Month: March 2016

Arrested and Incarcerated

Tonight was different again. The administration is still only letting a portion of a tier out at a time, and they have asked for two shorter studies since I meet with two different groups.

For the first study I had two guys. It was interesting to be in that smaller format. It was a relaxed, 3-way conversation. One of the guys has been a regular for some time, the other has been in the unit for about a month. I remember giving him communion because he has a rather unusual name.


There was a medical emergency between the first and second group. As the first group went back to their cells I noticed a man out in the common area who was seated and leaning on the table. He looked like we was not feeling well – some sort of abdominal pain. As he was slowly walking back to his cell he doubled over and had a hard time getting back up. One of the COs informed me that I needed to leave while they were dealing with the situation. A nurse went to the man just as I was leaving. I waited in one of the visit rooms while they dealt with the situation and then had pill-call. There was about a 45-minute delay between the two groups.


There were 8 guys in the second group, and they were much more wound up than the first group.

The opening discussion was about the last meal they had before they were arrested. One man had cereal before he was arrested later that morning. Another had loaded up on junk food at a Giant’s game before he was arrested.

We looked at three different scriptures tonight. The first one was:


John 13:1-5 (NKJV)

Jesus Washes the Disciples’ Feet

13 Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.

And supper being ended, the devil having already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray Him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God,rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself.After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.

As we talked through this passage I knelt before each man. When I did this with the second group there were three COs out in the common area who seemed to be curious and perplexed, though not alarmed, at what I was doing.


We wondered what Jesus might have said to each disciple. Did He use humor to break the tension? “Hey Andrew, did you know you had a piece of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of your foot all day?” Perhaps He offered words of encouragement to each individual, or perhaps He performed the task in silence as a servant.

Jesus knew each of the disciples well: what they had done, and what they were going to do. He knew Judas would betray Him, and that Peter would deny Him. Jesus washed their feet, not because the disciples were so righteous, but because He love them so. He was establishing an example for how we are to love one another.

We then looked at:

John 18:1-12 NKJV

Betrayal and Arrest in Gethsemane

18 When Jesus had spoken these words, He went out with His disciples over the Brook Kidron, where there was a garden, which He and His disciples entered.And Judas, who betrayed Him, also knew the place; for Jesus often met there with His disciples. Then Judas, having received a detachment of troops, and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, came there with lanterns, torches, and weapons. Jesus therefore, knowing all things that would come upon Him, went forward and said to them, “Whom are you seeking?”

They answered Him, “Jesus of Nazareth.”

Jesus said to them, “I am He.” And Judas, who betrayed Him, also stood with them. Now when He said to them, “I am He,” they drew back and fell to the ground.

Then He asked them again, “Whom are you seeking?”

And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.”

Jesus answered, “I have told you that I am He. Therefore, if you seek Me, let these go their way,” that the saying might be fulfilled which He spoke, “Of those whom You gave Me I have lost none.”

10 Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, and cut off his right ear. The servant’s name was Malchus.

11 So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into the sheath. Shall I not drink the cup which My Father has given Me?”

12 Then the detachment of troops and the captain and the officers of the Jews arrested Jesus and bound Him.

We see Jesus and the disciples going to a garden near a brook. About a mile from the jail there is a very nice park and rose garden. The men are familiar with this area. So the idea of Jesus and the disciples hanging out in a park late at night makes sense to these guys.

When they come to arrest Jesus it isn’t just a couple of cops, it is an armed contingent. The arresting officers were expecting trouble and were confused at how easily Jesus was offering Himself.



Jesus was offering Himself.

In an arrest situation emotions can sometimes run high. One writer describes most gang shootings as bullets fired helter-skelter. It is likely that Peter was just wildly flailing his sword and one unfortunate servant was hit.

Luke 22:51 describes how Jesus healed the injured mans ear.

But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.


One man in the group doubted he would be that caring in the midst of his own arrest.

Then the detachment … arrested Jesus and bound Him

Jesus who was arrested

Jesus who was in jail

Jesus as the accused in court

Jesus as the man convicted

Jesus on death row

One man found comfort knowing that Jesus understood what it was like to be scared and praying in jail before trial. This man understood the scripture

Hebrews 4:14-16 NKJV

14 Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

During the trial Peter denies knowing Jesus.

The disciples are scattered in fear.

Jesus is executed.

His corpse is hastily laid in a grave with inadequate time to even prepare the body for burial.

Death appears to have triumphed.

John 20:1-12 NKJV

The Empty Tomb

20 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.Then she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.”

Peter therefore went out, and the other disciple, and were going to the tomb.So they both ran together, and the other disciple outran Peter and came to the tomb first. And he, stooping down and looking in, saw the linen cloths lying there; yet he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; and he saw the linen cloths lying there, and the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who came to the tomb first, went in also; and he saw and believed. For as yet they did not know the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went away again to their own homes.

11 But Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping, and as she wept she stooped down and looked into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.

One of the guys had a hard time with the resurrection story. He could understand Jesus as a great prophet, but not as God. How could we know if Jesus was, as the first chapter of John puts it, the “one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth”?

I said it was a good question, and one worth wrestling with. I asked some of the other guys what they thought. Some saw Jesus as the Son of God, others weren’t sure.

I offered how I had come to accept Jesus as the God’s Son.

I encouraged the guys to continue to ask hard questions and to explore their faith.

The Easter story has challenged people throughout the ages: who do you say that Jesus is?


$12,000 Perfume

In the aftermath of the fight in the cellblock a few weeks ago things are still a little different in the maximum-security unit. The CO informed us that we would need to make the program a bit shorter because we would be doing it for two different groups. Apparently they are still only allowing a portion of a tier out at any given time. The other volunteer was leading tonight and he was able to go with the flow.

We had new copies of the “Upper Room” devotionals so the guys were happy to have new reading material. I noticed the bookshelf in the common room was now overflowing with a variety of books. Clearly the administration wants to give the guys some ways to deal with the monotony.


There were 7 guys in each of the two groups tonight. About half of the guys in each group were new. You may recall that when I served communion last Saturday to the higher security sections I recognized a few of my regulars from before. Both groups were pretty tense.

Tonight’s study was:

John 12:1-8 (NKJV)

12 Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was who had been dead, whom He had raised from the dead. There they made Him a supper; and Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those who sat at the table with Him. Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.

But one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, who would betray Him, said, “Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it.

But Jesus said, “Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial. For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always.”


The leader told them that we would read through the passage two times. The first time he encouraged each man to listen for a word or phrase that caught their attention.

One of the men volunteered to read. He was a slow reader so this gave people time to hear each word individually. We then went around the circle with each man saying what caught his attention.

One man noted the word “thief” from verse 6. With remorse in his voice he said it caught his attention because he was a thief as well. That is why he was currently in jail.


For another man it was the word “betray” from verse 4. Just as someone close to Jesus had betrayed him and gotten Jesus arrested, so too he had someone close to him who had gotten him arrested.

There were questions about a few words: spikenard and denarii.

The leader explained how expensive spikenard was (over $12,000 in current wages) and that it was a potent perfume used for burial.

One of the other men knew that a dinar was a unit of currency because it was still used in Iraq. (Yes, some veterans end up in jail)


Before the scripture was read a second time the leader asked people to listen for what they were being called to do.

One man noticed that what the woman did brought honor and attention to Jesus. Anyone entering the room would smell the fragrance and immediately notice Jesus. Therefore “bringing honor to Jesus” was the instruction he was being called to.

The leader asked what other observations the men had. I appreciate questions like this because often someone will see something that I have never noticed before.

One man said it was important that Lazarus was there because Jesus had raised him from the dead. When Jesus talked about His own death, and because of the perfumed, literally smelled like a “dead man walking” – sitting right next to him was a man who was proof that Jesus had power over death.


We closed with prayer requests. One of the groups wanted to talk/vent about the fight and subsequent lockdown. In group settings you have to watch that “venting” doesn’t turn into “riling each other up”. The guys kept it under control.

The prayer requests often are about their families as much as about their own situations. The world so loves to demonize those who are incarcerated as vicious and self-centered. The men I meet with weekly are people who have compassion and see beyond themselves. They want to see a change in the way they have been living.

Father Greg Boyle wrote, “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”


Easter Communion

We serve communion in the jail twice a year: before Christmas, and before Easter. We served this morning.

I’ve been doing jail and prison ministry for the past 16 years. Today I was paired with another volunteer who has been doing this for 47 years. He does one-on-one visits all throughout the jail. He is quiet, humble, and unassuming — and he is listening.


The Apostle Paul could easily have included “listening” as one of the spiritual gifts, because what I observed in this volunteer was a God-imbued power to listen.

We offered communion two different units, and each unit is divided into 3 different sections.

The first unit was a general population unit. The staff on the unit knew the other volunteer on site and greeted him by name. We met in a small multipurpose room in each section where the men may also take classes or attend AA or Narcotics Anonymous meetings. One section had the 12 steps of AA in large posters on the wall.


In each section of the general population unit we had around 8 guys come for communion. I would ask each man his name. I would dip the wafer in a cup of juice and hand it to him as I said his name followed by:

The body of Christ, broken for you.
The blood of Christ, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.

After he had taken the elements I would ask how I could pray for him this week.

The prayer requests are surprisingly unselfish. Almost everyone asks for prayer for their family, and that comes up well before asking anything for themselves. They care about their kids and want them prayed for. One man also asked for prayer for the mother of his children because she was suffering from her own drug addiction. Other men asked prayer for family members with cancer or other illnesses. One man asked for protection for the homeless living on the streets. I got the sense that perhaps he had been homeless before he was incarcerated.


When they did ask for prayer for themselves very, very few wanted prayer that their cases be dropped. (I pray for the judge, jury, and attorneys to act wisely in their cases). Most ask for a fair outcome, and for patience as they serve their time. Some already knew they were heading to prison in the coming week and asked for peace with that transition.

In the maximum security unit they come one at a time. The men turn on a light by their cell door to indicate that they wish to participate. When the cell door is unlocked they come to the main door of the section. There is a 3”x3” opening in the 2” thick steel door – just enough to pass a wafer.


A powerful visual image was a drop of juice left on the slot as I passed the wafer to the man, or fingers barely touching. While the man and I were separated by that door, the Blood of Christ transcends that barrier. It was a visual reminder of the scripture:

I John 3:7

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

After the prayer the man would look up and we would have a moment of eye contact that seemed to affirm each other’s humanity.

You are not alone.
You are not forgotten.


Some of the men in the maximum security unit recognized the volunteer I was with and greeted him by name. Some of the men knew me as well.

As I prayed for each man I remembered a phrase a friend had shared from her church:

Glory to God, whose power, working in us,
can do more than we can ask or imagine…

Cell by Cell

Last week there was no Bible Study because a large fight had broken out in the unit earlier in the day. The unit had been on lock-down ever since then. Because of that our Bible study took a different format tonight. For the past week the men have only been let out one cell at a time – meaning only one or two at a time. Rather than risk having a group of men in the common room again the staff asked us to go cell to cell instead. The other volunteer and I had actually discussed this even before we went up so we were prepared for this request.


I took the upper tier and he took the lower tier, so we probably met with more guys than we would have on a normal night. Between the two of us we probably talked and prayed with 20 different men.

Since I had spent a number of years doing one-on-one visits with guys in prison in the Midwest this was a somewhat familiar format. Many of the prison visits were “through the glass” talking on a phone. Tonight it was “through the door” talking through a door grate. One of the COs was standing about 4 or 5 feet away as I went cell to cell.


Most of the guys seemed resigned to the pattern of the lock-down, though a few were definitely keyed-up and antsy. This was more common for the guys who had no cellmate. A week alone with your own thoughts and no diversion can be pretty tough. Everyone asked if I had any new reading material. (I didn’t, maybe next week)

I would ask each man to remind me of his name, though some of the guys I know on site. I’d ask them how their week had gone and other open-ended questions. One of the things I like about one-on-one visits is how I can give my full attention to the man, and he gives his full attention to me. After talking for a bit I would ask for prayer requests and remind each man that a number of people have committed to praying for them on a regular basis.

There was a new guy that I met with. This was not his first bounce through the system, and he knew he was looking at some serious prison time. He seemed resigned to that fact, and mostly he wanted to see God in the midst of all of this.


Many of the prayer requests were for their families. Some have lost contact with their families due to distance. One man’s children do not know he is in jail; they think he has gone off to school. Others have more regular visits. One man’s nine year-old daughter ends every visit asking how soon he will be home. Another man has become a grandfather but has yet to see his grandchild. Some have family members who are going through cancer treatment.

Some men struggle with the loss of relationships. Girlfriends move on due to the elapsed tie and uncertainty. Some men have been served divorce papers while in jail.

A number of guys have court dates coming up in the next month or two. Some guys are considering plea deals that would still have them serving a number of years.


This was a good opportunity to see where the guys lived. It really is a small space, especially if there are two in a cell. About half weren’t wearing shirts so I got to see a greater extent of the tattoo artwork beyond the arm, neck, and face tattoos that I normally see each week.

Some of the guys who share a cell are encouraging each other to grow in their faith. I’m sure it is much more challenging for the guys who have a cellie who is not interested in or even hostile towards all things spiritual.

After we were done I also offered some words of encouragement to the staff. This has been stressful for them as well.

So it was a different format than normal, but I appreciated the chance to meet and pray with each man, and to pray for peace in the unit.