maybe because they are wrapped up in their own world inside their own cell
- Maybe because they just don’t believe they can get forgiveness or new life from God
Anyway, I was struck by how little freedom they have and at the same time, how little they availed themselves of a freedom that was offered to them. I think we’re all like that. We build a cocoon around our lives of family and friends and home and habits and often don’t leave that cocoon unless there is something very special outside. Sometimes the Spirit is prompting us to leave the cocoon to meet with the Living God but we don’t because it doesn’t fit into our priorities for the day. But the blessing comes to those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
I was blessed to meet with the Christians and receive Communion and be “sent out” from the jail basement. It was life-giving to see so many different faces from so many different Christian traditions come together as one band of brothers.
I have been impacted seeing the power of communion served in the darkest places of humanity. If you serve communion I encourage you to examine what a powerful event this is.