Visiting Jesus in Jail
Blog of the Moderator of the United Church of Canada
Posted on: 09/23/2008 15:29
Visiting Jesus in Jail

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Lloyd Bruce, the Protestant Chaplain at Springhill Institution in Nova Scotia was waiting for us at security. Nearly a year ago, I met Lloyd in Wallace, N.S. He gave me a delicate little wooden cross on a silver chain and invited me to visit Springhill. Last week, along with a few others, I did.

Springhill is a medium security institution. Most of the inmates are serving lengthy sentences up to and including life. Like most prisons in Canada Springhill is stretched well beyond the inmate population capacity for which it was built. The primary building materials are concrete and rebar. The colourless paint is chipped and ancient. It was built in the town of Springhill as an economic boost after the mine closed there in the late 1950s.

We emptied our pockets into a locker. Signed in. Passed through the metal detector and then two sets of electric barred doors.

We visited “St Luke’s” a retreat house built within the walls of the prison with volunteer and church support. It is an oasis in the midst of a desert of hostility and stress. Inmates, deemed sufficiently trustworthy, can come to the retreat house for a day or several days to rest, meditate or join in programs.

Next we made our way to the chapel. It bears little resemblance to the east-coast white-board churches beyond the walls but it too is clearly a sanctuary amidst the grind of prison life. There were about 30 inmates and volunteers seated in a circle. Chairs were quickly added so our group could join. I chose a seat beside one of the roughest looking characters in the room. A big guy, bandana, 3-day-beard, earring, tattoos. Turns out he’s a preacher and volunteer.

The “Kairos Marathon” was underway. The program has been around since the mid 1960s. Kairos means something like “an opportune time and/or place” ““ God’s time and place. The Marathon refers to the 26 hours straight the program lasts. Inmates sleep in their cells but otherwise remain in an intense, alternately playful and gut-wrenching, truth-telling circle in chapel.

“It’s like this. If you pick up the ball it means you are going to talk about what is happening in your life.” Turns out it’s a metaphorical ball. We visitors found ourselves scanning the room for it. “The others listen and hold you to the truth.” Some inmates and volunteers come again and again, in search of peace, healing and forgiveness. The young man to my left clutched a pillow to his chest with long bare arms and rocked in his chair.

“Do you want to say or ask anything?” Maybe it was the young guy to my left but the first question that came to mind was, “Is anyone here for the first time?” He raised his hand. So did another younger inmate across the circle. The mix of courage and desperation it must take to get to the Kairos Marathon for the first time humbled me. I told them that. I promised the two first timers that I would be praying for them over the next 26 hours.

I took the chance to tell them about the cross Lloyd had given me and described some of the places it had been since – across Canada, Columbia, Nicaragua. Told them I wanted to thank the man who had made it. Heads turned toward Jeff, a lanky guy with shoulder-length grey hair. He laughed, “It’s been a lot more places than I have.” Before we left the chapel Jeff and I had our picture taken together.

The last stop on our tour was nearby “Spring House” which provides inexpensive accommodation and extravagant hospitality to wives, children, parents and friends who travel to visit husbands, fathers, children and friends at the prison.

Jesus said, “”I was in prison and you visited me.” (Mtt. 25.26b). I felt presence of Christ at the Springhill Institution.

Two stories in the news since then: 1. The “get tough on crime” agend has entered the campaign jargon even though there has been a steady decrease in violent crime in Canada; and 2. In the US an incarceration milestone has been passed ““ 1 in 100 Americans are now in jail.