After encouragement from a friend and a conversation with the local prison chaplain, I signed up to help with a Residents Encounter Christ (REC) retreat. Created by Bishop Paul Dudley, the REC program is based on TEC retreats and has been serving the spiritual needs of the prison inmates incarcerated in eastern South Dakota since 1981. Here’s what I saw and learned:
I Had No Idea What to Expect
Despite having talked with the prison chaplain about prison ministry, I was still unprepared and unaware of what was to come as arrived at the prison. I was nervous, but the lack of preparation let me go into the weekend more open to what the Lord wanted from me.
I Never Felt Unsafe
The people who were allowed to attend the retreat weren’t those without major behavioral issues. Also, no one was forced to attend. Those who made the retreat were genuinely seeking the Lord……or were there for the toast and unlimited coffee. 🙂
I Will Never Look at Toast the Same Way
To encourage the inmates to seek spiritual guidance, the retreat team bribes them by giving them toast. The inmates are given bread to eat, but they never get toast. It is a special treat for them to receive toast. We were instructed to give them four slices of bread for them to toast as they walked through the line, but they were allowed to come through the line as many times as they wanted. By the time they were finished coming through the line multiple times, some of the prisoners had a stack of 12 or so pieces of toast. Their enthusiastic approach to something I would consider quite ordinary makes me look at toast in a completely different way.
The Food Is Terrible
When state law mandates that the prison accepts the lowest bid for their food service, the result is low quality food. As a member of the retreat team, I was fed three prison meals over the course of the weekend. The first meal was later described to me as goulash (not completely awful), the second meal was ham salad (absolutely disgusting), and the final meal looked like sloppy joe meat, but tasted a bit like taco meat (it was alright, but I would have liked to have known what it was). So, the next time you are sitting down to a meal in a cafeteria and what you have on your tray makes you sad, just remember that what you are eating is gourmet compared to what they eat in prison.
It Was Really Hot
Some rooms in the prison had air conditioning. Others looked like they were equipped to have AC pumped into the room, but no cold air was flowing. The room we were in was the latter of the two. When you get a large number of people packed into a small room in July with basically no air conditioning, the temperature rises quickly. This makes the decision to attend more laudable for those who stuck it out for the entire weekend.
There Are Holy Prisoners
There were residents at this particular prison who were sincerely seeking the Lord. More than one prisoner taught me something about God. One inmate came up to me and another outside team member and began sharing with us parables. These were not parables from the Bible. These were parables he received in prayer. One of these parables has stuck with me. I have reproduced it below, and I have tried my best to remember his exact word choice.
“I own a beach. God gave it to me I own everything as far as I can see to the left. I own everything as far as I can see to the right. And, I own everything as far as I can see out to the horizon. One night, I see a homeless man, a vagrant has set up a fire on my beach. I go out there to confront him. When I get up to him, he invites me to join him around his fire that he’s built on my beach. He just sitting there in front of the fire with a stick in his hand.
‘I suppose you own this beach?’ he says.
‘Yes, God gave it to me.’
‘Oh, you know God?’ he asks in a sort of knowing tone. As he speaks to me, he is stirring the fire. A spark flies off of the fire and goes into the air. It does not flame out like it normally does. It just hangs there in the air.
My hands are curled up into fists as I get angrier and angrier. They become heavy with my anger. I open one of my fists, and I see a single grain of sand. In that moment, I realize I am sand. So, I am in my own hand as I’m standing on the sand.
The man is continuing to stir the fire, and sparks continue to spiral their way up to the sky.
I look up, and the stars are all gone.”
I don’t entirely know what this means. I think I know what some of it means, but I am continuing to pray with this “parable.”
Mental Health Is a Big Issue in Prison
On Saturday afternoon, when they had their afternoon med call, half the room stood up and left to get their meds. Many prisoners if they were released could not take care of themselves. A good number of them belong in a mental health facility, not a prison.
Music in Prison is a Different Experience
The song books we had for the retreat were created around the same time the retreat was, so you can imagine what type of songs were in that book. Let me tell you, you have not heard the song “Puff the Magic Dragon” until you have heard a room full of prisoners sing it.
On a more serious note, during a break, I heard two prisoners playing their guitars and singing Ed Sheeran’s “Photograph.” Hearing two prisoners sing that song changes how you comprehend its meaning.
Prisoners are People
More than anything, the weekend I spent serving the prisoners made me realize that there are human beings living behind bars in the city I call home. One person I met and I were both freshman at the same high school (he later transferred to another school). This helped me realize that I very easily could have ended up where he was had I made different choices.
We do not put bad people behind bars; we put people behind bars.
St. Eugène de Mazenod, who served as a prison chaplain, said that the three steps in evangelization were: “Teach them to be first humans, then Christians and then saints.” REC retreats are successful in making inmates human beings.
No One Is Incapable of Converting
After the weekend, we had a final team meeting. During that meeting, the prison chaplain told us a story about one of the men who made the retreat with us. In this story, he revealed that this particular man had committed a horrendous crime that normally would have resulted in him receiving the death penalty. The victim’s parents convinced the prosecutors to not pursue the death penalty. Because he was not executed, he had the time to have a conversion in prison.
Prayers Are Needed for Those Who Attended the Retreat
The inmates who attend REC retreats are mocked, threatened, or beaten because they attended. We had around 120 men signed up for the retreat which translates to around 85 actually showing up. On Sunday, we had 56 men show up for the final day of the retreat. Those who attended the entire retreat need our prayers to sustain them in their relationship with Christ. Please pray for all those who are incarcerated, but especially for those who will face persecution for their faith.