Between April 26 – 28, I spent my weekend in prison… with the Jubilee Prison Ministry. I admit that coming off the heels of the tragic, sudden passing of Stuart and Angela Kensinger, who were good friends and professional colleagues as co-founders of Jerusalem Peacebuilders, I had mixed feelings about the weekend and my attendance. It was a time of mourning and grieving for the loss of the Kensingers, and here I was, about to visit my first prison ever and engage in an intensive three-day program of Christian evangelism, fellowship, and reconciliation activities. Of course, the question of whether or not to go forward with the event did cross my mind. Was I prepared mentally and spiritually for the weekend? Will I end up being a burden on the program and fall short of the mark? Will I be a useful vehicle for the Holy Spirit to work through me?
Knowing myself, I wasn’t one to cancel an event such as this unless I had a very serious reason, of which this situation could have met that criteria. But, in my heart, I knew that I wanted to go forward with the weekend, as it was something I had been discerning for a few years and formally planning since Steve McCarthy of St. Luke’s Methodist Church of Houston introduced the program to the Palmer Men’s Bible Study last fall. I also knew that Stuart would have wanted me to proceed, and with a small, generous grant from the Men’s Bible Study, there remained but one choice. During that rollercoaster week of emotions and stressors, Jesus’ words to his first disciples “Come and follow me” echoed gently.
An offshoot of the well-known Kairos Prison Ministry, the Jubilee Prison Ministry is a smaller, regional prison ministry program offered at nearby Texas prisons for men and women twice yearly (once in the spring, and once in the fall). The program runs from Friday – Sunday for twelve hours each day, offering meals, Bible Study, talks and meditations on God, Jesus Christ, and forgiveness, group prayer, worship, and a whole lot of singing.
On the first day of the program, we arrived at 7:00 AM to the gates of the Wayne Scott Unit State Prison in Angleton, TX. We proceeded through the multiple security checks in order to enter inside. Walking through these gates and along these narrow paths, I could feel the suffering of so many souls. In meeting the inmates, workers, and volunteers of the Unit, I knew that every opportunity to practice love, patience, and humility would honor each person’s dignity and serve as a reminder of God’s plan for the world.
Inside the prison gymnasium and chapel, we free-world volunteers greeted our 42 “Brothers in White” with cheering and applause as they processed through a line of high fives accompanied by amped announcements of their names as if we were beginning a sports competition. And in reality, indeed we were in a competition, one of the heart, body, soul, and mind. The timeless battle of choosing between two masters: self and God.
Upon greeting the six men who would be at our table all weekend, one large and tough-looking man immediately broke into tears upon touching and smelling an orange, stating that he had not eaten an orange in over seven years. This sort of humbling experience in the simple act of breaking bread together would be on repeat throughout the weekend with catered meals of Popeyes Fried Chicken, Subway, and Texas barbeque brought in by faithful volunteers serving on the outside. I was floored upon hearing the stories of these men and what their life was like in prison.
I call this experience a “Resurrection Weekend” and consider it a living example of Christ’s resurrection in today’s world. Why? Because I witnessed life overcome death in the transformation of these men, the Jubilee volunteers, and in myself. Some abridged examples include: watching nearly the entire group of offenders, including many hardened criminals, all waving their arms like birds and singing the song “I’ll Fly Away” while dancing around in the chapel, smiling and laughing; listening to the testimonials of utter brokenness and destruction from sin in both the volunteers and inmates and how they are trying to follow Jesus in order to become better men; inmates giving themselves to Christ and honest expressions of a commitment to reform and change in my coffee break interactions with various participants; public renunciations of gang affiliations; and, lastly, in myself in having the eyes and ears to witness to, and have faith in, this Divine act of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The profound events of this first week of Easter bring new meaning and understanding to Christ’s resurrection and how it informs my own life as a follower of Jesus and my role in the Church today. In the midst of my own pain in mourning the deaths of Stuart and Angie, I went to bear witness to the hardship and suffering of these men and share God’s love with them. In sharing my own testimony with these men of how Christ has transformed my life over the years, I am always reminded of how each of us needs that message of unending Love, Mercy, and Forgiveness. For with this Good News, we are empowered to transform ourselves, each other, and the world.
Jack Karn is the Regional Director of Jerusalem Peacebuilders, leading the development of JPB programming in Houston, TX. An experienced educator with a passion for service, Jack has spent much of the last three years overseas in the Holy Land teaching leadership and peacebuilding courses in Israeli and Palestinian high schools. Between 2016-2018, he served as a volunteer in Jerusalem and Nazareth with the Young Adult Service Corps program of the Episcopal Church. Jack has also worked as a Program Assistant with World Learning's Youth Programs and the CONTACT Program of SIT Graduate Institute. He holds a BA in History from the University of Maine and an MA in Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation from SIT Graduate Institute.