A Love Found Within Prison Walls, Philadelphia PA
The Holy Spirit is present in prisons.
Yes, He absolutely is.
I had few expectations for tonight (the night my father and I were scheduled to attend a Worship Service, inside a prison in Philadelphia) – mainly because I hadn’t a clue to even dream up what my expectations should have been. I haven’t been to jail before, and I’ve been fortunate enough to never have any of my friends go there. To me, jail is what I’ve seen on television; what I’ve watched in movies. Not the experience I actually had a few hours ago.
Showing up around 7:30 pm, my father and I met with a group of leaders outside the prison and setup ground rules for our time inside. Understandably, phones weren’t allowed, nor anything else you could imagine being useful to a prisoner. Oddly enough, even my clothing was limited. I was told that if I chose to take my jacket inside, I had to keep it on the entire time, no matter how hot I might get. Consequently, I went in with very little on me, with just my driver’s license in my right jean pocket. To be honest, it was quite freeing, ironically; being in public and told that I can’t have my phone and wallet any closer than a couple hundred yards from me.
After being searched, we were all escorted through the prison and, though there could have been in other parts of the building, I heard no threats or the presence of the kind of sadistic laughter you might find in a Batman cartoon when the superhero drops The Joker or Two-Face off at Arkham Asylum. The first person in a blue jumpsuit that I met eye-to-eye actually came up to me and said, “God bless you.” To be honest, it caught me off-guard. But taking two more steps around the corner, I realized I had come to a familiar face: the body of Christ.
“God bless you,” I must have received it with a handshake about a 100 times. Seventy to eighty prisoners attended the Worship Service that night and nearly all of them came up to my father and me to welcome us into their congregation. We were supposed to greet the prisoners, but they ended up more so greeting us. It felt like Church – heck, it almost felt better than Church outside of prison, considering the genuineness you could see on their faces. They were honestly happy to see us. And you know what? It felt like home.
Why did it feel like home? It was a place of brokenness, of vulnerability – a place where you can’t hide from your flaws, because your very clothing reveals your past. When prayer requests were asked for, about 20 men immediately shouted out their heart’s desires – for themselves, for their kids, for their friends, and for their fellow inmates. They didn’t care about social cues or take the time to conclude whether or not their request was worth sharing. Their humility made them fearless. And they worshipped in the same way. And through their vulnerability, I felt invigorated.
You might think God wouldn’t care to touch the hearts of those justifiably imprisoned. But that’s not who He is. He loves the inmate equally. It was clear that despite their crimes, these men were being turned into people of love and kindness. Men who God plans to use one day, to show love to those who think they are past grace, outside the prison walls. To use the prisoner to set free “the free.”
God can plant his garden anywhere: whether in fresh soil in an open field, or through a flower that sprouts up from a small crack in the sidewalk.
Tonight, the speaker was a former drug addict who said he once only cared about himself, his drugs, and the means to his drugs. A man who used to hurt others for the sake of his addiction. Completely empty, he was ready to run in front of a train near his house, but he got a phone call from his brother (who he hadn’t talked to in months) as the train came into sight, and he turned around and gave life one last try. Christ has been transforming him ever since. By the way, he forgot he had placed his cellphone in his pocket that day.
I can’t help but consider how these men would have treated me years or mere months ago, versus what I saw of them just now.
Don’t ever look upon yourself or another and believe you cannot be loved. There is no restriction on grace. Take joy in that prisoners are being taught how to love by the One who made them.
Read Charles Wagner’s blog article about the experience.